How One Bengali Phenomenon Put "Little Bangladesh" on the Global Map
Growing up as a Bangladeshi in the Middle East, I didn't see much of my people on TV, movies or the Internet. So, imagine my surprise when I found out about a Fung Brothers video, aptly called “BANGLADESHI FOOD”. With the same excitement as someone who tasted their first ilish (hilsa fish), I dived in, eager to experience the unrivaled power of the Fung Brothers and the Bengali-Americans of New York.
Naq Jamal, a young Bangladeshi man, guided the Fung Bros. through local eateries in Jackson Heights, introducing them to delicious staples such as rui maach, chom chom, and bhorta. Naq not only showed the Fung Bros how authentic flavors of Bangladesh, but also helped them explore deeper, esoteric facets of the Bengali community, such as a Chinese-Bengali restaurant. I often found myself returning to the video in the years to come, finding solace in the representation and the diversity.
Years later, I am experiencing a full circle. I stumbled upon Naq's Sunday hangout session, “Adda Mara,” whilst wandering around Clubhouse. I was fascinated by his energy, emotional intelligence, and outstanding moderating skills. In addition to being the star of the Jackson Heights episode, he is one of the leaders of the acclaimed social impact pop-up, Jhal NYC.
During our one-to-one interview, I wanted to take a peek into Naq's journey as a Bengali-American and his experiences building Jhal NYC. And I can without a doubt say, it was absolutely enlightening.
Mashiat: Naq, thank you so much for taking the time for this call. You are one of the purveyors of Jhal NYC, a social enterprise that employs stay-at-home Bengali moms in the local community and hosts amazing food pop-ups throughout the city. The mission that you have is truly remarkable. What is the story behind Jhal's conception?
Naq: My friends Alvi and Mahfuzul wanted to start a project that represented both the cultural heritage and had a positive impact on the community. For many Bengali immigrant mothers and wives, their husbands would work while they would stay home alone, without much to do. We would hold events where the mothers would come out and meet other mothers. In order to get to know them better, we started holding bowling events, teach them how to drive and take them ESL classes. That is how we were able to establish strong relationships and work with them at Jhal. And I think after seeing Jhal’s success, the rest of the community saw it as a viable business model; there are lots of fuchka trucks here and there in the neighborhood now.
Mashiat: I think it's a great idea! Just like in Los Angeles, there are a lot of Mexican trucks and vendors selling fresh fruits. It is incredible that you brought an idea so prevalent in the subcontinent to the streets of “Little Bangladesh.”
Naq: Jackson Heights is the center of our daily lives. We Bengalis run the entire area. I don't know why we didn't begin selling fuchka earlier. There was this guy, Baalu Dada, who used to sell Jhal Muri. But it just didn't take off. We were all food enthusiasts and so we started Jhal NYC. We wanted to keep Bangladeshi culture alive by selling our food in Newspaper cones. However, at the same time, we are also New Yorkers. At our pop-up events, we usually play hip-hop music. Our art also represents our blended identity - we once photoshopped Sheikh Mujib’s head onto basketball players.
Mashiat: No way! (laughs)
Naq: We do stuff like that to remain true to our hyphenated identity.
Mashiat: So what came first? Was it helping mothers or was it creating a food pop-up?
Naq: We definitely wanted to do something related to food first. Queens is one of the most diverse counties in America and there is an annual night market where a lot of East Asian communities showcase their food. Mahfuzul saw that there was no South Asian stall and we thought we could do this easily and showcase Bengali food. Being the first, we couldn’t just make it about us. We had to make space for the community. It made sense to combine our mission with helping local mothers. Additionally, Alvi and Mahfuzul were very close and knew about new Bengalis coming into the community. This made it easier for the local moms to locate families.
Mashiat: That is absolutely incredible! I would love to learn more about your story. Where did you grow up and how did you become a part of Jackson Heights and Jhal?
Naq: I grew up in New York and lived in three different neighbourhoods in Queens. Having grown up with Bengalis, I felt like I was always one with my roots. For a lot of kids, they grow up away from the culture and then get close to it later on. That wasn’t my case. In high school, however, I moved to suburban Massachusetts - which was mostly old and white. This made me embrace my Bengali identity and hold on to my heritage. I met Alvi through a friend and we both realized that we were on the same journey with our identities. It took me a while to join Jhal's mission. I wanted to pave my own way. One day, I was bored with homework and thought it would be a great idea to showcase Bengali food. So, I emailed the Fung Brothers about doing a video with them.
