Hindi Language Blog

Part 2: Indias in America Posted by on Oct 17, 2016 in Hindi Language, Uncategorized

नमस्ते सब लोग/Namaste sab log (Hello everyone)! As part two of the three-part series “Indians in America” (the first part looked at the history of Indian immigration to the United States), this blog talks about some of my personal experiences with “Little Indias” in the U.S.! These microcosms of different Indian cultures have grown up mostly in big cities throughout the States as a result of Indian immigration, making it possible to try Indian delicacies, watch Indian movies in the theatre and shop for Indian music and clothing without having to make the long journey to the country itself.

Little India of Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City and Little India of Houston, Texas

Probably one of the most famous and largest Little Indias in the U.S., the Indian enclave in Jackson Heights, New York City was the site of a memorable, culinary “first” for me. It was here and not in India, ironically enough, that I tried “paan” (पान, masc. noun) for the first time. For those unacquainted with this South Asian speciality, it is basically made from a leaf of the betel tree that is filled with areca nut and sometimes tobacco and rolled into a distinctive shape. Not being a fan of tobacco myself, I tried what is called “mitha paan” (मीठा पान) or sweet paan, which contains only aromatic ingredients that aid in digestion and freshen your breath after a meal. These ingredients are most often katha (कत्था, masc. noun) paste (an extract of the acacia tree) or mukhwas (मुखवास, masc. noun) (a digestive aid that can contain fennel seeds, anise seeds, coconut and sesame seeds). After a heavy meal of ghee dosa at the South Indian restaurant Saravana Bhavan, you can visit one of the many small shops that line the streets of this Little India and ask to have “mitha paan” (मीठा पान) freshly rolled in front of you, which you can chew at your leisure while riding the subway to your next destination.

When I lived in Texas, one of my favorite places to drive to was Hillcroft Avenue in Houston, Texas, which not only features Indian restaurants but also a plethora of clothing and grocery stores and places to buy music and movies. Yet, despite the mind-blowing variety of the shops, my usual destination would be to one of the Bollywood theaters nearby, where my sister and I would get our Shahrukh Khan (शाहरुख़ ख़ान) fix with films like Swades (स्वदेस or, in Standard Hindi, स्वदेश) and Veer Zaara (वीर ज़ारा). One of the greatest things about these theaters (other than the ridiculously long movies featuring multiple song and dance numbers) are the snacks: while you’re enjoying your movie, you can nibble on samosas (समोसा, masc. noun) and sip chai (चाय, fem. noun) rather than enduring the usual mundane fare of buttery popcorn and a super-sized coke.

Little India of Berkeley, California  

When I first moved to Berkeley to attend graduate school, I was pleasantly surprised to find a large section of University Avenue, one of the main streets in town, entirely devoted to Indian and Pakistani shops and restaurants. One of my favorite places to go is a grocery store owned by a family from the state of Maharashtra (महाराष्ट्र) called Bombay Spice House, where you can find anything from Ayurvedic beauty products, Aam Papar (आम पापड़, a type of chewy candy made from mango pulp), Kaju Katli (काजू कतली, or a kind of fudgy sweet in a roll shape that contains cashew and pistachio paste) and Peda (पेड़ा, another sweet made of thickened milk and often yellow in color) to quell those sweet cravings to frozen convenience foods like Aloo Tikki (आलू टिक्की, a type of potato patty with spices, often fried) and Mooli Paratha (मूली पराठा, a fried, unleavened flatbread stuffed with radishes and spices) to satisfy your hankerings for Indian food at home.

Of course, another favorite of the locals is Vik’s Chaat House and Market; true to its name, Vik’s serves a wide variety of tasty chaat or street snacks like Dahi Pakora (दही पकोड़ा, fried vegetables dipped in batter and soaked in curd) and Sev Puri (सेव पूरी, a mixture of crunchy noodles or “sev,” “puri” or deep-fried, hollow balls of usually wheat flour as well as chutneys and spices) as well as a large range of “Bengali sweets” (usually not authentically Bengali but known as such in North India, they are a collection of brightly colored, extremely rich sweets). Or, if you’d rather eat at home, you can buy all of the ingredients you would ever need at the Market in the same building.

