A Roti by Any Other Name Would Taste Like Home: Food Culture in the Punjabi-Mexican Communities of the Early 20th Century United States

By Haritha Govind

The South Asian diaspora has made its way throughout many parts of the world –bringing along cuisines, opening restaurants, and familiarizing the world with dishes like naan and lassi. These are immigrant stories that have a strong continuity even today. But what about Indian immigrant stories that were a snapshot in time, creating a unique culinary culture in a community that, unfortunately, did not sustain the same continuity? This post introduces the fleeting Punjabi-Mexican community of the early 20th century in California. It explores how a unique set of socio-political circumstances created an environment for two cultures that unknowingly shared similar food to forge a distinct culinary history.

How did these two communities meet in California? In the mid-19th century, farming families in the Punjab region of India started sending their sons abroad, including to the United States, to help supplement their family incomes. These men were accustomed to physical labor, and many found themselves being hired at mines and farms throughout California and other southwestern states. Meanwhile, many Mexican women from migrant laborer families found themselves working on Californian farms after being displaced by the Mexican Revolution. With the Immigration Act of 1917, Indians and other Asians were restricted from entering the United States, and those who were already in the country could not leave easily. This created a unique situation where Punjabi men found it comforting and legally advantageous to build family units by marrying Mexican women. Interracial marriages were illegal in California at the time, but both communities could circumvent this issue by identifying as “Brown.”

A Punjabi-Mexican American couple, Valentina Alarez and Rullia Singh, posing for their wedding photo in 1917.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
http://www.sikhnet.com/news/punjabi-sikh-mexican-american-community-fading-history

One might assume that, in these Punjabi-Mexican households, the dinner table was awash in fusion food. Afterall, there are many similarities between Punjabi and Mexican cuisine: the use of spices such as cumin and red chili, the practice of eating flatbread or rice with a broiled stew or curry, and the importance of flavor boosters like onion, garlic, lime, and cilantro. Punjabi men found the corn tortilla to be unfamiliar to their palate, but its resemblance to the roti, an Indian whole-wheat flatbread, was not lost on them. Although children in these families had a mixed cultural identity, and their names, such as Kishen Singh, often reflected their unique cultural disposition, food in the home did not see the same hybrid transformation. Mexican wives learned to expertly prepare Punjabi dishes and would feature them at the dinner table, but Mexican foods were never Indianized, or vice versa. The two culinary traditions remained separate and intact in their serving bowls: a dish of butter chicken could sit next to a plate of tamales at the dinner table, for example, but one would be hard-pressed to find a butter chicken tamale.

Cumin seeds
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cumin_Seeds.jpg

In this sense, the Punjabi-Mexican community disrupts the conventional expectation that diasporas naturally create hybridized or creolized cuisine in the home. Why might this be? Within these multiethnic families, the language spoken at home was usually a mix of Spanish and English, as the mothers would teach their children their native language. Punjabi fathers, by contrast, shared their culture, history, and religion but were more intent on their children easily integrating into Californian society, thus sparing them from the racial and cultural discrimination that came with being mixed race. It is in this childrearing phenomenon that the lack of culinary fusion begins to make socio-cultural sense: the mother’s influence on food and culture was dominant in the family. This line of argument is intertwined not only with the role of women in the early 20th century but also with the role of women of color: would creolization have occurred if both men and women immigrated from Punjab to California, or would this hybridized community never have emerged?

Hypothetical questions aside, there was one setting outside the home where fusion cuisine was indeed featured for a short period of time: Punjabi-Mexican-owned restaurants. The Rasul family’s restaurant “El Ranchero” opened in 1954 in Yuba City, frequently advertised in the Appeal Democrat newspaper for its roti quesadilla. This was the main fusion dish on the menu: it had melted cheese, onions, and shredded beef inside a paratha (whole wheat flatbread), and it came served with a chicken curry dipping sauce, as well as salad or rice and beans. The restaurant successfully served the Punjabi-Mexican community for four decades, providing a place where Punjabi men and their families could share a taste of home with each other. This suggests that fusion was more prominent as a business venture than as an element of everyday lifestyle.

More recently, Punjabi-Mexican fusion cuisine has become a popular phenomenon in modern food truck culture and among food content creators. Its impetus, however, does not come directly from the Punjabi-Mexican community that existed in the early 20th century but rather from increasing connectivity through travel and social media. The roti taco or quesadilla, which some Indian children are familiar with eating, is one such example of a culinary coincidence across time rather than a direct nod to the Rasul Family and their restaurant menu at El Ranchero. Despite this historical tension between hybridization and preservation, modern culinary fusion has fostered a new interest in exploring multiethnic cuisines of the past to investigate how food and community interacted.



Cite this blog post
Joshua Schlachet (2024, March 22). A Roti by Any Other Name Would Taste Like Home: Food Culture in the Punjabi-Mexican Communities of the Early 20th Century United States. The Recipes Project. Retrieved April 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w2ox

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