The Immigrant Thali

Indian cuisine is undergoing a metamorphosis, but then so is the American table.


Home, family, friendships, motherland.

Immigrants, as they set off on their journeys, lose all these – and more. In a frenetic attempt to grasp at straws, at something, anything to ground and anchor them in a new world, they cling to the one thing they are able to salvage from the wreckage of their past lives – their beloved home food.


They stand in new alien lands, in freezing rented apartments, in barren kitchens of starting-out places, trying to generate warmth, invoke a sustaining mantra through a cup of hot chai. As the milk bubbles in the pan and the tea leaves stain it a golden hue, the ginger shreds give it potency.

Food becomes a metaphor for all that they’ve lost. And more. A samosa is no longer just a samosa. Of course it tastes delicious, but its allure lies in its power to evoke memories – the boisterous college canteen, the lost sweetness of family celebrations, the clandestine matinee shows with college friends at the cinema hall, bunking classes.


For immigrants, that first voyage out of the homeland is severe in magnitude – they may return a hundred times and yet they can never really go back again: the ground has moved, the little world they inhabited has re-aligned and their space in what seemed a well-ordered universe is gone forever. It’s like in leaving home, they stepped out of a magical circle, an invisible Lakshman Rekha.

And so they cling to their food as talisman and mantra, as substitute mother and father. Ajwain, hing, illaichi, dhania, jeera, methi – these are the comforting spices of home cooking. How vitalized they feel when they cook daal chaval, just like mother! Or the kaju barfi, that grandma specialty. They hold that wonderful taste in their mouth, close their eyes and are transported back home.

Yet even as they hold on to their foods in a new land, the foods themselves are getting transformed and taking on new mutations.

The first to go are the foods of birth – and death. In India a new mother is plied with nurturing foods like sweet breads and bhat. Here there are no elders or help and a new mother is on her own, juggling home, office and a new baby. The baby too often doesn’t get the home foods that an extended family makes easy, and is likely weaned on Gerber prepared baby foods. Life is frenetic in America and right at birth, the Indian babies born in America learn to adjust.


In death too, many rituals and ceremonies are cut short or simply abandoned in this new land. Feeding the Brahmans is left to the elders in India and feeding the cows is impossible. Death commemorations are not marked by the annual ritual dinners of the foods the departed had loved in this world. America absolves one from the duties of the previous life. An immigrant’s new world has little time or place for sentiments and rituals.

Everyday food also changes in ways big and small. Just as accents and attitudes change in this encounter with America, so too home food transforms from Indian to Indian American, becoming more casual, more eaten on the run.

A plate of palak paneer, a bowl of dahi vadas and rotis.

Indian food? Well, take another look – this is Indian American food! The paneer is really tofu, baked ricotta cheese or store-bought paneer and the palak is concocted from packaged frozen spinach. The vadas are cradled out of a ready mix or store-bought and soaked in non-fat yogurt. The chappatis are also packaged. An identical meal in India would have taken hours to prepare and likely have double the calories, but here in fast moving America even the food is on the express line.


We invited cooking teacher and food historian Julie Sahni to lay out the new immigrant’s home table. To begin with, is the food of Indian immigrants getting transformed? “Yes, absolutely. Really it’s an evolution of food over time. Whenever you take a recipe out of one land and plonk it into another, it’s going to go through a metamorphosis. It’s inevitable because the water is different, the air is different, and the soil is different. Even if you import the spices and all, you are using other ingredients so even with the same cooks cooking exactly the same recipe here, it’s going to taste different.”

Sahni, who runs a well-regarded cooking school in New York and is the author of several books including Classic Indian Cooking, also conducts culinary tours of India. She is constantly moving between the two continents and has first hand experience with the changes that transform Indian immigrant cooking.

Spices, which are the underpinnings of flavor, can taste vastly different, depending on their country of origin. In America’s well-stocked Indian grocery stores, the pastes, legumes and spices come not only from India, but also Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, sometimes even England and Canada. Some ingredients change quite dramatically. Tamarind has its own distinct flavor in India and does not travel well; cuisine in India uses fresh Indian coconut, which is not available here; lentils have a very fresh picked taste in India – you can almost smell the freshness. Onions, beloved in Indian cooking, are much more watery in America. Coriander powder, the underpinning of all Mughal sauces, also can taste very different depending on its source country.

