INDIA ABROAD May 26, 2017 38 CUISINE
Ahmed’s cart at 7:52, and the
two men work quickly to wheel
it into place. Inside, the cart is
cold, clean and packed with
boxes of ingredients.
The food comes from a commissary kitchen attached to the
garage in Long Island City,
Queens; the city requires that
food carts be serviced and supplied by a commissary, and there
are many of them, of varying
sizes, with different owners, all
around New York.
At an extra cost, this one has
provided everything Ahmed
needs for the day: heads of lettuce, a few dozen tomatoes and
potatoes, ready-sliced halal
lamb, several bags of boneless
chicken thighs, two 12-pound
bags of basmati rice, four large
plastic containers of potable
water for cooking and washing,
clamshell containers and napkins.
Ahmed ties on his apron and
pushes a few boxes underneath
the cart so he can squeeze inside
and get to work. Any boxes
peeking out beyond the cart’s
footprint could result in a fine
(penalties can run up to $1,000),
as could parking his cart closer
than six inches to the curb, or 20
feet to the building entrance. Mr.
Ahmed knows all the rules by
He connects the 40-pound
propane tank and turns on the
flattop grill and burners.
He cuts lettuce and tomatoes,
browns lamb and vast amounts
of chicken. He takes care, in the
cramped kitchen space, to keep
his vegetarian cooking separate.
For a long time, Ahmed chops
onions in silence.
“If I play music or anything, I
get distracted,” he says. “I forget
Although Ahmed had little
cooking experience when he
started, his wife, Sheren Akter,
says his food is better than that
at most other carts — less greasy,
more flavorful, well seasoned.
His menu consists of about 20
dishes, most of them cooked to
order, but regulars know to ask
for the chicken biryani, flecked
with fried onion and cilantro,
To make the biryani, Ahmed
fries the onion until it’s translu-
cent. He drops in whole cinna-
mon, star anise, green car-
damom pods and bay leaves.
Before the chicken
goes in, he adds
garlic paste and a
spoonful of ghee.
He cooks the rice
in the same simmering pot, adding
water and a prepared spice mixture
that includes dried
papaya and plums.
All the passers-by,
those with travel
mugs and employee
ID badges, or those
walking their dogs
or pushing their
strollers, inhale the
familiar perfume of
Ahmed’s chicken biryani.
Salman Akhtar, a pre-med student at Borough of Manhattan
Community College, is Mr.
Ahmed’s first customer of the
day, at 9: 30.
The men chat in Bangla, and
when Ahmed speaks in Bangla,
he is louder and faster, quicker
to tell a joke.
Ahmed came to New York
alone, at age 23. He had studied
accounting and commerce at
Dhaka College, but in Queens, it
took him a few months to find a
job. By then, he owed his room-
mates in Sunnyside almost
He worked off the debt, busing tables and driving cars. But
later, after Ahmed married and
had children, he dreamed of a
small business that he could
He applied for a food vendor’s
license, took a required health
and safety class, bought a used
cart and took it for an inspection
by city officials. (The health
department inspects carts at
least once a year, and more frequently if a violation is reported.)
Ahmed still needed a food-vending permit, though, and
because of a cap on permits
imposed in the 1980s, only
4,000 or so circulate. He
acquired his from a permit
owner who has charged him and
his partner $25,000 for two-year
leases (for a permit that cost the
owner just $200), which they are
still paying off.
A day ago, Ahmed received a
text message: 100 vendors were
protesting the cap. Organized by
the Street Vendor Project, a non-
profit group that is part of the
One chicken biryani, no salad
(a business administration stu-
dent wearing earbuds and black
velvet flats). Chicken and rice,
hold the onions (an angry-look-
ing man, cheeks flushed, in a
wrinkled blue suit). Kati roll with
veggies (a construction worker in
dusty boots, whistling the theme
song to “Frasier”).
to work like
An Rong Xu/ The New York Times
A Day in the Life of a Food Vendor Above, lunchtime at the food cart operated by Ahmed and a partner in New York, April 5. Left, chicken over rice and chicken biryani are mainstays at the food cart. Below, Ahmed and his youngest child, Karen, at home in New York, April 5.
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