Food

Tasting Home

How Indian food stores have kept me connected to the delicious culture of my people.

The Patel Brothers grocery store, with cars on Devon Avenue out front.
The first Patel Brothers store, on Devon Avenue in Chicago, opened in 1974.
Steve Browne and John Verkleir/Wikimedia Commons

When you’re a young immigrant, you tend to experience the taste of your “homeland” through multiple levels of remove. Having spent my formative years in the States after leaving India with my family as a baby, I was deprived of the archetype of the pure “taste of India,” much to the lament of my parents, who wanted me to have only the best and truest forms of the food they loved. (At home, complaints about how this dough, this pickle, this oil tastes better back home, that this simply would not do, were common.) Of course, there was little to do about this except go searching for any grocery stores that stocked authentic, imported Indian ingredients—grub that would have at least initially absorbed the heat of Indian fields, even if some was lost on the way over.

And thankfully, these were never too hard to find. Rarely have I ever lived too far from an Indian grocery store, no matter where I’ve resided. While growing up in West Branch, Michigan (a modest, remote town with limited commercial options), my family and I would regularly take the hourlong drive over to a nearby city—often Saginaw—where we’d stock up on Indian goodies for the week: atta, ghee, namkeen, aloo, gobi, herbs, turmeric. Even after moving away from that area, this ritual has continued: There was a store near my family’s house in mid-Michigan, which I often shopped at throughout high school and college, and two in my current New York neighborhood alone, not to mention the several dotted through the wider city.

These stores were, and remain, alluring portals, mini-worlds that carry a strong sense of home, with its familiar musk of butter and spice. The shopping experience itself is quite comforting, in a space generally smaller and more accessible than a cavernous supermarket. The shelves are piled with bags of lentils, chapatis, and rice, much of it from abroad. Answering the common complaint of most immigrants that American food lacks sufficient hotness levels, there is no shortage of ground peppers and piquant spices ready for gratuitous use. Microwaveable and frozen goodies, like palak paneer and samosas, abound for cheap. Tongue-scalding snacks are also on offer—via exclusive brands like Haldiram’s, Maggi, Shan, and MDH—along with sweeter stuff like Parle-G biscuits and Bournvita chocolate milk mixes. The surrounding air soaks up the aromas exuded from these myriad foodstuffs and holds them aloft and still—a phenomenon regulars will love, or not notice, while newcomers might find themselves enticingly overwhelmed.

While Indian stores now seem fairly ubiquitous, they are a somewhat recent institution. They started popping up in America during the 1970s, spurred by the inflow of Asian immigrants that followed the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Many Indians made their way over to try their luck in skilled occupations, and ensuing communities formed in parts of the country, especially within the Midwest, bonded by homesickness, especially missing the food they loved. According to the Better India, at the time, only four other American grocery stores total offered India-sourced ingredients. The pioneering innovation birthed from this hunger was the store Patel Brothers, opened on Chicago’s Devon Avenue in 1974 by Mafat and Tulsi Patel. The two brothers hired fellow Indian immigrants, who, in turn, inspired by the store’s success, branched out and opened up their own shops on the same street. (Devon, of course, remains a thriving cultural hub within Chicago, and its impact on the Indian community in the Midwest is sweeping.) Patel Brothers itself didn’t stick to this corner, of course; the company soon expanded to the coasts and the South, eventually establishing over 50 stores nationwide.

While this iconic company paved the way, the true tribute to the resilience and popularity of the Indian grocery store is the local triumphs that came after. Smaller stores looked at the Patel example and sought to serve their own towns in creative ways, whether by trying to improve gas station fare or by focusing on the cuisine variations of specific states and regions within India. This, in turn, has established a cycle of little homes-away-from-home for Indians all over the country—stores, restaurants, and temples forming the basis for Little Indias, all “mainly held together by consumption and commerce,” as a study of the Indian community in Jackson Heights, New York, put it. Surrounding these stores, enclaves have been established where both immigrant and American-born Indian communities can find a common heritage, a communal peace, a togetherness that holds in the face of predominantly white communities, a formidable defense even in the face of attacks. In places so far from their own, having people like you and having a source of recognizable food can mean everything and give you the strength to brave a new home. As Ramila Agrawal, founder of the Spice Store in Prince Edward Island, Canada, put it, “if your stomach is full, you can face the world better.”

For a while, the role the stores played in connecting Indian Americans wasn’t just limited to food. When I first started shopping at these places, there was another special feature: shelves of pirated videotapes stacked as high, and as tightly packed, as the food. These tapes had no special covers or cases to identify them. Instead, each forward-facing spine had a single label affixed, with the name of the film spelled in tacky or too-bold fonts and the names of the cast members and director typed beside on tinier print. These tapes eventually became DVDs with amateurly photoshopped cover slips and odd regional codes that our own player often didn’t recognize. This crude black market was the main trafficking avenue for the newest of the new from Bollywood: Copies were occasionally available here even before the films would be released in India. Although I hardly see such shelves anymore, it was a good way to stay in touch with another essential element of the culture.

While all the products available are welcoming beacons on their own, the appeal of these stories also lies in how there’s a special intimacy that comes with being an Indian in an Indian-owned Indian store. You’ll get kind smiles and eager help as soon as you walk in, like you’re being welcomed into someone’s home. When you’re checking in or out, the counter manager may ask you, softly, “India?” “Are you Indian?” “Where from India are you?” Origin explanations are pleasantly traded, and a warm rapport is established for the next time you come in. It’s a kind of comfort that’s never unwelcome, especially in a new place, on your own.

Wares from these stores have made up most of my diet for most of my life. Maybe the rotis and dals I was having weren’t as “authentic” as if they’d been freshly harvested from northern Indian grains. But they felt authentic to me because, at the very least, they were different from all the other food around me, uniquely and exclusively mine. It was one of the few pieces of culture I could truly claim, because no matter how much my friends professed their love for naan and butter chicken and curry, for them such dishes were a takeout special occasion. For me, the roti, dal, and sabzi I ate at home were as normal and regular a meal as their sloppy Joes.

While the gap between food from India and Indian food may never be fully surmounted without a wholesale resettlement in the country, it has at least shifted and narrowed in recent decades. For my parents, and the many other Indian families we knew, the Indian grocery store was a steady bridge. For me, it remains an oasis of familiarity, an additional link that holds the farther I stay from those who are my closest bonds to my culture and nationality. It’s these Little Indias that represent the community and home I couldn’t have myself, but hold on to as the closest I can ever get.