Yearning for the flavours of Indian cuisine while residing in Brooklyn, Swetha Raju, accompanied by her husband and two children, embarked on a venture called the Brooklyn Curry Project in 2021, where they set up a food stall to serve traditional South Indian food every weekend.
In the lively Fort Greene neighbourhood of Brooklyn, a delightful scene unfolds every weekend as a queue starts to form outside Swetha Raju’s food stall with people eagerly awaiting a taste of authentic South Indian cuisine. They are warmly welcomed by a cheerful family of four.
The modest food stall serves many dishes like Bengaluru-style dosa, idli, pudi masala dosa, idiyappam (string hopper), and lemonade.
Hundreds of hungry customers are served these delicious dishes by Swetha and her family. The Bengaluru-born software engineer tells The Better India, “I wanted to share the excellent food and cuisine that South India has to offer with people in my neighbourhood. We have been showered with so much love ever since we started.”
It all started with a lemonade stall
Born and raised in Bengaluru’s quaint locality of Malleshwaram, Swetha was always a foodie. She says her memories before moving to Brooklyn are replete with the delicacies her mother made.
“I can’t imagine my life without dosa, sambar, and vada,” she shares, adding that she finds immense joy and happiness in good food.
She moved to the United States in 2016 due to work. “My family in Malleshwaram and my husband’s family in Tumkur have similar food businesses. They sell South Indian tiffin. Dosas and other traditional food are a big part of our lifestyle. So, moving to Brooklyn and adjusting to the new culture was hard,” she says.
After moving to Brooklyn, Swetha felt homesick and missed her community and food.
“There are not many outlets that serve South Indian food in our neighbourhood. I missed going out in the evening with my friends or family, and eating at different chaat and dosa centres. We would even hunt for good dosa places, but could never find the authentic Bengaluru-style dosas anywhere,” she adds.
She continues, “Life here [in Brooklyn] is quite different; we missed our culture and community. We could not find many Kannadigas in the area, and I wanted to do something to find my community and bring them closer.”
This is how the idea of starting an eatery grew roots in her mind. But with their full-time jobs, the couple was not able to implement it immediately. Then in 2021, the idea came to life when the couple helped their daughters set up a lemonade stand in Fort Greene.
“The stall was a fun family activity that we did on Saturdays. Fort Greene is a beautiful place, and we loved talking to people who visited our daughters’ stall. It gave us a sense of belonging to the local community,” she says.
“We thought, ‘Why not start selling our favourite food here too?’, and that is how the Brooklyn Curry Project started,” she shares, adding “Although we both come from families in the food business, we never thought we would end up starting our own.”
A family affair
Talking about her menu, she says, “Initially, we started small and made a few curry boxes. After a few months, we got our licence and started making dosas on the stall. We serve most South Indian dishes, right from dosa, vada, mini idli, idli sambar to pudis and masala chai, and even mango lassi.”
“On celebratory occasions like Ugadi, we make special food items that people really appreciate,” she adds.
“Most of the Indian food that people [in our neighbourhood] know are curries, butter chicken and chicken tikka. Brooklyn Curry Project is telling people that: ‘Hey! Here are some new Indian foods that you can try’,” she says.
In the neighbourhood where they lived, Swetha also noticed that a lot of people struggled to find vegan meals.
“Some would have dietary restrictions and some were vegans; they all struggled to find good vegan food. They were spending so much on it. This made me realise how most vegetarian South Indian food is vegan, gluten-free and affordable! Our food is also healthy, nutritious and probiotic,” she says.
So, Swetha cooked dosas and shared them with her neighbours and friends. The dish became an instant hit among them. This pushed her further to grow the food stall and widen her customer base.
The couple sources their raw materials from the local market and spices from Indian farmers. “We have relatives and friends back home who help us get our spices for the recipes.”
“Every family has their own way of making pudis and mine has too! So all the recipes of the food that we serve are like family heirlooms,” adds Swetha.
“The best part about this project, besides spreading the joy of food, is that it is a family affair. The four of us work together on this, and it has brought us closer together. We have met so many Kannadigas here, and now it finally feels like we have a community and home here,” she says.
Putting South Indian cuisine on the map
Completing two years in June, Swetha says, “The journey has been incredible. We started very small with limited options, but it has grown substantially. The initial reaction of the people was so overwhelming; they loved the taste of the food. Many were curious, and we explained all the things we cooked to them.”
“We also keep in mind our customer base. For example, we moderate our spices according to their taste and even wrap our dosas in a burrito shape so that it is easier for them to carry it and eat,” she says.
Initially, they received customers from around the neighbourhood. However, with their growing popularity, Swetha informs that they now have customers coming all the way from Boston, Connecticut, and even New Jersey.
Gayatri, one of their customers, says, “It’s like having a piece of India in your backyard. Swetha puts love into every dosa she makes. They even catered for our two-year-old’s birthday and made it extra special! The sambar she makes is probably the best I’ve ever tasted; it’s spicy and tangy and flavoured in a way that’s very addictive. As a New Yorker with a small child and no family nearby, her stall makes Brooklyn feel more like home.”
Swetha says they have served over 10,000 customers in the span of two years. “My husband’s mango lassi, and the mini idli and pudi masala dosa from the hot food section are our bestsellers,” she remarks.
The Brooklyn Curry Project is open on weekends from 10:30 am. “Looking at the immense amount of love that we have gotten over the two years, we want to move to a bigger place. We also want to introduce new items on the food menu, such as akki roti, thatte idli etc,” says Swetha.
Edited by Pranita Bhat