So immigrants play with new ingredients and new ways of cooking food. If the spices are a little bit subdued, they add more of them. Because the onions here are a little bit watery, they don’t grind them, slicing and frying them instead. So cooking techniques tend to get modified.

Apart from the variation in the ingredients, a major reason for the transformation of food is the changed lifestyle. Over a period of time, the American value system influences immigrants’ cooking and lifestyle. In India there’s always someone to do the chopping or to clean the dishes, and sometimes they even bring ingredients to your doorstep in the thela or handcart. Since all these conveniences are missing here, there has to be a lot more planning in preparing meals.


In this land of the time crunch and two income and nuclear families, original recipes get modified in many ways, the “quick fix” and easier, simpler version of the food evolve over time. The influence is reflected in homes and cookbooks -how to cook with ease and speed – such as, for instance, in Monisha Bharadwaj’s Indian in 6 and Stylish Indian in Minutes cookbooks.

Gadgets become a substitute for domestic help. The microwave oven, slow cooker, tortilla maker, food processor, pressure cooker are all pressed into service, as is the slow cooker or crock-pot. Says Sahni, “Indian kitchens have all these gadgets and do not look down on them. Indians are very ingenious at inventing techniques and how to use them. You will see grandmas, all wrapped up in nine-yard saris with two nose rings and gold chains, operating a food processor. It’s very common.”

The microwave oven is used for everything from making masala chai to idlis and dhokla to peras or milk sweets. One New Jersey woman makes her own version of kaju mithai, low fat and low sugar, in the microwave in minutes, which is something that won’t be found in any halwai store in India or America.

A survey by Ranjita Misra, associate professor, Department of Health and Kinesiology, Texas A&M University, found that a majority of Indians had changed their diet significantly after coming to America. Misra’s diabetes survey of 1,800 Indians, believed to the first comprehensive health survey of the community, was conducted at seven study sites in Houston, Texas, Phoenix, Ariz., San Diego, Calif., Boston, Mass., Edison and Parsippany, N.J. and Washington D.C.


According to Misra, the dietary changes, included such shifts as meal times, preference of being vegetarians or non-vegetarian, and the consumption of more fast foods. 58 percent indicated that dinner was their main meal. Dietary habits changed least for the 40 percent of Indians who indicated they eat primarily Indian food. However, 55 percent showed a preference for both “Indian” and “American food.” Eighteen percent of those surveyed acknowledged they had to change their diet because of health reasons, i.e. they have dietary restrictions and avoid sugar, salt, and fatty food.

Misra has observed that new immigrants tend to eat more saturated fats and fast foods, which are a recent and popular phenomenon in India. She says graduate students from India are far less health conscious than undergraduates, most of whom grew up in the United States. She finds new immigrants tend to change their lifestyle as they become acculturated or are forced to, years later, by their doctors for health reasons.

Misra has also seen some vegetarians turn meat-eaters when they come to this country. Why is that? “From my initial assessment I think it has to do with cost. You can go to McDonalds and in a dollar you can get a burger,” she says. “If you are vegetarian, the salads are more expensive and not as filling. There are fewer choices for vegetarians. I know of a lot of people, especially students, who have changed to a non-veg diet.


An elaborate Indian breakfast is one of the casualties of American life, because everyone is on the run. The daal pakvan, parathas and yogurt or idli sambar, which all require one to sit down to savor, are gone. People tend to grab cereal or a toast or even buy a donut or muffin and coffee on the way to work. Lunch, especially in a mainstream American workplace, is often a sandwich or pasta. Those working in Indian American workplaces, still have the privilege to bring in their roti and sabzi or rice and daal to heat in the office microwave oven.

Madhu Gadia, health editor of Diabetes Living and Heart Healthy Living magazines and author of the cookbook New Indian Home Cooking, who came to the United States 30 years ago from Haryana, has observed the food changes. “We’re falling into the trap of the American way of life,” she says. “Because we are too busy, we’re two income families and therefore dinner is always in a rush and so we’re eating out more, maybe making fast food for meals. We’re eating higher fats, higher calorie foods, a lot more pizza, lots more snacks and chips in the house and so everyone is gaining weight.” Gadia finds that young children resist Indian food, so to appease them parents turn to pizza or pasta.