Little India of Artesia, California

It’s impossible to forget your first taste of Chaat (चाट, masc. noun). A term that encompasses a seemingly endless variety of street food popular throughout India, chaat is a mixture of flavors, colors and textures that never fails to enthrall the taste buds. My first encounter with this delectable snack was in a chaat café in the Little India of Artesia, California, which is close to Los Angeles. This Little India is actually the largest of its kind in Southern California. There, I tried “dahi vada” (दही वड़ा) for the first time and fell in love with the silky texture and tart flavor of the “dahi” (दही, masc. noun) or curd, the fried balls of chickpea flour or boondi (बूंदी), the vada or fried balls of flour as they slowly softened in a pool of dahi and the sight of the multi-colored chutneys (चटनी), both coriander (धनिया/Dhaniyaa) and tamarind (इमली/Imli), as they blended together like streaks of paint on a canvas. And, of course you can’t forget the most fundamental ingredient of chaat: chaat masala (चाट मसाला). This is a blend of spices (including but not limited to: amchoor/अमचूर or dried mango powder, cumin, coriander, dried ginger, kala namak/काला नमक or black salt and chili powder) that gives this street food its distinctive (and addictive) savory, tart and spicy flavor.

Besides dahi vada, one of the most popular chaats is pani puri (पानी पूरी), also known as gol gappe (गोल गप्पे), which my mom tried for the first time and fell in love with while we were visiting Amritsar. It consists of hollow spheres of fried dough (puri/पूरी) whose tops you are supposed to crack open deftly with a spoon and fill with flavored water (the “pani” part), tamarind chutney, and a mixture of potatoes and chickpeas (this is just one iteration of the classic). If you’d like to order your own chaat in a Little India or in actual India, here’s a conversation to help you get started:

Customer (ग्राहक/ख़रीदार): हेलो (optional: भाई साहब या बहन जी), मुझे कुछ चाट चाहिए । 

Customer (grahak/kharidaar): Helo, (optional: bhai sahab ya behen ji), mujhe kuch chaat chahiye. 

Customer: Hello, (optional: bhai sahab/brother (respectful) or behen ji/sister (respectful), you can also use दीदी/didi for a woman who seems the same age or younger than you) I want some chaat.  

Server (बैरा/सर्वर): अच्छा, कौनसा चाट चाहिए आपको? 

Server (bera/sarvar): Accha, kaunsa chaat chahiye aapko?  

Server: Okay, which chaat do you want? 

Customer (ग्राहक/ख़रीदार) (looking at bowls of chaat in a display case): यह हरेवाला बहुत मज़ेदार लगता है (pointing)। आप बताइए, इसमें क्या क्या है? 

Customer: Yah harevala bahut mazedaar lagta hai. Aap bataiye, isme kya kya hai?  

Customer: This green one looks very tasty. (Please) tell (me), what all is in it ? 

Server (बैरा/सर्वर): यह भेल पूरी है । बहुत ही स्वाद है; ज़्यादातार लोग इसको  पसंद करते हैं । इसमें मूढ़ी (चावल से बना हुआ है अौर अँग्रेज़ी में इसको “puffed rice” कहते हैं), अलग अलग सब्जियाँ अौर इमली की चटनी है । आपको कुछ दे दूँ? 

Server: Yah Bhel Puri hai. Bahut hi svaad hai; zyaadatar log isko pasand karte hain. Isme moorhi (chaaval se bana huaa hai aur angrezi me isko “puffed rice” kehte hain), alag alag sabziyaan aur imli ki chatnee hai. Aapko kuch de duun?  

Server: This is Bhel Puri. It’s very flavorful/tasty; most people like this one. There’s moorhi (it’s made from rice and is called “puffed rice” in English), different kinds of vegetables and tamarind chutney in it. Shall I give you some? 

Customer (ग्राहक/ख़रीदार): हाँ, मैं चकके देखूँगा/देखूँगी । (tastes it) हाँ, यही चलेगा; मुझे इसका एक प्लेट दे दीजिए ।   

Customer: Haan, main chakke dekhunga/dekhungi. Haan, yahi chalega; mujhe iska ek plate de dijiye. 

Customer: Yes, I will try it (taste it) and see. Yes, this will do; please give me a plate of this. 

Server (बैरा/सर्वर): ज़रूर, दे दूँगा/दूँगी ।  

Server: Zaroor, de doonga/doongi. 

Server: Of course, I’ll give you (some).  


Stay tuned until next time, when I’ll publish part 3 of this series, which will be about Indians in popular media and culture! In the meantime, in keeping with the theme of Indian imports to America, check out Penn Masala’s rendition of “The Evolution of Bollywood Music”:

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About the Author: Rachael

नमस्ते, मेरा नाम रेचल है/السلام علیکم، میرا نام ریچل ہے۔ Hello, my name is Rachael, but I also on occasion go by Richa––an interesting story for another time :) My two great loves are Hindi and Urdu. I first traveled to India (Jaipur, Rajasthan) in college on a Hindi study abroad program. A little over a year later, I returned to the same city to study Hindi in a yearlong program. I've also spent a summer in Kolkata, West Bengal learning Bengali, and I studied Urdu at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a graduate student in South Asian Studies. I hope to share with you the fascinating world of Hindi and Urdu literature, society, culture and film through my blogs!