Category Archives: Food

“My Thali” – The Indian American “Plate”

A traditional Indian thali plate.

By Kumu Gupta

As a President’s Challenge Advocate, I would like to introduce “My Thali”, a concept equivalent  to USDA’s MyPlate program, a fun way to eat healthy for the Indian American community.

MyPlate was introduced in 2011, as a replacement for USDA’s My Pyramid program. The Food Pyramid was introduced by the United States Department of Agriculture in the year 1992, and was updated in 2005 to MyPyramid. A food guide pyramid is a pyramid shaped guide of healthy foods divided into sections to show the recommended intake for each.  Using the new USDA plate icon, basic suggestions of MyPlate food groups are to:

  • Balance calories (reduce portions)
  • Increase certain foods (vegetables, fruits and whole grains)
  • Reduce other foods (sodium and sugary drinks)

Thali (Hindi: थाली [t̪ʰaːli]) meaning “plate” is an Indian meal made up of a selection of various dishes. Thali dishes vary from region to region in India and are usually served in small bowls on a round tray. Sometimes a steel tray made with multiple compartments is used.

An Indian American diet is similar to the American diet in that dairy, vegetables and fruits constitute most of what is eaten in the course of the day. But the Indian American methods of cooking or preparing food can be a fun experience for one to enjoy the pleasures of the culture while adopting healthy eating habits. For example, mango, a favorite Indian fruit, can be enjoyed as mango lassi, a popular and traditional yogurt-based drink (can be substituted with low fat yogurt) of India. It is made by blending yogurt with mango juice. This would take care of the fruit as well as dairy requirements for the day. Dal (also referred to as dahl or daal, or dhal) is a preparation of pulses (dried lentils, peas, or beans) and is a ready source of proteins for a balanced diet containing little or no meat. Similarly, chapati is unleavened flatbread and is made of whole wheat flour and cooked on a tava (flat skillet). This is a low-fat to no fat alternative for the grains food group.

This fun and easy way of enjoying an Indian meal also applies for breakfast. With today’s 1 Minute Cream of Wheat, you can alternate upma (a hot breakfast dish) one or two days of the week with toast, eggs, pancakes, and fruit for a not-so-boring 7-day plan for a fresh start to your day.

Thus “MyThali” combines healthy and delicious alternatives of Indian American cuisine in conjunction with the guidelines of MyPlate and goes a long way in helping you stay fit in your new home away from home.

Kumu Gupta is a guest contributor to our blog. She is a President’s Challenge Advocate with the President’s Challenge Program, a premier program of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.


A Taste of India at Trader Joe’s

Indian frozen food dinners at Trader Joe’s. Photo by Emily Vallerga

By Emily Vallerga, Spring 2013 Intern

In preparation for the exhibition Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, I was asked to catalogue all the Indian foods sold at Trader Joe’s. The presence of Indian food offerings at Trader Joe’s represents one way in which Indian food has taken root in American cuisine as a mainstream staple.

Here are some reflections on the experience:

A sign from a Trader Joe’s store.

For those who are not familiar with Trader Joe’s, it is a grocery store that prides itself on being the trendy, food conscious, neighborhood store. Originating in 1967, in Pasadena, California, Trader Joe’s now boasts 395 stores in 30 states. The products range from organic cage-free eggs, frozen stir-fry vegetables, eggplant palak paneer, and more.

In fact, I was surprised to learn that Trader Joe’s sells around 30 different Indian food products from simmer sauces to frozen dinners. I found boxes of “Indian Fare: Jaipur Vegetables” (which are ready in only five minutes), bags of presumably freshly made tandoori naan, and jars of mango ginger chutney. The products range from simply placing the item in a pot and boiling it, to a product that will enhance any home cooked dish.

