*PMH has a new best buddy in Washington Square Park. Thiru Kumar, better known as the Dosa Man, recently took time out from his busy day at the cart to entertain *PMH with delicious dosa and a leisurely chat. Bordering on vendor celebrity, Kumar churns out vegan specialties for salivating NYU students and park-loungers, most of whom are regular customers.
The 37-year-old Sri Lankan native offers traditional South Indian fare made with rice and lentil flour, such as masala dosa (crepes stuffed with potato and onion), idly (steamed patties), and medu vada (savory doughnuts). These dishes are served alongside spicy sambar soup and coconut chutney. Kumar also cooks up some of his own vegan creations, including vegetable roti rolls, spring rolls, and soy protein drumsticks. His simple concept of fresh ingredients and kind prices (all menu items are below $5) make for an addictive al fresco munching experience.*PMH was sitting next to the cart, happily laying into some snacks when Kumar sold out of food. “You’re gonna kill me, I have nothing left,” Kumar said to his disappointed regulars. *PMH’s interview was paused several times for Kumar to chat with his customers, who invariably congratulated him for selling out–something Kumar says happens regularly.”See you tomorrow,” the Dosa Man called with a smile.
How long have you had this stand in NYC?
What were you doing before that?
A lot of other stuff, like working at a gas station, construction field, made some stuff for restaurants…iron field in Westbury, Long Island. Finally I decide to do something different. That’s why I started the dosa stand.
Did you work at a restaurant before?
Yeah, five years ago. I don’t wanna be inside yeah, I wanna be outside with the people. I like the people to see how I’m cooking and they see what they’re eating, you know?That’s why I created the vegetarian vegan cart so they can come next to me and order and if they need changes in the dosa, “Oh put more spice,”or something like that, you know.
Did you always have a fondness for cooking?
I was cooking even as a kid, we were hanging out swimming and diving, going out in the city, so we used to make our own food. Most of the beach area near me in Sri Lanka didn’t have any restaurants so we have to make our own food, you know.
What part of Sri Lanka are you from?
Originally from Jaffna, but I grew up everywhere in Sri Lanka. It’s the second capital of Sri Lanka, first is Colombo.
Were all your family and friends all right after the tsunami?
Yeah, they’re okay. Only one of my aunties lost her house and everything but she managed to escape. It was very scary. We called and first thought she was gone, after a week we heard from her, you know. She was interviewed by CNN and everybody. She was really close to the sea; she saw white smoke coming up and she started running for higher land. Finally the water came so close, she gave a big hug to the coconut tree. She never let it go. Then the water dropped down. But she never let go, was tightly holding it. She looked at the house later and everything was gone. After that she went to a refugee camp.
Wow that’s insane. But good to hear she’s okay. When did you come to the U.S.?
Straight from Colombo to New York, in ’95 August.
So how did you find the U.S. when you came over from Sri Lanka?
I came here when I was 27; was a little bit of a big difference. I always expected it to be different, it is totally different, this is New York. If you have guts in New York, and you wanna work, definitely you can come here. Just have to be a hard worker, you know. The third day I was here I got a job in the construction field and then I worked at a gas station being a mechanic. I know how to do that, you know.
Where do you live now?
New York is my residence always. I only like to visit other places but for my residence I wanna keep as New York. I love it.
Last year you were up for a Vendy award, congratulations.
Yeah, it was pretty good, I like to support people that are doing different stuff. People nominated me, so I went over to the Vendy awards. I became one of the four finalist, and the judges decision I was second. I don’t carry no meat though. I don’t wanna change anything to get first you know. Because I keep my vegan thing you know? I’m still the only one in the United States and Canada doing the vegan vegetarian dosas in the street. The first place [winner] was a German “Hallo Berlin” meat and stuff; he doesn’t sell any vegetarian, completely opposite. [Laughs]
What’s the best seller at your cart?
Special Pondicherry Masala, and then I have samosas, all kinds of stuff. People here, they ask me what to get, mostly regulars. Five days, five different lunches. Yeah, all kinds of stuff, people from all over the world come here, the special Pondicherry–it’s my own creation, there’s no other dosa like that. Yeah, even restaurants now copied it and made it too, they don’t make it good like this–it’s different, with onions and stuff.
So the whole cart is vegan?
Yeah, the whole cart is vegan. I myself am vegan, too, two-and-a-half year now. Before that I used to be a vegetarian. Since I open this business and before that I used to eat everything.
What’s your favorite food besides dosa?
Rice, curry, and stuff. Roti, chapati, anything. American food, too–if it’s vegan then I’ll like it. If not, then I don’t like it.
What is your favorite restaurant?
Now I’m so busy, not much time to go out for dinner and stuff, only go out with my friends. Most of them are vegan vegetarians, so wherever they choose, I go–not my choice to go out though.
So do you usually just eat your own food?
Yes, 90 percent just eat here, my own food.
Are you going to come up with any new dishes?
Yeah, every year I put a new dish. Last year I did idly lunch, it was a very big hit. Still sell it, we never take it out of the menu. Since I opened the business, I’ve added five different things. In 2006, I’ll add one maybe at the end of May, or June, when the semester is over, switch it up.
What do you do on your days off?
If I have time mostly in summer, I go on vacation in Canada, visit relatives and friends up there. I like to stay near the water mostly. So I go hang out near Niagara, the Canadian side. There’s lakes near there so I go swimming over there, brings me back to my childhood.
What is your favorite music?
I listen mostly to everything. South Indian music, raps, hip-hops, and all kinds of stuff. M.I.A., this Sri Lankan girl, 50 Cent, then I listen to classical too, Ravi Shankar. I really like it.
Thanks for taking time out to do this Thiru, Lastly wanted to ask you about your jacket, I really like it, where did you get it?
No problem. Thanks. Yeah, my friend does art, Castain, he painted it for me. He’s from Hawaii, he helps me out a lot.