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The United States and the Introduction of Indian Cuisine

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“Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy. It’s not about nutrients and calories. It’s about sharing. It’s about honesty. It’s about identity.”

~ Louise Fresco


For generations, immigrants to the United States have brought their own cultures, traditions and cuisine with them from their home countries. The result is a quite literal melting pot of ethnic cuisine in America, since all dishes inevitably have their roots in other cultures and traditions. As the population of the United States becomes increasingly heterogeneous, it should prove insightful to take the time to understand the food habits and culture of ethnic minority groups in the United States, which is the inherent goal of this short paper. For this assignment on discussing the traditional food habits of an ethnic minority group in the United States, I have chosen American Indians as the group. Indians have a long history in the United States and a rich culinary tradition and culture of food. As of 2014, there are approximately 2.6 million Indian immigrants and second-generation citizens living in the United States (MPI, 2014, n.p.).

The reason I chose American Indians as the focus of this paper on the food traditions of an ethnic minority group is that Indian food is becomingly increasingly popular around the country, and therefore represents an interesting point of research for this paper. It is also one of the most unique types of cuisines represented in America, with many different spices and cooking methods being used. The fact that it is so different from “typical” American fare makes it that much more interesting. Indian food also happens to one of my favorite cuisines. In order to adequately approach this topic, the paper first examines the traditional food habits for Indians, including their staple foods and preparation methods. This will be the main focus of the paper. The discussion then turns to the way Indian food has been adapted in the United States, as well as the health and nutrition factors of Indian food, including both advantages and disadvantages of an Indian diet for health. Overall, the goal of this short paper is simply to provide an understanding of Indian food, culture and tradition in the context of an increasingly heterogeneous America.

Traditional Food Habits

Indian core (or staple) foods are becoming increasingly well known around the country as Indian ethnic restaurants become more popular. As the Washington Post reports, “Indian food has slowly but surely found its way into the hearts (and stomachs) of cities around the United States” with 300 restaurants representing the subcontinent in New York City alone (Ferdman, 2015, n.p.). However, the cuisine is not as popular as it could be, which is why this paper focuses on the preparation, composition, and culture of the cuisine itself. Some of the staple foods include roti (or chappati), white rice, curries, curd, lentils, paneer, and a great deal of exotic spices. As one source states, the traditional food of India “has been widely appreciated for its fabulous use of herbs and spices” (CI, 2016, n.p.). This is, perhaps, what sets Indian food apart the most. A roti is an Indian flatbread that is used either as a snack on its own or served with meals, and is typically made from wheat flour mixed with bran (HME, 2015). Other, more specialty foods are korma (meat with a thick yogurt sauce), samosas (essentially an Indian version of a turnover), and papadum, which are thin wafers made from lentils (AHA, 2016). Other ingredients used within recipes are eggplant, mustard greens, garlic, fresh ginger, clarified butter and spices like turmeric. The preparation of many typical Indian dishes are both time and labor intensive, due to the preference to stew meats and create dishes with fresh ingredients and spices. Even a brief perusal of the available Indian recipes online shows nearly all of them utilize a wide range of spices. Because food varies so much by region, there is not necessarily a “national” traditional dish of India; instead, Indian immigrants create a wide range of dishes and accompaniments with the staples listed above. The meal composition of Indian food is quite different than typical American food, with savory breakfasts that often resemble dinner or lunch foods to the unknowing eye. For instance, breakfast foods “May comprise of a few servings of unleavened bread with a richly spiced meat, poultry, or fish curry, some spiced pickles, and a vegetable dish with yogurt when affordable” (Balagopal, 2000, 21). Other than that, the meal cycles are relatively reflective of American culture, with mealtimes at similar intervals.

