The Indian Migrant’s Table
Pasta, basil and tacos are jostling for space in the Indian pantry with rajma, basmati rice and haldi.
Earlier last month a new American TV series Revenge Body with Khloe Kardashian began airing on E!online. On the show, the first sister of reality TV, Khloe Kardashian, helps participants struggling with weight issues through diet and exercise. In a recent episode, an Indian girl made her debut. Sukhda Anand, a New Delhi native, announced how she found herself wolfing down American fast food to cope with her migration to the United States and ended up piling up weight. Athough Anand was eventually booted off the show for her poor attitude and lack of dedication, she brought attention to how Indian immigrants alter their eating practices in their adopted home.
When Anand famously boasted on the show that she had the luxury of cooks to serve her hot, fresh meals on demand, she drew out one of the foremost differences in immigrant cuisine. In India it is fairly common, even for middle-class families, to hire a cook.
But devoid of cheaply and readily available household help to whip up everything from breakfast to dinner and do the dishes, in the United States, most Indian immigrant families end up stocking their refrigerator with processed and canned food — a practice almost frowned upon in India.
Even though Indian immigrants have come a long way since the 1970s, when Indian grocery stores began springing up in the United States selling everything from anardana to amchoor, many immigrants still find themselves relying on frozen food for quick weeknight cooking.
Today, small mom and pop grocery stores to retail chains, such as the 52-store chain Patel Brothers, Sabzi Mandi, India Mart and Bombay Bazaar, etc., are easily accessible in major U.S. cities. Online Indian grocery stores, like indiangrocery.com, grocerybabu.com and ishopindian.com, that sell everything from Sanjeev Kapoor’s masalas to incense sticks are also proliferating on the web. Major U.S. retailers Costco and Walmart, as well as grocery chains, also stock Indian ingredients, such as Basmati rice, dals, frozen foods and even ghee!
Despite this relatively easy access to Indian ingredients, cereals and pasta are jostling for space beside pickles and chivda in Indian household pantries. In an interesting cross-assimilation of eating practices and customs, while Maryland based American spices and herbs producer McCormick stocks a garam masala blend in its repertoire of products, Indian grocery chains stock frozen ready-to-serve meals, such as burgers and chicken nuggets along with kadai paneer and dal masala. The products of Deep Foods, one of the leading manufacturers of frozen Indian food ranging from parathas and undhiu to samosas, can be found not just at Indian grocers, but in the international food aisles of American supermarket chains as well.
The American melting pot, food experts predict, will be serving up many more Indian fused flavors in the years ahead as their population explodes. The Asian American population is projected to grow from 16.5 million in 2010 to 40.6 million by 2050; the number of Asian Indians is projected to almost triple to 10 million.
Even so, Indians may be more adaptive to multicultural cuisines than most other immigrants. In the process, nutritionists warn, many non-natives end up picking unhealthy choices.
Seema Singh, a Jersey City, NJ resident, who came to the United States a decade ago, says: “Once the kids began demanding foods, such as tacos or tortillas, which we normally did not prepare in our household, we began looking for readymade options. Even before we knew it the dal and rice was getting replaced with mac and cheese.”
Dr Ashish Mathur, executive director of the South Asian Heart Center at El Camino Hospital in Fremont, California, says: “The most common and noticeable dietary changes experienced by Indian immigrants today are actually no different from those experienced with urbanization in India itself — carbohydrate overload with access to sugary drinks, snacks rich in refined and processed grains typically stripped off their fiber content, and quick carbohydrate laden lunches and dinners facilitated by fast food vendors.’’
He says, the problem is that: “Frozen ready-made and microwaveable foods dominate the dietary preferences compared to the also widely available frozen non-starchy vegetables.”
The U.S. frozen food market size topped $52 billion in 2015. And while many regulations have ensured healthy options, such as fruits and vegetables frozen to retain their best nutritive value, most pre-made, processed food is laden with transfats and other unhealthy ingredients.
Most households turn to the TV dinner category of frozen foods to ease their already bulging workload. Frozen pizza is the third largest frozen food category, accounting for nearly $1 billion in sales. The frozen food category is such an integral part of the the American lifestyle that the month of March is designated as the National Frozen Food Month.
Srishti Shah, who came to the United States to study journalism, says: “I have lived all my life in hostels so having hot fresh meals was always a luxury. But back in Delhi, since there were only a few and very expensive frozen food options, I ended up cooking a quick anda-bhurji or aloo sabji most nights. But my healthy eating habits took a beating once I landed in Boston. After all, when you have a $1 frozen pizza staring at you from the aisle, you wouldn’t want to go back and slave in your kitchen. In hindsight though, I wished that the options were not so ready and so cheap.”
She adds, jokingly, “A health tax sometimes may not be a bad idea.”
