After four straight days of rain in New York, the sun was finally out and so was Kandaswamy Thirukumar, the dosa man of NYC. For 18 years, Thirukumar, known simply as Thiru, has been rolling up to Washington Square Park to churn out dosas for long lines of hungry patrons waiting patiently for his food.
An immigrant from Sri Lanka who moved to New York more than two decades ago, Thiru’s success story — featured in everything from magazines and television to documentary-style videos — has turned him into a mini celebrity in New York. Though most regional South Indian food is still unfamiliar to large swaths of the United States, Thiru and his dosa cart have played an inarguable role in popularising the south Indian speciality in America.
When Thiru decided to open his own food cart, he wanted to offer something different from the typical greasy, buttery and creamy Indian fare served in most New York takeout restaurants. At the time, he had turned to a vegan lifestyle and decided to showcase the dosa as a healthy alternative.
“Make south Indian food international for everybody. That’s my aim,” he said.
Pondicherry dosa to samosa dosa
Growing up in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, Thiru learned to cook from his grandmother. After moving to New York, he worked multiple jobs, including at a restaurant, which helped improve his cooking skills. “Slowly, slowly you learn,” he said.
At his cart, Thiru serves masala dosa, special Pondicherry dosa, mixed vegetable uthappam, idly lunch, Jaffna lunch, roti and vegetables, Singapore noodles, samosa, vegan drumsticks and grilled stuffed rotis, and three kinds of podi. The Pondicherry dosa, Thiru’s own creation and his bestselling dish, is a masala dosa stuffed with chopped greens and served alongside coconut chutney and sambar.
Though he’s making a traditional south Indian snack, Thiru is aware of the food preferences that his young, urban American clientele may have. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that dosas are gluten free and wheat free, and he also uses organic vegetables and avoids peanuts due to allergies.
In one special “samosa dosa,” he sauteed kale in coconut podi and smashed a samosa into the masala potato before wrapping it all up in the dosa — a feast fit for any hipster.
Last year, he visited India and while travelling through south India, he had to try a dosa, of course. “I make much better dosa,” he said, though he conceded that he preferred the idli there. But for a good dosa meal, all three — the dosa, sambar, and chutney — have to work together. “All three have to match, otherwise the dosa won’t sell.”
The most popular man in the park
Walking into the park on a recent Friday, it doesn’t take long to spot Thiru. Located in an upscale part of the city, Washington Square Park is small, but it draws scores of tourists as well as students of New York University, whose campus surrounds the park. About 40 minutes after opening his cart to the public, the line is already 20-people deep and will continue to grow.
Within the hour, the line had more than doubled and seemed to stay that way, no matter the number of dosas, uttapams and samosas Thiru sold. Aside from the people in line, he’s also getting phone calls for pick-up orders. “It’s going to be a long time,” he tells one caller.
So how many dosas does he typically make in a day? “We don’t count,” he said. “We never count.”
Thiru’s regulars know to check his Facebook and Twitter feeds for his early-morning posts announcing whether he’s going to be at the park that day or not. He almost always opens his cart at 11 am and shuts by 3 pm, even earlier if he runs out of supplies. If he has leftovers, he hands them out to homeless men and women in the park.
But it’s not just tourists who read about Thiru on travel websites and tour guides who come visit him, though he says he has fans in 45 countries by his own count. Most are international students studying at New York University. Others are officer-goers working in the neighbourhood and some are long-time customers who have been coming to Thiru for more than a decade.
Each has a different taste and tolerance for spicy food, and Thiru tries to pay close attention to every one. “South Koreans, they like a lot of spicy,” he said.
After taking each customer’s order, he asks whether they prefer mild, medium or spicy. Sometimes, depending on the customer, he’ll add another question: “Indian medium or American medium?”
Nothing over $10
In almost two decades of working the cart, Thiru has kept his menu under $10. The $8 masala dosa is $8 and the $9 Pondicherry dosa or uthappam translates to about Rs 550 to Rs 625. Though that sounds expensive for Indian standards, it’s a reasonable meal in New York. By comparison, Saravanaa Bhavan in Manhattan charges $13 for a masala dosa, roughly about Rs 900.
In an expensive city like New York, this is a boon for students on a budget looking for a filling lunch at a reasonable price. Thiru says it’s one of the few homemade meals these students can get for under $10.
“I’m making food the way you want,” he said. “We make dosa the healthy way. Keep them healthy, I’m wealthy.”
More than just ‘the dosa guy’
Penelope Fernandes, who works at the law school at NYU, has been picking up samosas from Thiru for 15 years. Years ago, she recalled a subway strike that brought New York to a standstill. At the time, she wondered how she would get from Manhattan to her home in Astoria, Queens, almost 10 kilometres away and across the river. Without asking, Thiru stepped in to help her out.
“He gave me a ride all the way to Astoria,” she said.
Neighborhood dog walker Victoria Booth has also been coming to Thiru for almost 15 years. Pointing to the long line of customers, she explains that it isn’t just the food that brings people back to the dosa cart over and over again. “He’s so lovely,” she said. “He just puts love into it.”
Thiru’s license to keep his cart at Washington Square Park is valid for another five years. After that, he isn’t really sure whether he wants to continue this work. “It’s too far to think right now,” he said.