The 7 Train to Nepalese Breakfast
Sel roti in Queens, NY
If not for the routine thunder of the 7 train, I’d be disoriented. Behind me is charted territory: the subway, Queens. Before me is a chunk of Nepal. It’s Sunday morning, and I’m following Shailesh, a Kathmandu-born actor turned activist, through a diverse section of Jackson Heights. My stomach practically utters a whale call as we come to an establishment that brims like a subway car. I almost miss the Nepalese businesses in a crush of cell-phone stores and clothing boutiques.
A sign reads “Nepali Bhanchha Ghar.” I learn “Bhanchha” means kitchen.
We’re here for sel roti, a traditional treat. Many greet us with “Namaste” as we enter. The wall has Nepalese flags and snapshots of peaceful mountaintops and the Dalai Lama. It’s a savory-smelling hive; servers scurry behind a small counter tending to vats of soups, stews, and momo, the beloved Himalayan dumpling. But the real showstopper is in the corner. A woman in a baseball cap perches on a low stool. Upon hearing my sel roti order, she flies into action. A stack of crisp, graham cracker-hued hoops are next to her. They appear like towers of onion rings.
Choking up on the handle, the woman swishes a large ladle about a bucket of white, grits-like batter. She grabs the decapitated head of a soda bottle and plops a heap into the back end. Drifting this device over a wok with bubbling oil, she opens the spigot to let a thick strand fall. Her wrists are quick. She shapes the batter into a floating circle, forging a saucer-sized hoop that puffs and fries like a donut. It’s meditative. Gingerly, she coaxes and flips it with a long wand. It bobs luxuriously, as if it were on vacation.
This treat is uniquely Nepalese; sel roti is nothing like the South Asian roti flatbread. Made from ground, soaked rice, they’re staples on special occasions and festivals. I receive a tidy plate with one sel roti loop among mounds of colorful assorted “thali,” or plates of chutneys and pickled vegetables. A lime wedge, onion hunk, and tiny pepper sit like gleaming gems. A closer look at the sel roti reveals this is no onion ring: constellations of pearlescent dots fleck the golden exterior. I rip inside and find a light, rice-doughy texture and pleasant sweetness. A tooth-sinking crunch immediately calls to mind Chinese sesame balls. I pop some pickled vegetables into my mouth for an intriguing contrast between bitter and sweet.
Shailesh explains that the Nepalese commonly have a light bite for breakfast—sel roti, or another bread or porridge—with spiced tea. But for now, he says, this will do. I agree.
Nepali Bhanchha Ghar
7406 37th Rd Jackson Heights, NY 11372