She adds, “Even adults are falling into that pattern. If you’re a vegetarian eating lunch at work, there’s not a whole lot you can eat except pizza or sandwiches. Cutting corners with time, we may pick up something for dinner and also appease children. After all, who wants to cook two different meals?”

A common misperception among Indians, Gadia says, is that Indian food is healthy because it is vegetarian. “People think they are eating healthy, but it’s the biggest misnomer – that because we’re eating Indian, we’re eating healthy. We have this feeling that everything in Indian food is healthy, but they are often missing out on the vegetables, fruits, yogurt and milk which are essential.”


Does she feel the immigrant table has been transformed in the 30 years that she has been here? She says, “I would say so, but Indians still love Indian food and as the children get older, they also like Indian food. But somehow they don’t go for the simple foods, but the party foods, because those are the only foods they ate. I don’t know what’s going to happen a few years down the road as they grow older.”

She points out that Indian food is catching on in America and even in Ames, Iowa, many of the supermarkets and co-ops carry frozen and canned Indian foods, some of which are high in fat content. These too are becoming a part of the home food of busy Indian families and she knows of many friends who carry the shelf-stabilized ready Indian meals to work often.

Sahni agrees: “I think what’s happened is that they are buying a tremendous amount of ready-made food, because people with busy schedules still need to have something nice to put on the dinner table. These are not young students or young people just starting on jobs. These are family people buying ready-made. So there is a need and it’s being fulfilled. There are some very good products out there, very tasty and authentic tasting in shelf stabilized and frozen, but people have to be aware that many have a high fat content.”
Health considerations are also impacting the Indian diet. Immigrants who came in the 60’s are now in their 50’s and 60’s and are having to watch their diets, while their grown children are also increasingly health and weight conscious.


Misra, who is in public health, has seen people, even younger people, getting diabetes and heart disease, because Indians have a genetic pre-disposition. She herself has changed her eating habits in the 15 years she’s been here.

“When I first came here, I didn’t think twice about drinking whole milk. But then I made the switch to skim milk. Today if you give me even 1 percent, that will taste too heavy to me, because I’m used to skim now. Once you make the switch, it’s hard to go back,” she says. Indians have become aware of health issues affecting the community during the past decade and people are dramatically changing their eating habits. There’s the tofu movement and Indians have discovered that it makes a far better vegetarian protein than even paneer and are using it as a paneer and egg substitute. Walk into any Indian grocery stores and you will find tubs of tofu.

Cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes are real words in the lives of aging immigrants. Many have reduced certain ingredients in their foods or substituted. The use of olive oil, for example, has evolved in the community.

While older immigrants still tend to use safflower or canola oil, with which they were familiar in India, younger Indians are switching to olive oil.

Sahni is a great fan of olive oil and uses it in all her cooking classes and points out that you don’t need the expensive virgin olive oil for Indian cooking; the cheapest variety is good enough. “It’s completely bland and fragrance free and is perfect for our use, because we have so many spices and flavorings in our food.”

The rice on the Indian table is also changing with more people venturing into brown basmati, which has bran and other nutrients that are missing in the white polished rice. Most Indian grocery stores now stock brown basmati, as do major chains like Costco, where many Indians shop.

Indian Americans are also scaling back on store-bought sweets and breads. Knowing that with ready-made breads they can really end up putting on a lot of weight, more people are making their own breads or rotis and are getting very inventive, using combination flours or soya flour or adding vegetables to the dough.

They are also passing up ready-made mithais or sweetmeats for home made ones, which allows them to cut down on the level of ghee and sugar. They are becoming selective about the sweets they eat, and a popular one is a chumchum without syrup, which is filled with paneer.