From left: mango ginger chutney, Indian Fare – jaipur vegetables, and tandoori naan. Photos by Emily Vallerga

But what makes the Indian food at Trader Joe’s stand out, besides its affordable price, is that it sits on the shelf next to the Indonesian curry, Chinese stir fry, and Spanish sauces. While cataloging, I had to scour each aisle just to find all the little pockets of Indian food throughout the store. I found it particularly intriguing that there was no “Indian Food” or “Hispanic Food” designated areas, but rather all of the ethnic food was intermingled with other foods.

It seems to me that Trader Joe’s believes strongly in bringing tasty, healthy, and flavorful food options from around the world to its customers. In fact, the design of the store suggests a mingling of cultures and food that is non-discriminatory. It creates an environment that is welcoming to all adventurous food lovers.  What do you think?  Is this a sign that Indian food is now American food?

Emily Vallerga, a recent graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, is an intern with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Indian American Heritage Project.


An (Asian) American in India

by Xiang Siow

Guest post by former Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program intern Xiang Siow. He is currently studying abroad in India through the University of Chicago.

Greetings from India! I’ve only been here for a short while but I’m already feeling quite at home and getting back into the school routine. I’m keeping busy with three hours of class a day, including one hour of Hindi. I’m even able to read some of the street and store signs now! Aside from learning Hindi, what we’re learning in class about Indian history and current events is definitely helping me understand this tremendously complex and interesting country.

Xiang Siow on Laxmi Road in India

I’ve heard so much about India from Indians I have met at university, people who have visited here, and of course, through depictions of the country in movies, books, and music. Perhaps most so, I recall Indian American friends speaking of their experiences in India and how their extended families there always welcomed them warmly when they visit. I remember stories of abundant hugs and kisses, presents, and of course, food. I can definitely see and feel that culture of hospitality in the extremely gracious way I have been received by the staff at my hotel, various tourist sites, and local stores.

As an Asian American who has been to other countries in Asia (often to visit family—and be stuffed with food), I am struck by the similarities I see between India and other places in Asia. Since I’ve been here, I’ve felt the same amount of liveliness, excitement, and energy on the streets as I’ve experienced elsewhere. Some would describe this as overcrowdedness and sheer chaos. I like to think of it instead as a passionate intensity of life, with merchants vocally trying to sell items to us foreigners at exorbitant prices, street vendors selling local drinks and food, and people always rushing to another place. These strong sights, sounds, and smells have been some of my fondest reminders of being in Asia.

There are of course differences between my experiences so far here and in other Asian countries. There are sights, sounds, and smells unique to India, like the autorickshaws looking for customers, delicious dosas and wada pav sold on the streets and the vibrant colors of the numerous fabric shops.

One thing that is definitely different for me is being immediately perceived as “foreign” by the local population. In my previous travels around Asia, when visiting family, for example, I’ve been able to “fit in” a little better because I look like most other people on the street. Here, however, I’ve had the experience of being pointed at and stared at by people who have never seen an East Asian face. The other day, when I was in a store buying a hat, the storekeeper even took a video of me! I was quite flattered by this “paparazzi.”

I do wonder exactly what I am perceived as. Unlike most of the other members of my group, who of course have had similar (and more extreme) experiences on the streets and in stores, I am not sure I am immediately seen as American. One of my Indian American classmates used this ambiguity to her advantage by getting a 95-rupee discount at a historical fort we visited. (There are sharp discounts for Indian nationals at historical sites; foreigners often have to pay up to 20x more for entry). I, however, could not pretend to be Indian and had to pay the foreigner fee. Exactly what type of foreigner was I though? Perhaps after I open my mouth it is obvious enough that I am an Asian American and not just Asian—but do everyday Indians have a consciousness of the Asian American community to recognize that people like me exist? If they don’t, I wonder when and if such an awareness will develop. As countries throughout Asia rise on the world stage, what role will be played by Asian Americans of all ethnicities, especially those who have spent considerable time in Asia? Might we, as Asian Americans, be able to impact how the rest of world understands America and what “an American” is?


