Monthly Archive for February, 2018

Eight Flavors: Punjabi-Mexican Cuisine and the Roti-Quesadilla

A roti quesadilla with a side of curry sauce and refried beans.

While writing my first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, I researched the eight most popular flavors in American cooking: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. When I dived deep into each of these eight topics, I often found fascinating new information and recipes–some of which didn’t make it into the book–so I’ve decided to include it on my blog! If it whets your appetite to read the whole book, make sure to get your own copy here.

Out of all the flavors I included in my book, the one that puzzled Americans the most was the inclusion of curry. Most cooks I talked simply didn’t think of it as an American flavor. But Anglo-American women were cooking with curry as early as the 18th century, and early Indian immigrants were arriving as far back as the 1880s. The arrival of immigrants from India sparked a national debate about immigration, and restrictive immigration laws were eventually passed. But at the same time, a curious new culinary culture evolved: Punjabi-Mexican cuisine.

The Culture

By 1900, Muslims from Bengal were settling on the East Coast, and Punjabi Sikh immigrants were making a home on the West Coast. The Punjab is on India’s northwestern border, and was conquered by the British in 1848. Under the Raj, the Punjab was subject to land inheritance laws similar to Ireland in the same time period: the land was divided equally between all sons, as opposed to being inherited by the oldest son. This law resulted in farms too small to sustain a family. Debts drawn to support a living added to an increasingly dire situation. A family benefited by sending a husband or son to serve in the British military, or to find well-paying work in America. Many military men served in the British port of Hong Kong, a port of transit to America. News of work in the U.S. was passed along by returning countrymen, and encouraged other Sikhs to make the trip themselves.

The San Francisco Chronicle said of the first Sikh arrivals, who disembarked in 1899, “…The quartet formed the most picturesque group that has been seen on the Pacific mail dock for many a day…They are all fine looking men, Bakkshifed Singh in particular being a marvel of physical beauty. He stands 6 feet 2 inches and is built in proportion…All of them have been soldiers and policemen in China.”

They came to the West Coast to work in lumber yards and railroads; many of them were agricultural workers, migrating as the crops ripened. Cheap labor from Asia was integral to food production in California. These laborers aspired to own their own lands and farms.

Sikh immigration was a trickle, a novelty, until about 1910. In January, 1910, 97 “Hindoos” were admitted to the United States. The term was used to designate all immigrants of Indian origin, despite the fact these immigrants were Sikh. By April, 80-100 Indian Immigrants were entering the country every week. Between 1899 and 1914, nearly 7,000 Indians immigrated to California.

The local papers wailed about the “Hindu Horde” descending upon the country. Those that were anti-South Asian immigrant claimed that the incoming Indians were all …“racially unassimilable laborers who competed unfairly with white workers and sent their money home.” H.A. Millis, the superintendent of the U.S. Immigration Commission, said “..the Hindus are regarded as the least desirable, or, better the most undesirable, of all the eastern Asiatic races which have come to share our soil…

By 1917, a national law made South Asians officially excluded as a group. In reaction to increasing racial tensions on the West Coast, congress passed a law banning immigration from India. The act–known as the Asiatic Barred Zone–used degrees of latitude and longitude to slice out a portion of the world America didn’t want immigrants from, with India right smack in the middle. Special provisions were made for tourists and highly skilled workers like doctors. For the men who were already in California, they could stay; but would not be allowed to bring over their wives and children.

Prevented from marrying outside their “race” by California miscegenation laws, many Punjabi men married local Mexican women. The Mexican Revolution was pushing families to migrate across the border; many ended up working on cotton farms run by Sikh men. On their wedding certificates, both of their races were listed as “brown,” but sometimes they could be listed as black or white. As long as their skin tones were similar, they could be married; however, should one partner be considered “too white,” the marriage license would be denied. There were at least 378 of these unions, and as a result, a unique Mexican-Indian culture was created.

The Cuisine

The wives wanted to cook food to please their husbands; the husbands, as best they could, communicated what food they liked back home in India. Both cultures used similar spices in cooking, like cumin and chili; tortillas seemed like a sister to rotis, the Punjabi flatbread made from whole wheat flour.

