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Street Food Icons: The Jerk Chicken Queen of the Bronx (8-minute video)
Munchies, March 7, 2019
Fauzia Abdur-Rahman has been serving Jamaican food in the South Bronx from her cart Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights, right outside the courthouse, for the last 25 years.
Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights
161st Street & Concourse Village West
Bronx, New York 10451
NYC Immigrant Cuisine: Jamaican Fusion Jerk Chicken by Fauzia Abdur-Rahman
Native Dish, December 20, 2017
A report by Winnie Hu for The New York Times.
Fauzia Abdur-Rahman serves only food that she would eat herself — and sometimes does — from her sidewalk cart just steps from the Bronx criminal and civil courthouses.
Her signature jerk chicken dish is made from fresh halal chicken, and her lentil, spinach and mushroom stew from pricey portobellos. In summer, the squashes, scallions, leeks and herbs she uses come from farmers markets. She never fries or adds sugar, MSG or artificial flavorings. When salt is called for, she uses only sea salt, not iodized.
The leftovers, if there are any, go home with her for dinner. “I can’t serve one thing and eat something else,” Ms. Abdur-Rahman, 58, said. “It would be unethical.”
Though New York City has 777 licensed food trucks and carts, there is only one Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights. Her silver cart, plastered with photos of jerk chicken, gyros and freshly brewed ginger tea, has been drawing lines for two decades, even in rain and snow, near a busy intersection at East 161st Street and Concourse Village West.
Ms. Abdur-Rahman is known as the cart lady of the courthouses. Every weekday, she dishes out heaping plates of Jamaican-style chicken curry, collard greens, rice and beans, sweet plantain salad and homemade banana pudding to lawyers and their clients, jurors, court workers, police officers and anyone else who happens by at lunchtime. Her prices are modest: An entree with two sides starts at $7, only $2 more than in her first year.
“It’s food you can’t get anywhere else,” said Steve Byrnes, 50, a court clerk who visits the cart every day for lunch and considers Ms. Abdur-Rahman part of his family. For his birthday, in October, she asked what he wanted — a medley of lima beans, broccoli and okra — and made it especially for him.
Another regular, Michelle Milanes, 38, a lawyer, never misses the tofu and seitan specials on Wednesdays. If she is tied up in court, she calls Ms. Abdur-Rahman to ask that she save her some. Ms. Milanes always orders two plates, taking one home to her husband, a firefighter. “I can see the line from my window, so before it gets long, I run down,” she said. “If you wait, you’ll be in line half your lunch hour.”
Ms. Abdur-Rahman was born Carron Richards in Kingston, Jamaica, the oldest of four children of a plumber and a stay-at-home mother. She did not cook growing up. The few times she tried, it ended badly. She went through a dozen eggs while trying to fry two for breakfast. Another time, she ruined an entire pot of rice and beans. “Everything I put on the stove would burn — that was the last thing on my mind,” she said. “I was too busy having fun.”
At 19, Ms. Abdur-Rahman came to New York City with her younger sister for vacation. She liked it so much, she stayed. Renting a room in Harlem for $20 a week, she took odd jobs to support herself: making beds at a nursing home, fixing children’s hair for a school photographer, working as a temporary office assistant.
She worked her way up to a job as a secretary in an accounting firm and met her first husband, an office worker in the same building. She converted to his faith, Islam, and they had a son before they divorced after seven years of marriage.
Ms. Abdur-Rahman’s mother told her she needed a business. So the daughter who never cooked began experimenting with family recipes and making them her own. Soon she was selling codfish cakes, black-bean soup and sorrel drinks from a table that she set up on sidewalks around Harlem.
She met her second husband, Amin Rasheed, now 67, a jewelry artist, when he helped her pack up one night. After their son was born, she cashed in her life insurance policy for $5,000 to buy her first food cart. She later upgraded to her current cart, which has a six-burner stove top, grill, refrigerator and water dispenser.
The other morning, Ms. Abdur-Rahman tossed chopped cabbage into a sturdy cast-iron pot and added a sprinkle of turmeric. She moved on to another pot, then another. Soon, six pots were simmering with lunch specials.
A man waited at the window. “Not ready yet,” she told him. “I’m still cooking.”
Her menu changes daily, so she writes the specials by hand on a sheet of paper that she then tapes to the cart. “It’s like I’m in my laboratory creating,” she said. “I really cook how I feel. Food is so vibrant, alive and exciting. Why cook the same thing?”
By 1:30 p.m., she had sold more than two dozen meals. Her jerk chicken was running out. During a typical lunch rush, Ms. Abdur-Rahman goes through 50 pounds of chicken, 15 pounds of vegetables and 11 pounds of rice.
Patrick Watts, 61, a lawyer, ordered a vegetarian plate. He was her first customer when she rolled up, and he still comes four days a week. His clients know they can find him in line, and they do. Some are now regulars themselves.
Ms. Abdur-Rahman said she did not know of anyone who has gotten sick eating her food. She cooks with disposable gloves and uses different spoons for the vegetables and meats. Mr. Rasheed scrubs out the dishes and cart every night. New York City health officials said the cart had no recent violations.
From her perch at the center of the Bronx legal system, Ms. Abdur-Rahman said, she has seen people at their worst. Once, the warring sides in a child custody case grabbed all her bottled sodas, juices and waters to hurl at one another. When she protested, a man tossed her a $20 bill.
After so many years, Ms. Abdur-Rahman has become as much a part of the life on the street as her food has. After one of her regular customers got married down the street, she brought her new husband by for a celebratory lunch of grilled fish, jerk chicken and banana pudding. They took a photo in front of her cart, holding up their marriage license.
Children who have grown up eating Ms. Abdur-Rahman’s food now come with children of their own. After one teenage boy confided that he had lost his mother to cancer, she urged him to stay in school. As incentive, she offered to pay $10 for every A and B on his report card. He racked up $50 one time, $30 another. She heard recently that he had graduated from college.
Ms. Abdur-Rahman would not divulge her sales figures, saying only that she has made enough from her cart to send three children to college and make mortgage payments on a Harlem co-op. Her husband works beside her every day, and their children help out, too. She said she had no plans to leave her corner anytime soon.
But lately, she has been taking it a little easier. Now, if it rains or the temperature drops below 25 degrees, she stays home. This month, she took a week off to visit her sister in Florida. When she returned, there was relief among her customers.
“Don’t go to Florida again,” John Megaw told her. Mr. Megaw, 62, a social worker who comes twice a week for jerk chicken, brought lunch from home the week she was gone.
“When you leave,” he said, “I lose weight.”