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Meet NJ's first Desi chef nominated for a James Beard

Nur-E Gulshan Rahman started the Bangladeshi hot spot Korai Kitchen in her 60s.

Chef Nur-E Gulshan Rahman. Photography by Amanda Suarez

New Jersey is legendary for its Desi restaurants, yet those culinary gems rarely receive recognition from beyond the South Asian community. This year, Nur-E Gulshan Rahman, the chef at Jersey City’s esteemed Korai Kitchen, is in the running for a James Beard award.

Considered the culinary Oscars, the James Beard awards are legendary for recognizing exceptional talent and achievement in the world of food.

Rahman is just one of two NJ-based chefs nominated for this year’s Best Chef awards, but even more notable is that she is the first South Asian chef in New Jersey to receive a nomination. 

A lifelong dream perfectly plated

Nestled near the heart of Jersey City’s Little India, Korai Kitchen opened its doors in 2018, on the heels of Rahman’s successful catering business and decades of encouragement from friends and family.

“Korai Kitchen is the realization of my mother’s lifelong dream,” says Nur-E Farhana, Rahman’s daughter and co-owner of the restaurant. “Mom has always been a risk-taker and rule-breaker.” 

Opening the restaurant in her 60s without formal industry experience is a testament to that. Rahman cooks homestyle Bangladeshi cuisine that draws on her childhood in Dhaka. The chef marries the flavors of her upbringing with hospitality to present diners a dawat-inspired feasting experience. The menu pays homage to Bangladesh’s identity as a land of rivers, featuring delicacies such as rohu, hilsa, and shrimp (which you can try to make at home).

Photography by Amanda Suarez

When dining in, guests experience a multi-course format that takes them on a culinary journey unfolding with rhythm and purpose to tell the story of Bangladeshi food.

At the beginning of the meal, Farhana might greet guests with hugs before she guides them through the evening’s courses. 

Encouraged to use your hands, you’ll dig into a range of dishes like bhortas, daal, glistening fish curries, and fragrant pulaos. There are no spice-level adjustments, so you’ll experience the food as it is meant to be eaten in a Bangladeshi home. 

At the end of each meal, Rahman emerges from the kitchen to humbly accept accolades from the crowd.

Adding nuance to “Indian food”

By distinguishing themselves through their feasting format, ingredients, and specific cooking techniques, Korai is shifting the narrative of the South Asian eating experience that has historically been homogenized as “Indian.”

They lean into this with humor: Their #NoChickenTikkaMasala campaign resonates with Desis who crave authentic food that isn’t catered to people unfamiliar with the cuisine. 

Korai’s approach to heritage and regionality makes them part of a growing wave of eateries, including Mount Masala in Voorhees Township and Amayar Kitchen in Maywood, that shed light on the incredible diversity in South Asian food. Korai has even succeeded in getting apps like Uber Eats and Resy to add the Bangladeshi category as a filter option.

When Brooklynite Shehab Chowdhury brings his non-Bengali friends to Korai, he says it helps them see that South Asian cooking is more than curries and rice.

“Korai has made me conscious of how what I eat is part of my story,” Chowdhury says. Reflecting on the James Beard nomination, Chowdhury recalls the overlooked history of Bengali Harlem, which blossomed as migrants arrived in the early 20th century

One legendary community hub was Bengal Garden in Manhattan’s theater district, founded by Habib Ullah during the 1940s. While the restaurant is no longer around, Harlem is still home to a large Bangladeshi community that extends into New Jersey. 

“Korai Kitchen is an evolution of that legacy and is becoming a culinary and community hub in Jersey City,” Chowdhury said.

On the nomination and looking forward

Rahman and Farhana are humble about the James Beard nomination, which any chef would consider a career-defining honor.

"Any good thing that has come our way is because of the word-of-mouth from our beloved Korai community," Farhana says.

Farhana also doesn’t want people to get the impression that success came easy.

“People see the highlight reels but not the challenges along the way,” she notes. In the six years since opening, the family has navigated the pandemic, the loss of Farhana’s father and the typical trials new restaurants face. (Profitability is extremely low for restaurants, particularly those that sell food considered ethnic.)

Yet, despite the lack of industry experience and investors, Korai’s dedicated mother-and-daughter team have stayed the course.

The duo behind Korai Kitchen. Photography by Jenny Huang

Along the way, Korai has become a much-loved gem in Jersey City.

“What the award may not fully reflect is the way that the restaurant introduces our city to a wonderful food culture by literally embracing everyone that comes in the door,” remarks Melanie Rudin, founder of the Jersey City Restaurant Owners Coalition. 

A frequent diner at Korai, Rudin said the nomination is well-deserved. “This chef, her daughter, and this restaurant represent the best of dining in our city—delicious food [that is] culturally authentic and is a wonderful expression and asset to our city's restaurant scene.”

Rahman says she hopes the nomination inspires more Bangladeshi chefs to come out and open their own businesses.

“Nothing is impossible,” she adds, “if you put your heart and mind to it.”

Winners will be announced at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Ceremony on June 10 in Chicago.

Korai Kitchen is open for dine-in on Fridays and Saturdays, with takeout available Tuesdays through Sundays. Refer to their Instagram for the most updated information.

Ifrah Akhtar is a reporting fellow for Central Desi.

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