“The whole Indian community used to clamor for jalebis in the 1980s and in the 1990s every place had to have jalebis,”says Sahni. “Now the jalebi craze is gone. It’s only during festivals that you’ll find people eating it. It doesn’t mean they don’t want it. They know what will happen if they eat it, so the awareness is there. People are dying in families, people are dying of diabetes, stress-related and blood pressure related diseases. This is a serious, serious issue – and it doesn’t hit home until it happens to one of your loved ones.”
In India, sweets were an all year round treat and a visit to the marketplace would mean picking up a half kilo of gulab jamuns or rasmalai. Says Sahni, “Earlier the mentality was “Arre, thora sa khaa lo, kya hoga” – (eat a little, what will happen), but now, it’s become deadly serious. You don’t see people forcing and cajoling others to eat high calorie treats. They respect their restrictions. I think what has happened is people will never, ever give up sweets – it’s part of our culture. But I think what’s beautiful about Indian Americans is that they are learning to eat in moderation and take care of themselves.”

Indian Americans are also taking influences from other cuisines, though most are not into fusion cooking, but rather mixing ingredients within the Indian context. Putting figs or plums in your *kulfi does not make it fusion, because that’s what India has been doing for centuries. Indeed, every time outsiders came into India they brought new ingredients and Indian cooking has been evolving for over 3000 years.

“In my understanding fusion is when you have a classic cuisine of a land and the classic cuisine of another land, and there’s a deliberate attempt to mix the two to create something new,” says Sahni. ” That is something for which Indians are not yet ready, because Indian food is still quite varied within India. Fusion has not caught on, because even within India the cuisine itself is still young.”

In fact, until recently, most Indians had not traveled around the country or tried the foods of different regions. This is a very new phenomenon in India. So Indians are only now discovering their own foods and trying Mangalorean or Chettinad cooking is an adventure in itself.

Indian Americans, having tasted regional cuisine in restaurants, are turning pan-Indian at home, and the mixes available in Indian grocery stores have made it possible to easily make idlis, dosas and sambar along with Gujarati dishes like patra and khandvi. The Indian American home cuisine is probably much more varied than the one back home, and there are also Mexican nights and the occasional Thai curries or Chinese stir-fry. Having eaten out at countless restaurants, people are also trying to recreate their favorite eats in the kitchen.

Misra recalls that when she first came she would never have thought of pizza or pasta for dinner, but now these along with other international dishes are often on her menu, and she stocks up on their ingredients.

While Indian stores have mushroomed in every city with an Indian population, the mainstream supermarkets in the heartland are also carrying an array of ethnic groceries, as the colors of America are changing. “I have seen over the years they are offering more international food items,” says Misra, pointing out that ingredients like guava juice and chickpeas are easily available. She adds that as the Hispanic and Asian population has grown, farmers markets are also carrying vegetables like bitter gourd and okra. In many ways the Indian American table is turning more Indian than it was 15 years ago!

Time management skills are also shaping the food and many savvy immigrants cook for two or more days at a time. Indeed, many Indian curried dishes, especially meat, taste better the next day, because many of the dishes have thick gravies and are highly seasoned. Indians are also incorporating turkey, which is low fat, into their meals. Turkey is a purely American concoction, but makes great keema, kebabs and curry dishes.

Despite the transformations, Indian food retains its core. “It’s far bigger than any other immigrant food, far bigger, because the amount of vegetables we use in conjunction with whole grains and spices – all these are ingredients of tomorrow,” says Sahni.

“No other cuisine uses all components. Indian cuisine uses them all. All the components of healthy eating are in Indian cooking – whole grains, incredible varieties of fruits and vegetables, legumes and best of all, spices. Spices are the underpinnings of Indian cooking, but they are also the flavorings. You can do incredible flavorings without the use of large quantity of fat or oil. The spices themselves are medicinal in addition to the fact that when you add them for flavoring, you need less oil. It’s just amazing”

Sahni believes that the potential of Indian cuisine is huge and it is intrinsically American. “Indian food has something which is very soul-soothing, it is very comforting food. It’s a type of flavor you get at a gathering of family or friends – and that’s what always sustains a culture.”


In the future there will be even more changes as Indian Americans intermarry, and incorporate different cuisines into the family table. Will we see Latino influences in our cooking, perhaps Thai ingredients? We cannot peer into the future, but all this is already happening. Walk into any Indian grocery store and you will find falafel mix, tahini paste, Mexican peppers, Malaysian rotis, Vietnamese noodles and a variety of South East Asian chili sauces, which are all being incorporated in the Indian kitchen.

