In the mid-90s, the Jersey City neighborhood that came to be known as Little India was in its formative stages. A two-block stretch of Newark Avenue that descended steeply toward the Meadowlands swamps hosted a small collection of groceries, jewelry stores, paan parlors, and sweets shops anchored by Singh's, a teetering clapboard variety store in whose fantastically cluttered aisles Garbage Pail Kids cavorted with Hindu deities. Best of four restaurants was Chowpatty, named after a popular beach in Mumbai. Indeed, the menu was heavy with the beach snacks called chaats – flavorful heaps of fried noodles and vegetable fritters splatted with yogurt and chutneys.
But perhaps more important, the menu specialized in the food of Gujarat, a partly rural, partly industrial state on the west-central edge of the country bordering Pakistan, a figurative stone's throw from Mumbai. The food was a revelation. We learned, for example, that Gujaratis relish cornbread, yams, black-eyed peas, and greens just like American Southerners; but they also consume more exotic vegetables such as tindora – a pinky size cucumber – and ridged gourds called tori. Like many of the new Gujarati immigrants, the restaurant Chowpatty was vegetarian, and it catered to a religious group known as the Jains, whose concern for living things was so complete, they eschewed garlic and onions so as not to harm the insects that infested the underground bulbs of those plants.