Nutritionists stress it’s the choice of food, not necessarily the fact that it is frozen. Dubai-based obesity consultant and bariatric surgeon Dr Rohit Kumar, who is a committee member for Asian Metabolic Society says: “The trouble arises when nutrient rich food is swapped for processed food, which increases risk of certain cancers, Type 2 diabetes and heart diseases. The high fat, sugar and salt content makes it unhealthy while added sodium used to prevent spoilage increases the risk of heart diseases.” Americans on average consume 3.4 milligrams of sodium daily, against a recommended daily intake of 2.3 mgs, increasing the risk of heart diseases.” Kumar says that it is important people read the constituents carefully before picking ready-to-eat meals.
Mathur adds: “The most common health implications of the dietary changes are disorders associated with dismetabolism such as impaired levels of fasting blood glucose, insulin abnormalities, elevations in body mass index, waist circumference, waist to height ratio leading to obesity and elevated HbA1c levels.”
Many Indian immigrants also adopt unhealthier choices in an attempt to fit in. An office lunch of roti and sabji is replaced with pasta and weekend cooking changes from overnight soaked rajma with rice to a seemingly equally healthy looking barbecued steak. And sometimes excited about a new dish, immigrants discount that it’s coming with additional cheese or processed fat.
Kumar says, one of the most effective ways to gauge the changing eating habits of a community is by looking at the school box lunches of children: “In America, if you look, almost all lunchboxes that kids carry to school look alike. Thus establishing that Asians are mimicking the eating habits of locals. Though this does not mean that kids are carrying unhealthy food, as most schools follow the healthy eating guidelines.”
Nevertheless, he adds, “It won’t be wrong to say that the Indian dining table, in America has changed completely.”
Often immigrants end up adopting ready-made meal choices because Indian cooking is perceived to be labor intensive and time consuming. Alamelu Vairavan, a cookbook author who hosts a cookery show, Healthful Indian Flavors with Alamelu, on the PBS channel Create TV, says: “When Indians come to me for cookery classes, their most common grouse is that they do not have time for intensive cooking everyday. But the fact is if you are cooking with fresh vegetables it does not take long.”
Vairavan, who promotes authentic cooking and use of fresh vegetables on her show, explains: “Indian cooking is understood to be a process where the ingredients are to be brought fresh, spices are roasted then ground and curries and sauces are simmered to perfection. While this does sound like something in which half a day is gone, through my shows I tell people how to set up a basic Indian pantry at home for easy weeknight cooking.”
For many Indians, the increasing reliance on ready-made meals starts when they move out of their family homes for study or work. Vairavan says, “Many Indian girls who come to U.S. as new brides or to study do not necessarily know how to cook.” She cites her own example: “I grew up in India and for 18 years of my life, I did not bother about food preparation. We had cooks and it was as if the food was magically replenished on the dining tables! It remains the case with many new immigrants.”
A lack of understanding on how to effectively consume the locally available ingredients also sometimes leads to poor eating choices. Shah says: “New in America, I often felt at loss on how to effectively cook butternut squash or pinto beans, and thus stuck to familiar looking fried chicken or burgers.”
Vairavan says: “People are surprised to discover how versatile Indian cooking can be. I often use kohl rabi, brussel sprouts and broccoli in my Indian cooking and people assume that I discovered these ingredients after I came here. But the truth is I grew up in Chennai and we would visit nearby hill stations like Ooty or Kodaikanal, where these veggies were commonly grown, because of colder climes. We would bring them home, freeze them and our cooks would make various Chettiyar preparations using these.”
She adds: “By virtue of being in America, in fact one is exposed to so many cuisines that give rise to various fusion cooking experiments. My favorite being a place in Chicago that does Indian and Latin fusion. The idea is to pick the best health practices from various cultures and make them our own.”
Indeed, Sapna Sharma, a first generation Indian American, insists that her dietary habits are healthier than her cousins in India: “I may not be preparing Indian food, but I have plenty of salads as meals. We also consume a lot of whole grains topped on our food. The ingredients here are so readily available that one has no reason to believe that a healthy lifestyle is not possible.”
Historically, the confluence of cultures stirs cooking pots as well. It’s not just the Indians in America who are passing tortillas for parathas. In the 18th century when the East India Company established its foothold in India, Britishers borrowed heavily from local food traditions. Slowly the mash potato stew and partridges got mixed with lentils and masalas, resulting in some interesting cross cultural food.
Dishes such as Mulligatawny soup (millagu thanni translates into pepper soup in Tamil) or kedgeree inspired from the household staple khichri in India are a result of these culinary exchanges. Anglo Indian cuisine is a mish mash of what British and Indian kitchen combined to offer.
Kumar says: “Every eating culture has its pros and cons. I myself grew up eating aloo parathas and pooris for breakfast, which is as unhealthy. The Western practice of having cereals is any day preferable. One has to choose carefully.”
The best result for migrants, according to health experts, is when we optimally absorb the goodness from other eating cultures and incorporate them in our lives. But in a bid for short cuts, we are losing out on not just our own cuisine’s strengths, but adding empty calories and harmful additives.
The trick, Vairavan says, is to eat smart: “I eat everything from Moroccan to Italian to Chinese food. I just choose carefully. And as for my breakfast — it’s always hearty American with cereals and boiled eggs … that ain’t going anywhere.”