I met Mahfuzul when I was visiting Stony Brook the year after I graduated (2009). He was a new freshman at the time and I was working as a political and community organizer. I remember the first thing I said to him was that he had very presidential hair. Over the years his hair has changed but his commitment to social justice and the belief in an individual’s ability to create a better community have not.
Mahfuzul is a Queens Village based adjunct professor at a college in New Jersey as well as a social entrepreneur, having started JhalNYC over the past year. We had a chance to talk about his background, his current professional pursuits and where he would like to go with Jhal NYC.
Empire Souls: Tell me about your background.
Mahfuzul: I was born and raised in Queens. I’ve spent most of my life in Queens Village but have traveled to a ton of countries over the last few years, including studying abroad in South Africa as an undergrad and teaching English in Turkey.
I’m a first generation Bengali. My father’s side of the family is from Brahmanbaria District in Bangladesh and my mother’s side is from Dhaka. I went to high school in Jamaica, Queens and did my undergraduate studies at Stony Brook and Fordham. While an undergrad, I studied Economics and International Political Economy and minored in Business Management. I recently graduated from Harvard after completing my masters in international relations.
Although I’m an only child, I have a close family of cousins, aunts and uncles who live in and around Queens. I still have a lot of family in Bangladesh. I have strong roots in Bangladesh and strong roots in New York.
Considering that Bengali parents limit their children’s educational choices to pre-med or disappointment, I want to ask what made you study what you studied?
To be honest, it really was my interest in history while in high school. I’ve just always been interested in other cultures, other people, ideas and how all of that interacts. I wanted to learn more and study it at a larger scale. By larger scale I mean that I wanted to learn and then create an impact on the world through my studies. I felt that my education in these fields would open up the opportunities to create more impact on my community and the world.
What are you up to these days?
Currently, I am working on two main projects. I am an adjunct professor teaching ethnic studies, international relations and sociology.
I am also a co-founder of JhalNYC. JhalNYC is a social entrepreneurship venture based out of Queens. It’s a street vendor employing stay-at-home mothers as well as new immigrants. We try to give newly immigrated women, primarily from Bangladesh, an opportunity to leave the house and meet other women. Additionally, through Jhal, we steer them to higher education or careers. We teach language and resume building skills. Through our mentoring program we provide newly immigrated high school students with essential advice and skills such as simplifying the college application process, learning how to get a learner’s permit, how to navigate the subways in NYC as well as how to get a GED.
What kind of food do you make at Jhal?
We exclusively make Bengali street food such as Jhal Muri and Fuchka.
Jhal Muri is a mixture of puffed rice, assorted Bengali spices and fresh herbs. Kind of like a spicier Check Mix. Fuchka (pictured above) is a thin, crispy semolina shell stuffed with braised chickpeas and a sweet and tangy tamarind sauce.
What was the specific reason why you chose those two items to sell?
Honestly, it was just the two things I really liked to eat and I thought it would be a good idea to try to get it out there. I didn’t see anyone selling Bengali street food. I didn’t see any Bengali cuisine being represented outside of our own community, let alone street food. Most of the Bengali-run restaurants out there primarily sell westernized Indian food. I wanted to get some of the authentic dishes out there.
What are you hoping others get out of being exposed to Bengali food?
Kind of letting people know that we exist and that there are other things that they should want to try out. Bengali food is different in a lot of ways to other South Asian cuisines. We all tend to get lumped into “Indian” cuisine but the flavor profiles are so distinct from across all of South Asia. It’s kind of like referencing “European” food without understanding the differences between French, Italian and Polish food. I just want people to have unique experiences with various types of of flavor profiles.
Other than the street food, what do you want people to know about Bengali cuisine?
I want people to know that it’s utilitarian. It’s meant for the every day and for every one. It’s a lot of rice and fish due to the geography. Bangladesh is a country with vast coastlines, rivers, lakes and ponds. It’s a country of water where rice, fish and vegetables are plentiful. The street food is a strong part of the culture. Bengalis are known for adda. It’s a strong part of our culture and food revolves around adda.
What is adda?
Hanging out. It’s devoting a part of your day to hanging out, talking politics and gossiping with your friends. It’s about devoting time specifically to your friends. It’s a bit different from NYC culture where we are always doing things on the go or in between different commitments.
What were some of the Bengali dishes you liked eating growing up?
All the bhortas (Mashed vegetable dishes served with rice and curries– think of hummus). Beghun (Eggplant), shrimp, Daal (Lentils), Aloo Bhorta, Shorsher Bhorta (Mustard Seed)
What kind of people have you met at Jhal events?
I’ve met all types of people. I’ve met businessmen, chefs, nonprofit workers, educators, government people, you name it. The chef was interesting. He was a chef at a tapas restaurant which is kind of in line with what we are serving– at least in concept. It was heartening to hear a chef try the food and say that this is something new and would work in the market.
Where would you like to go with Jhal?
Well I recently got the license for a cart so we can have an official standing location. I like the idea of being the first person selling fuchka on the streets of NYC. And then I guess go from there.
Let’s switch topics to your other job. What specific classes have you taught?
I have taught several classes over the last year. My first class was “Understanding Ethnic Conflict”. I have also taught a class on sociology of the family. Currently, I am teaching “The Asian American” experience. I don’t think I have always wanted to be an educator but looking back, I have always been in education. My first job was as a tutor.
How have your students been dealing with the last couple of months?
Well, it’s a new group since the inauguration so we haven’t really had a chance to talk deeply about it. I do teach about about the experiences of various ethnic groups that have immigrated to America. I guess it’s hard to avoid, but as there are a lot of different views in the class, I try to let them speak their minds and discuss. I’m just trying to let them hash out what they need to say.
How have you changed as a person over the last year?
Jhal boosted my confidence. It allowed me to know that anything is possible as long as I try to go after it. I’m not saying I’ll succeed every time. I’m saying that I at least now have the confidence to pursue the things I want to pursue. It’s kind of the same thing with teaching.
What else would you like to accomplish?
I think I’m using Jhal as a way to have an impact on the community that I came from and the community that I know– the Bengali American community in NYC. Once I feel like I’m at a point where I’ve created the most amount of impact I can in that community, I would like to move onto a broader platform. I want to understand how NYC works with all its different facets.
What is it about New York?
What about New York? New York is a microcosm for the word. It’s how the world works. Everything happens in New York.
Once you understand the city you can understand the rest of the world. New York represents any city.
(Writer’s note: Yeah.)
To wrap up, tell me something about Queens Village that other people should know.
I don’t know if it’s true, but it was considered the most diverse neighborhood in the world recently. It’s in the most diverse borough of the most diverse city of the most diverse state and country. Like I said, I don’t know if it’s true but it definitely feels true.
When I’m in Queens Village what should I eat?
Eat the West Indian food. Eat the Jamaican oxtail, Trini doubles, all the Bengali food. Even eat the Indian tikka masala stuff, the buffets down the street. The crown friend chickens. The spanish deli on 179 where they got the sandwhiches although that’s technically Jamaica.
Alright, sounds good and will do. Thanks for letting me interview you.
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Photo Credits to Ramy Noman for the featured image, JhalNYC for the fuchka and Nabil Rahman for the 3rd pic.