When I came to this country in 1984 from Mumbai, I remember the strip of stores located that were across the street from my house. We would call the block the “Culture Corner” Every store on the block was owned by first generation store owners. The Chinese restaurant had authentic Mandarin dishes and the aroma of handmade noodles and dumplings permeated the entire neighborhood. The Italian deli on the corner had hanging meats and groceries imported from Italy, it was owned by an Italian family and they would cook traditional dishes and package handmade pastas and meat stuffed raviolis. Their meatballs and sauce were the best in town and the cheese wheel and imported olive oil displays on the glass counter when you walked in would take you to another world; you didn’t feel like you were on Long Island anymore.
My father opened up a small candy store on the “culture block” and well the candy was good old-fashioned American candy, bazooka joe gum, jolly ranchers, and twizzlers were always stocked on the shelves. My parents always felt it was very important to keep our culture and not lose our identity as first-generation Indians. The whole town would see us leave our homes when we would dress up for Indian parties wearing bright colors and traditional Indian clothing. I remember going to school and having henna on my hands from my cousins wedding the weekend before and my teacher thought it was a disease… well that would be one extremely cool disease to have as I remember the beautiful design of flowers mixed with intricate patterns. I couldn’t blame her no one knew what henna was at the time; this was Long Island in the early 80’s.
Fast forward to the same Long Island town 30 years later, the Chinese restaurant is now owned by a nice Spanish couple and their son who does deliveries and manages the other half of the restaurant that sells Mexican food, the Italian Deli is owned by a man who is half Irish and as he says “a quarter Italian” and his wife Svetlana manages the register.
The German florist who once decorated the town with natural fragrant flowers is now shut down and, in its place new owners Carlos and Ramone, opened up a massage parlor. Often times I remember the “culture block” especially after I opened up my own business making ghee butter. Ghee butter which started in India centuries ago has now come surfaced in the US as the “next big superfood” and just like coconut oil, turmeric, and other ingredients to come out of India.
The ghee companies sold in stores are owned by non-Indian business owners. When I first started my business with my husband Steven there was a level of frustration at other companies who I felt were just melting some butter, getting a pretty henna design and calling it ghee butter! Grass fed! And it tasted nothing like the authentic ghee butter I would eat growing up in India, and what my mom would make at home. My frustration quickly turned into flattery, there was a whole community of Indian enthusiast in America practicing all types of Yoga I had never even heard of, drinking butter coffee that my grandparents would drink first thing in the morning, and even taking trips to India and posing in front old temples no one really cared for anymore.
There was something this large community had in common, they all loved India and wanted to be a part of the rich culture in anyway possible; even renaming themselves and wearing traditional Indian clothing; I was embarrassed to wear as a child in my all-American neighborhood. I didn’t see that type of love for any other culture but my own. I remember meeting a woman who was a yoga instructor at a local Indian restaurant and she started talking Hindi, it was broken but it was impressive and really put a smile on my face.
I have never stopped feeling like Americans are a the most genuine and loveable people in the world, we are more open to other cultures, and trying new food. Americans have come so far since the days of businesses owned by specific races and cultures. Of course, I miss the authentic Mandarin food in my neighborhood, but the original owner’s son didn’t want to keep the family restaurant going. He went to school to become a chiropractor and owns a very successful business. The new Hispanic owners are doing a great job, and truth be told the sesame chicken and dumplings are still very good! They just added a little bit of their own touch to the menu. There was famous bagel shop in town owned by a very well-known Jewish family; that got taken over by a Chinese couple. I have to say the bagels are too soft and have no taste, the family who owned it before had a touch and a better feel on how to make homemade bagels, matzo ball soup, and other kosher dishes I enjoyed every Sunday morning as a kid. Somethings are better left to traditional and original cooks with home made recipes, they brought with them to this magnificent country.
My husband Steven and I also decided to take both of our cultures and combine them together to make our number one seller to date. No one can beat the taste and quality of our Black Truffle Ghee Butter, we sell hundreds of units a month if not in the thousands at times. We wanted something from my husband’s Italian background and I felt nothing better and more savory than Black truffle ghee butter!
Often times collaboration of cultures is a beautiful thing, the old neighborhood has changed and there is no more of a “culture block” it is just a block, a certain charm is gone but not forgotten. My old neighborhood is now mixed with a group of people who grew up first, second, third generation and realized they believed in themselves enough to venture out of their comfort zone and mix things up a bit.
-Arroz Con Tandoori is a book coming out in 2020 and will be the work of my own cultural experiences In America.