Mashiat: Yes! I love that video! You did an excellent job representing us. Many Bangladeshis across the globe don't have a "Little Bangladesh." Watching your video made me feel like I was a part of the community, despite being miles away in the Middle East.
Naq: Many people in Bangladesh did not like the video. They did not like my clothes or my earrings. It wasn’t what they expected, I think they expected me to wear a panjabi. They were like, “Why do you guys act like that?" But this is who I am. I asked the Fung Brothers for advice and they said, "The first time you do something, people will be critical. Because they don't know how to react to you."
Mashiat: Sahmi and I both understand that so well. We resonated with your video because we are also diaspora kids. So, we understood your hyphenated identity.
Naq: Yep, and even my parents had a hard time understanding. But they were so proud when the video came out. To this day, when my father talks to someone from Bangladesh, he mentions, "Oh, Naq makes YouTube videos, I'll send you the link."
Mashiat: That's awesome! Once they see success, they come around. So you are now famous on Youtube. Your video has over 500K views! Where do you want to go with Jhal and with your dream of being in the food industry? What is your vision?
Naq: I just want people to realize that we can be whoever we choose to be on our own terms. Being Bengali is your own relationship and you don't need to fall into someone's box. That is our philosophy at Jhal. People in New York have an idea that if you’re too Bengali, you’re fobby. I want to show that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be Bengali however you please.
Mashiat: I totally get that. We shame others who are “too Bengali” and mark them as “too fobby.” At the same time, we shame ourselves, thinking, “Oh maybe I’m too white.” So what are you tackling next in life?
Naq: With Jhal, COVID hit us hard. And the people we originally inspired were able to carry on operating. They got on the brick and mortar side early. For us, Jhal was a part-time project since we were still in school. But our goal is to have a brick and mortar store and a community space eventually. We also launched a podcast called Jhal Talk. When COVID ends, we want to get back to doing the work we love; holding pop-ups for the community and constructing the brick and mortar store.
Mashiat: It's like that saying, “What is meant for you will never leave you.” We’ve all missed opportunities due to timing. You always have to give yourself grace and a little bit of forgiveness. Most importantly, I think the fact that you build an enterprise around helping Bengali moms alone is impressive. Almost all of us, not only Bengalis, are touched by this story.
Naq: Also, we are planning to do more pop-ups in big cities across America. For our LA pop-up, we partnered with local moms. It's just that they don't like listening to us. (laughs) If you try and make them do something in a particular manner, they won't do it.(laughs)
Mashiat: Bengali moms are strong! I think that is a great idea. I know for a fact that you guys can definitely do Jhal pop-ups here in Toronto. The Bengali community here is very large. It is just sad that we do not have a lot of social enterprises like Jhal.
Naq: I think it will take time. The Bengali community in New York has been here for several decades. The younger generation is realizing this gap in culture and representation; and so they are actively making change.
Mashiat: Absolutely! So what is your favorite memory working with the mothers?
Naq: So Alvi and Mahfuzul created a campaign called “On Their Shoulders” They took photos of themselves on top of moms’ shoulders and shared personal stories. Personally, I was working with the mom and telling her how to set up the Jhal Muri (spicy puffed rice) and she refused to listen to me. (laughs) Like she dumped the entire bucket of kacha morich ( green chillies) into the muri ! So, we only had one spice level that day for customers.(laughs)
Mashiat: (laughs) Nothing like extra, extra spicy Muri! Thank you so much Naq for giving me your time. This has been an absolutely amazing conversation! I learned so much from you!
Naq: Thank you for listening! You and like that one 9 year old that asked for my picture in Jackson Heights are the two high points of my career. (laughs)
Mashiat: Well, I’ll be asking you pictures too for this article! (laughs) So hopefully, I’ll rank higher than the 9 year old (laughs). Thank you so much for your time!
Jhal NYC is a social entrepreneurship venture built to empower the Bangali New York community through food. They employ stay-at-home mothers and new immigrants, help build their language skills, and prepare them for careers they seek to transition to.
All images are courtesy of @hardnaqlife and @jhalnyc.