Moola Singh of Selma, California, married three times in his lifetime, to three different Mexican women: “I never have to explain anything India to my Mexican family,” Singh said. “Cooking the same, only talk us different…I went to Mexico two, three times, you know, not too far; just like India, just like it. Adobe houses in Mexico, they sit on floor there, make tortillas (roti you know). All kinds of food the same…” (source)

The two cuisines blended, not just in the home, but in the local restaurants. In Yuba City, California–which today has one of the world’s largest Sikh populations– El Ranchero was a Mexican restaurant serving Indian food, founded by the Rasul family. Tamara English, whose Indian grandfather and Mexican grandmother started the restaurant, remembers working there with her family:

“There for over 30 years we served Mexican food, along with curried chicken, lamb and roti. We were most famous for our Mex-Indian combo, the Roti Quesadilla, (the roti being Indian and the quesadilla of course being Mexican) which was most often served with a side of curry sauce for dipping…Just to round out the flavor I would add a side of refried beans to my plate.  (source)


The Recipe

Roti Quesadilla

You may have to head to an Indian specialty store to find roti, but I’ve also seen them in the frozen section of my local grocery store. I’d recommend a spicy curry sauce, which you can find in jars—the brand I used was “Patak’s.” After assembling this meal, I discovered nothing tastes as good as curry sauce over re-fried beans.


2 rotis
½ cup shredded cheese–cheddar, Monterey jack, or queso fresco
1 tablespoon butter
Curry sauce, for dipping
Re-fried beans

  1.      Heat a small skillet—not much larger than your roti—on medium-low heat. Add butter.
  2.      Once the butter has melted, place one roti in the skillet. Spread shredded cheese evenly over roti then top with second roti. Toast until the bottom roti begins to brown, then flip and continue to toast until cheese is melted.
  3. Cut into quarters and serve with beans and sauce.


Further Reading: Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans

Traditional Chinese Pastry Isn’t Baked–So What’s Up With Chinatown “Bakeries”?

An assortment of Chinese pastries. All photos by Dressler Parsons.

I’m so excited to share this post by my lastest intern, Dressler. She’s launched a blog called Bitter Butter: The Unsweet History of Pastries and you can also hire her for all things copywriting.

“That’s $12.50,” said the woman behind the counter.

Sarah and I exchanged a look. We had just spent the last several minutes poring over the long glass pastry cases in her neighborhood Chinese bakery, scrutinizing the fluffy rolls and imagining all their possible fillings. In the end, we’d selected 10 pastries, hoping to cover all our bases. We carried the goodies back to her apartment in paper bags.

“$12.50 wouldn’t get you ten pastries anywhere else,” I remember saying. “At a French bakery, it would get you, like, two. Maybe three.”

Sarah shrugged. “That’s one great thing about Chinese bakeries.”

But once I started digging into it, “Chinese bakery” started to feel like an oxymoron. Historically, Chinese pastries weren’t baked–they were steamed. But all the treats in our paper bags had definitely seen the inside of an oven. So if traditional Chinese pastries aren’t baked, what are these pastries and where are they coming from?

A baked pork bun.

Chinese baking (or traditional lack thereof)

Even today, there are a ton of blog posts and forum answers warning you (or, primarily, American expats) that ovens in Chinese kitchens are hard to come by–because Chinese cuisine gets along fine without ‘em. All the cooking can be done on a stove top: frying, braising, boiling, and steaming.

This 1917 Chinese Cook Book, for example, has an English-translated recipe for a “Meat Biscuit” that’s definitely a pork bun–and it’s steamed. The two other desserts it lists are also steamed, not baked. A Popular Science clipping from 1922 sings it again:

Most Chinese pastry is steamed rather than baked. Thick wooden covers that serve as heat insulators are placed over the mouth of the boiling pot. Where the food is to be steamed, a circular wooden frame like a small barrel six or eight inches deep is placed over the stove opening.”

The bakeries in New York’s Chinatown, where Sarah lives, are technically Hong Kong-style, even though they’re referred to broadly as “Chinese bakeries.” And Hong Kong has felt, firsthand, the strong grip of Western influence.


Hong Kong’s colonial history

Jeremy Pang says it best in Hong Kong Diner when he says food leaves a trail by which you can trace a history of cultural invasion, interaction or occupation. Specific to Hong Kong, he adds:

“Even the specialist breads from the local bakeries bear a considerable resemblance to the French brioche, just with the addition of spam, barbecued pork or coconut custard on the inside or a good old British crumble on top instead!”

Hong Kong was under British rule beginning in 1842, but in the 1980s, China decided they wanted to take Hong Kong back. A pretty reasonable request. Geographically, Hong Kong isn’t exactly Britain’s neighbor. The main reason why this was even a debate was–like many things–purely political. China was/is a Communist country, and even though they laid out a plan to keep Hong Kong a sovereign state, Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was all I don’t know about this one, and But HOW will I explain this to the children colonized people of Hong Kong?

Regardless, China did take Hong Kong back, and Thatcher figured out some way to explain the ensuing Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, which announced that Hong Kong would slip away from British rule and run back into the arms of China beginning July 1, 1997.

If you’ve heard of the “brain drain” of Berlin, this was Hong Kong’s version. Unsure about their future with China, roughly 250,000 Hong Kong citizens emigrated overseas. They aimed primarily for Canada, because it was easier to get into, but New York saw a huge increase too, fueling and expanding what was, at the time, “the nation’s largest Chinatown.” (Currently, the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens claims that title.)

