Editor’s note: TLD contributor Jake Safane continues to profile some of the people behind the counters of local eateries. Today — Jani Singh of Punjabi Grocery & Deli. 114 East 1st St.
What’s in a name at Punjabi Grocery & Deli? Well, there are no shopping carts and you can’t order a turkey sandwich…it’s located in the ambiguous area in which Houston Street turns into 1st Street and the Lower East Side turns into the East Village…and the owner Jani? That’s not his real name.
Although the names are not exactly what they seem at Punjabi, there’s no mistaking the good food at bargain prices in this hole-in-the-wall takeout/convenience store.
Before he brought the cuisine of the Punjab region of India to New York, Kulwinder “Jani” Singh left his home country as a teenager to work on oil ships and bulk carriers based in Greece, which allowed him to travel all over the world. In 1980, he moved to Brooklyn and worked a series of odd jobs in the restaurant, construction and real estate industries. As the 80s turned into the 90s, Singh drove a taxi and ate at his friend’s Indian convenience store every day.
Then in 1994, he bought that little store with his business partner Satnam Singh (no relation) and started serving his own version of homestyle Punjabi food.
Singh is a deeply religious follower of Sikhism (a monotheistic religion from Punjab), who says he operates the business but, “everything is owned by God. We just keep ownership for the period of time [we’re alive]. When our time finishes we are to go. Nothing is going to stay on this earth.”
During his period of ownership, his deli has served as a haven for taxi drivers looking for a place to rest and enjoy a very affordable meal ($3.50 for small order with a choice of two entrees served over rice, $5.50 for a large order with a choice of three dishes). With 80 percent of his business coming from cab drivers, most of whom are regulars, Singh has lived up to the name “Jani” in the taxi world, which he says is an Indian nickname for someone who is “known to everyone.”
Singh says he has lost half his business over the past few years with less parking available in the area and construction on Houston Street making it harder for taxis to stop at his deli. Singh is adamantly against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s bicycle and bus initiatives that have eliminated parking spots.
“If you want to ride a bike, go to Queens, go somewhere else in the park,” Singh says. “The city is not for bikes.”
In order to help his business and support cab drivers, Singh wants taxi relief stands (designated areas where taxis can park and leave their cars for an hour) in front of his deli and throughout the Lower East Side. He is currently building a coalition of drivers with the goal of putting 10,000 votes behind a mayoral candidate who supports the relief stands.
“Taxi drivers should have the same respect [as] a police officer,” Singh says. “Because they are also serving the city.”
While Singh gets passionate about the parking issue, his religion keeps him peaceful and influences his daily life. He serves only vegetarian food, which is in accordance with his religion and makes it easier for followers of other religions such as Islam to eat his food. Plus, he says, a vegetarian diet gives you more energy.
Many of the dishes change based on what vegetables are available, but others like chickpeas and saag (a combination of spinach, mustard greens and broccoli rabe) are featured every day. For those new to Punjabi, Singh recommends starting with a samosa over chickpeas ($3, and this author recommends getting it with the works—onions, yogurt, hot sauce and sweet sauce…somehow it all comes together in a delicious fashion). For the other dishes, though, Singh finds it easier to number them because some of the names can be hard for customers to remember. Just ask what’s in the dish if you’re unsure, he says, and soon you’ll be calling out numbers.
While working seven days a week (you have to put in the time if you want to make it in New York, he says.), Singh finds the time to meditate for at least two hours a day using the mantra “Waheguru,” which is a Sikh term for God as a wonderful teacher. Although he has strong convictions about his own religion, Singh preaches a tolerance of all people.
“We should see everyone with closed eyes,” he says. “We are all brothers. We are all souls. We should respect everybody.”
At Punjabi Deli & Grocery, it’s not the names that matter. The man “known to everyone” just wants to provide a respite for others, whether it’s a taxi driver who needs to use the bathroom and grab coffee, or a newer LES resident looking for an affordable alternative in an increasingly pricey neighborhood.