Something to Chew On…

by Rajshree Solanki

Photo by Bandita. Licensed by Creative Commons Attribition-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

I’ve noticed around the DC area that more people are bringing in their lunches in tiffins. Tiffins have become an eco-friendly, hip way of bringing your curry chicken salad sandwich. For me, a tiffin just reminds me of my childhood and feeling different from everyone else. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the character Toula describes how she knew she was different and wanting to fit in the world of blond girls sitting around the table and eating their wonder bread sandwiches. The 6-year-old Toula brought in moussaka in tupperware. Change that moussaka to something Indian in a tiffin, and that’s me.

So I ask you:

Do you remember the time when your mom made peas and potato curry for your basketball team’s potluck?
Do you remember no one touched it?

Do you remember the time when your mom made you bring in your tiffin, which had your initials engraved in shakey handwriting? And the kids pulled out their My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake thermoses out of their matching metal lunchboxes?

Photo by nickd licensed by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Do you remember when your dad made you bring in the puffy rice crisps that are fried and multicolored instead of cupcakes or cookies to pass out for your birthday?

Did you feel embarrassed, angry, not so hungry? Unsure of your place in elementary school world? How did it make you grow and change?

Photo of tiffin lunch by Bandita Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Photo of lunch boxes by nickd Attribution 2.0 Generic


Posted by on August 16, 2010 in Food


Of Empanadas And Samosas

by Aditya Desai

After the Italians brought pizza, the Germans brought deli, and the Chinese brought kung pao chicken, it seems that Indian cuisine is poised next to integrate itself into the mainstream American menu.

I’ve been delighted to find some interesting Desi-inspired items on menus I didn’t expect. As a frequenter of coffeehouses across Washington DC, I was smiling when a popular one, Tryst, offered spicy Yellow Dhal Dip (of course, I ordered it with a chai latte).

The nationwide chain Cosi features a Tandoori Chicken Sandwich, as do many neighborhood bistros. Grocery chains Whole Foods and Wegman’s give Indian selections in their hot food bars.

The other day, I saw Food Network personality and perpetual sunglasses abuser Guy Fieri making lamb curry empanadas. As a fan of a decent classic Argentinean empanada, I was struck with the audacity Mr. Fieri had to leap oceans and cultures to bring flavors and dishes together.

But then I realized again, how different is an empanada from a samosa? Fieri was recognizing the basic culinary history of these cuisines—Silk Road, Magellan, East India Company, however it happened—food styles have always rubbed shoulders as people and cultures meet and mix. Latino food is now available across the country, whether by authentic cooking or Taco Bell’s fourth meal. So where does Indian food fall into that history?

Today, the result is a wide variety of Indian restaurants that specialize in regional cuisines—the rice laden South Indian, the Tandoors of Punjab, and everything in the middle; any overlap is really at the owner or chef’s whims and abilities. They stick to being true to the traditional dishes. For me, however, many times the result is sitting down to eat at one of these places and realizing it is the same, old, boring, stuff at each.

I’m more excited by the more adventurous chefs who are integrating and blending those traditions into other cuisines, experimenting to see what comes out. Hey, as long as it tastes good, who’s complaining?

Indian restaurateurs and chefs should look into new way to offer the same yummy flavors and spices in new ways. With the permeation of the classic paneer curries and tandoori meats into mainstream American kitchens, the time has come to step up a game a little.

One might cite the religious restrictions that bar certain foods, or even just the wide vegetarianism. Hardly an obstacle, I say. Today, Indian restaurants are seen as great options for non-Indian vegetarians. As a culture that has thrived on such diverse eating for centuries, surely it is time, and possible, to shake things up a little.

Dig into the country’s regions that haven’t seen as much exposure on the restaurant scene. Take a stab at a cross culture concoction? There’s already Indian-Chinese. Put fish inside idli rice cakes and make Desi sushi. Bake a huge piece of naan bread and top it with cheese and sauce for Indian pizza.

No patent pending on those ideas, chefs. Get ’em while they’re here. Then feed them to me for free.


Posted by on July 23, 2010 in Food