The history of British rule alone at least partially accounts for the baking. After all, we know the Brits and their love of baked goods.


But what about the bread itself?

If you’ve never been to a Chinese bakery, go now, order any roll, and then come back. I’ll wait.

The bread has an usual texture, yes? This soft, gummy, chewy bread is bizarrely fluffy, intriguingly addictive, and has even been scientifically studied. And the source of this texture is called a tangzhong starter.

The tangzhong starter is also sometimes called a “roux starter,” which basically means that instead of the traditional bread-baking process (mix together flour, water, salt, yeast; knead it, let it rise), you add an extra step in, where you heat flour and water in a saucepan and whisk them together until they form a paste. Once it cools, you add it to the rest of the ingredients, and your little roux works its magic. It’s called gelatinization, and I think it’s a fascinating process.

The type of bread that uses tangzhong starter tends to be called Hokkaido Milk Bread, after a region in Japan known for its dairy products.

If you’re curious to try out this tasty, tasty bread, here’s a basic recipe from Yi of Yi Reservation.

A good example of milk bread from a Hong Kong style bakery.

So where is Hokkaido milk bread from?

Guess who was under Japanese rule for a hot second? Hong Kong! This was during WWII, from 1941-1945. The tangzhong starter technique is allegedly Japanese, which means it could have entered Hong Kong’s culinary lexicon during this period. And the technique having a Japanese origin tracks; after all, Japan has also had its fair share of western culinary influence.

In the 16th century, Portugal made contact with Japan and opened up trading ports (and started a slave trade). Japan traded exclusively with Holland (and China) from 1641-1853, and then opened up trading ports to the rest of the “Western World” in 1859. The Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Commerce also meant that American merchants were settling into Japan, so some manner of culinary exchange was definitely taking place.

Also, Japan definitely has its own breadbaking technique called Yudane. It’s not an exact match–Yudane is a mix of flour and hot water, but they’re not whisked together into a roux. Instead, boiling water is poured over the flour, the mixture is chilled overnight, and the rest stays the same. It’s not clear if Yudane is older than Tangzhong, or a more modern adaptation.

If the tangzhong technique truly is originally Japanese, it might have been popularized in China by Taiwanese baker Yu Fen Chen. Taiwan itself was colonized by the Dutch and later controlled by China, Japan, and then China again until 1975–so they’re pulling from a familiar cauldron of influence.

As far as Chen goes, she wrote wrote 65℃ Bread Doctor, referring to the temperature at which the roux works its gelatinous bread magic. It’s a little unclear what, exactly, the timeline was for this book. It seems like it was published in 2014, but it’s possible that Chen was spreading the technique before her book was published. She’s certainly enough of a celebrity chef now to appear on TV and teach pastry lessons.

The Chinese book title gets translated into “65 Soup Kind Of Bread” when put through the Google Translate wringer, which could be read as a deep mistranslation–but I don’t think it is.

This is because cookbook author Peter Reinhart refers to the “Chinese soup seed technique” in his Whole Grain Breads book, which suggests that “soup bread” or “soup seed” is another possible name for tangzhong starter. And that might sound weird, but it’s actually not–since a roux is the basis for most cream-based soups, it’s not a “leap” so much as the next logical step.

Dan Tats!

Most importantly–how tasty were those pastries?

Back in Sarah’s apartment, we studiously cut up, photographed, and took notes on the pastries–trying to eat the warm ones first, but aware we were fighting a losing battle.

The pork bun was the first pastry I tried, and my favorite–I grew up on barbecue, so there was something kind of homey about the chopped pulled pork smothered in a sweet, tangy sauce, in a roll that tasted almost like a Hawaiian roll. But fluffier. I liked it so much I legitimately forgot we had 9 more pastries ahead of us, and would’ve finished it if Sarah hadn’t leapt to my rescue.

But as we moved into successive pastries, most of the rolls with intriguingly varied names and designs were just…bread. Extremely delicious, fluffy, chewy bread, but still. That being said, it amazed me how these pastries quietly painted such a complex history of colonial rule, trade, and immigration. The fluffy “Danish Milk Grape” and “Swedish Roll,” and the cookie top on the Pineapple Bun and Lemon Bun (neither of which were filled with their names, bee tee dubs) all speak to trade routes and occupation, to colliding culinary influences.

It was a little overwhelming, later that night, to think about the full journey of these pastries–their ingredients, techniques, and recipes. In a sense, they had made their way from Japan, through Taiwan, to Hong Kong, to Manhattan. And finally, they were in my apartment in Brooklyn, where I wrapped a leftover bun in a damp paper towel, stuck it in a microwave for 20 seconds, and enjoyed the warm, spongy bread with a pat of butter.