Blonde on Blonde


Poke around in any South Asian grocery in Curry Hill, Jackson Heights, or Richmond Hill, and you’ll find bags of spices at one-tenth what you’d pay for them in supermarkets, cheap nuts in bulk, and a section devoted to fats, some unfamiliar. There’s coconut oil, sesame oil, and ghee, of course, a form of clarified butter used liberally and to good effect in the best Indian cooking. But you’ll also find vivid yellow mustard oil. Pick up a bottle and read the label, and you might be discouraged to see: “For external use only.”

Yet there it is, for sale among other edible oils, pretty certainly intended for human
consumption. At certain times of the year, Bangladesh, just east of India, is carpeted
with yellow mustard flowers, and the country’s cuisine depends on the oil that comes from the seeds, which has the lowest satu
rated fat content (5 percent) of any edible oil, and also boasts antibacterial properties. The prohibition against human consumption of mustard oil in the West is due to its having a relatively high erucic-acid content, which was shown in one study to increase heart fat
in rats. Do we look like rats? The oil flings off a vaguely floral scent as a dish made with
it arrives, generates a tingling pungency on the tongue, and a slight burn as it slides down the throat.

Deshi is your best chance to become an expert on mustard oil. This Bangladeshi restaurant occupies a deep, narrow space in Jackson Heights, lavishly outfitted with building materials that seem to have been selected for their blonde color, including carved bamboo screens, pale textiles, wooden moldings, and rush-woven mats. A reception area in front furnished with brocaded red couches reminds you of Grandma’s living room, and the friendly proprietor—who might be mistaken for Jon Lovitz, with a sense of humor to match—will come outside if he sees you waiting for the rest of your party and demand that you sit in his foyer.

I visited Deshi after my friend Francis recommended it, not for its fish dishes or biryanis (both Bangladeshi passions), but for its vartas. The best of these highly spiced vegetarian side dishes is tomato varta ($5.99), an altogether novel use of an overworked vegetable. Fresh tomatoes are smashed with scallions and cilantro, then modestly dressed with mustard oil. A similar fate awaits eggplant in begon varta, in which mustard oil plays an even more prominent roll. “This smells like furniture polish,” said Francis, wrinkling up his nose, referring to another of mustard oil’s many uses.

Unavoidably, Indian-Chinese dishes have infiltrated the menu. Originating in South Asian urban centers, this offshoot cuisine alters Chinese food for Indian tastes by amping up the sugar, ginger, and chiles. Lollipops ($7.99 for nine) are one of its better inventions. Chicken-wing meat is detached and slid toward the end of the bone, then annealed with red chile sauce. It looks like a lollipop and tastes nearly as sweet. Other desirable apps include dim aloo chop ($4.99), a pair of deep-fried potato submarines stuffed with boiled eggs, chiles, and onions. Skip the curry meatballs: “These taste like they came from Costco” was Francis’s grim assessment.

The centerpiece of Deshi’s menu is biryanis, festive rice pilafs. Dotted with yellow raisins and heaped with fried shredded onions, kachi biryani ($10.99) leads the list, scented with rosewater and sporting a pair of boneless baby-goat hunks that infuse the rice with meaty flavor. None of the other biryanis (vegetable, chicken, or shrimp) can match it. Though not exclusively in a Bangladeshi vein, the chicken vindaloo is totally dope, with a gritty, cumin-driven edge and lingering hotness. Edging into Chinese-Indian territory, mango chicken was another surprise favorite, irregular chards of poultry in a gravy that’s a lovely shade of burnt sienna. A compulsory side is mughlai paratha ($7.99), a whole-wheat flatbread stuffed with herbs and scrambled eggs. Fuska ($6.99) turns out to be the oddest thing on the menu—a saucer of tiny chickpeas seasoned with black salt and accompanied by fragile spheres of pastry. You’re supposed to crack the shells and pour the chickpea mixture inside.

Between downing so much Bangladeshi food, and eating the mustard-oil pickles from Cremona, Italy, called mustarda, I’ve consumed lots of mustard oil recently. I can’t say I feel any negative health effects from it, but I swear I can feel myself growing a fine set of rat whiskers.