Nor will America remain untouched by the influence of Indian immigrants and their cooking. In a way these modern day Marco Polos are doing what the Hindu traders who traveled the high seas hundreds of years ago did – taking their cuisine to new territories. Over the years the natives picked up these influences as we see in so much of the cooking of Southeast Asia where Indian spices play a starring role. This cross-pollination has been taking place for centuries and it is no surprise that the Greek word for rice – oryza – is derived from the Tamil arisi. The English word sugar is from the Sanskrit sharkara and orange from the Sanskrit nagaranga.

Indeed, in his fascinating book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, K.T. Achaya, shows how spices travel. Garlic and onion, which are used so much in Indian cooking, were actually native to the Afghanistan region. Cumin’s seed derives from the herb Cuminum Cyminum, which was native to the Mediterranean region. Methi or fenugreek is the dried seed of a herb that originates in Southern Europe. Cloves, used so frequently in Indian cooking, originated in Eastern Indonesia.

At the same time, spices from India were imported into Egypt as early as 1700 BC for the embalming of mummies! Yes, the world is a place of swirling influences and Indian Americans are still a new population, just settling down in a new country. Who knows how far the influences of each on the other will go?

Arun Sinha, who owns the grocery store Foods of India in Manhattan and has also been importing foodstuffs through Sinha Trading since 1970, has seen many changes in the grocery aisles in the passing years. “When I came, we had to go to the supermarket and buy wheat flour and white flour and mix the two together to make chappati flour. Now everything is available!”font>

The irony is that nobody wants to buy staples now, he says. “Nobody wants to buy uncooked, raw food. Everyone wants frozen ready foods! So spices, and uncooked foods sell less now. Everyone wants to just heat it and eat it.”

In fact, he was told by an acquaintance that the Indian house now has three diets. The microwave house, where everything is in the fridge to heat and eat. The leftover house, where everything is cooked for days in advance and taken out as needed. Finally the aroma house, where the guests can smell the fragrances, and it’s here where regular cooking is being done. He says, “this country and everyone wants heat and eat. Go to any small or big Indian grocery store and you’ll see day-by-day the refrigerated system is coming in and the raw material is getting less. That is the change.”


The chutneys are in heavy demand, because even Americans have discovered the many flavors. Ready-made parathas and Indian tea are also on the upswing. Almost 40 percent of his customers are mainstream Americans.

All kinds of sauces – Japanese, American, Texan, Middle Eastern, Chinese – are popular with Indians. Says Sinha, “They mix this with their papadams, bhel and other snacks. They want hot, hot, hot.” He does not believe Indians are that health conscious and just want tasty food, period.

The latest trend is that the younger generation is beginning to embrace the heritage of Indian cuisine at home. In her cooking classes she frequently sees second generation Indian Americans who are settled in their lifestyle and are not all that excited about buying prepared foods. For them the primary thing is ease, how quickly they can make it and how healthy it is.

“Many of my classes have young Indian men – not Indian women, “says Sahni. “This was never the case. It did not happen 15 years ago. Everyone is into efficiency. That’s the primary thing in their minds, but they do not want to compromise on flavor. That’s one thing about Indians. These are kids who were born and raised here. They will not make a meal of McDonalds and pizza on a regular basis, believe me! I have seen it again and again.”

When these young adults moved out, mom’s home cooking often followed them in weekly packs of favorites frozen into daily portions and they want these comfort foods even when they are married and to share it with friends. So they learn to make it themselves.


Interestingly, the second generation is doing it in reverse. Early immigrants did not have ready-made options, so they had to cook when friends were invited over. The younger generation has had it all – the readymade and restaurant foods – but are now discovering the pleasures of home cooking and inviting friends over, including non-Indians to sample their foods.

So, even as Indian food changes, it retains its hold on the new generations born in America, for at its heart it still holds the potency of centuries-old spices and memories of family. And it tastes so good! It’s the first language learnt in childhood. Even if the world crashes around us, there is always soothing palak paneer and roti, albeit cooked in the Indian American way.

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