Outside of the usual meal composition and cycle, there are certainly Indian foods that are used for traditional celebrations and associated with religion. For instance, Sikhs practice what is called langar, or the communal meal, usually served after religious services in a gurdwara (Pluralism Project, 2016). This is usually provided by just one family as a means of celebrating a particular familial event, and all families take turns. For Sikhs, “eating together in this way is expressive of the equality and oneness of all humankind” while simultaneously strengthening the Sikh community (Pluralism Project, 2016, n.p.). While there are not necessarily special foods for this occasion, the community meal in Sikhism represents one of the ways Indian food has come to mean community. However, there are special foods for traditional celebrations around India. For instance, during the festival of lights (as celebrated by both Hindus and Sikhs) sweets become much more prevalent in Indian cuisine (Sukhadwala, 2011). The most popular example is mithai, an Indian sweetmeat that is a “cross between snack, dessert and confectionary” (Sukhadwala, 2011, n.p.). The process of making these types of sweets can begin up to a month before the October celebration of the festival of lights. On the first day of the festival, which is associated with wealth, it is not uncommon for households to use a special blend of sugar and ghee to celebrate the wealth even in cooking. Just like in any culture, the celebratory meals are the least healthy.

Adaptation in the US

Because Indian cuisine is so different than the typical American fare, it is difficult to adapt it directly to the United States. Because of this, there seems to be a strong divided between the cultural attitudes of immigrants and those of their children. As one study reports, “children in the United States have adopted bicultural identities on all four measures of ethnic identification” (Mathur, 2000, n.p.). In addition to this, Indian parents who had lived in the United States for at least twenty years “emerged as bicultural on external aspects of ethnic identification and in terms of their values and behavioral competencies” (Mathur, 2000, n.p.). It is quite difficult to extend this kind of research to the effect on food, but one can assume that the acceptance of various types of cooking goes along with it. It seems that through acculturation, the Indian population in America has become more bicultural than fully assimilated. It is not a far stretch to think that this applies to food. This paper also finds that the Indian population in the United States will become even more assimilated with the United States culture in the future, since the acculturation seen now has only occurred over the past fifty years. As of today, India is the “second-largest country of origin among new lawful permanent residents” in the United States (MPI, 2014, n.p.). It is clear that this group has a lot more to offer the United States.

Food and Health Relationships

It is no secret that Indian food is delicious, at least to certain palates. It is also considered relatively health. As one resource states, “Rich in taste, texture and satisfying, Indian food, or at least that part of Indian food that is prepared with minimal oil and healthy cooking methods, is often considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world” (HMU, 2015, n.p.). However, as mentioned above, there are plenty of Indian dishes that use heavy cream and not a small amount of oil to achieve that tastiness. Because of these types of ingredients and cooking methods, the consumption of unhealthy Indian food is associated with two diseases in particular: diabetes and cardiovascular disease. As on resource states, “in addition to the genetic susceptibility in developing Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, risk factors such as abnormal lipid levels, increased abdominal fat, diets high in fat, saturated and trans-fats, simple carbohydrates and sedentary lifestyles contribute the development of chronic diseases” (Misra, 2011, 4). The unhealthy content of some Indian foods, then, contribute at least in part to these diseases in particular.

This is not to say that it is all bad. One advantage in particular is that many dishes use grains that are high in fiber. Another advantage is that many Indian dishes are actually vegetarian, meaning it utilizes less animal protein (AHA, 2016). Related to this, healthy foods like legumes and vegetables are usually used over fatty meats or simple carbohydrates like potatoes (AHA, 2016). However, the biggest disadvantage of Indian cuisine (at least for health concerns) is that many dishes use either clarified butter or oil to fry or saute the dishes. This does not make for the healthiest intake. Another disadvantage is that many dishes use yogurt and coconut oil, which are high in saturated fat (AHA, 2016). One final disadvantage is that many dishes, particularly Indian soups, are high in sodium, which does not help with the cardiovascular disease concerns mentioned above. The AHA makes several suggestions for acceptable alternatives as it relates to Indian food. The three most important are as follows: first to start with salads or other shredded vegetables; second, to choose chicken dishes over beef or lamb and; third, to choose dishes prepared without ghee or yogurt. The result will be much healthier, and equally delicious, Indian cuisine.

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