Delights of Mogul kings in Queens
Need a Punjabi-speaking attorney? Or perhaps an accountant fluent in Urdu? Want to find out how the Pakistani national soccer team played yesterday? Or, far more important, are you looking for an eligible and highly traditional bride of Indian descent?
Any Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi immigrant living in New York City can tell you that there's an easy answer to all of the above concerns: Just go see the candy man.
Of course many of the customers who pour into Tariq Hamid's main store in the Flushing section of Queens are primarily there to pick up food - hot curry dishes at lunch; smooth jewel-like confections flavored with almonds and saffron throughout the day.
But many need information, contacts, news, and sometimes just a sense of connection. And that's OK, says Mr. Hamid, proprietor of Shaheen Food and Sweets. That's what the business is there for.
"We get calls from everybody and everybody comes here," says Mr. Hamid. It's good for business, he says, but also, he insists with a disarmingly warm grin, "We like to help."
Hamid's store, the crown jewel of his $3-million-year business, sits squarely in the center of New York's booming Indian and Pakistani community.
A sweet sense of community
When Hamid's parents first came to the US in the early 1970s seeking religious freedom, that community was tiny. And it seemed unlikely that the traditional Indian candies - colorful, bite-sized, once prepared in the courts of Moghul kings in 16th-century India - would find a market.
But in 1973, as New York's Indian and Pakistani community grew, the Hamids opened Shaheen Foods in Elmhurst, Queens. Grasping the need of the new immigrants for a sense of community, the family began to shape their stores into ethnic centers.
They found that immigrants from religious and ethnic groups that clashed in India and Pakistan were content to work, live, and shop side-by-side.
Today several Indian and Pakistani newspapers are available free at each of their five branches. Store managers have information about attorneys and accountants and even real estate agents who specialize in working with Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi natives.
Hamid himself is willing to help fill out immigration applications and find help for those in financial need.
The man in the middle
He is also happy to provide directions to the nearest mosque of any of several Muslim sects or tell an inquirer the exact dates of an upcoming Sikh holy day.
"All these things I must know," he says, "because of my business."
He and his family have also arranged more than a dozen marriages for customers. He's presently seeking matches for one of his kitchen workers as well as two female physicians whose families patronize his store.
Family members run all the branches of Shaheen Foods except for one franchised unit in Manhattan. The company does a lively mail-order business, shipping confections to immigrant families in Canada, Japan, and Australia, especially at holiday times.
In the US, Hamid says he does enough business during the Festival of Lights - an Indian holiday also known as Diwali celebrated for a month in late October and early November - to pay all his expenses for a year.
Celebration of home
All the candies rely on simple ingredients. Many are lightly fried balls of cottage or ricotta cheese. They get soaked and refried in sugar and syrup and then variously colored and flavored with coconut, almond, saffron, pistachio, or rose syrup. Some are tinged with the bright primary colors of a child's paint box; others glow in a more heated orange and pink.
"They make you think of a celebration," says Syed, a Bangladeshi businessman as he stops in a branch of Shaheen Foods on a recent lunch hour.
Such celebrations include a birth or a religious holiday. And most important for Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi people, says Syed, who preferred not to give his last name, "They make us think of home."