June 16, 2021
On the third and most personal episode of Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi, Hulu’s deep dive into immigrant kitchens across America, Lakshmi and her mother, Vijaya, scour the Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights, Queens. The two are on a hunt for sambar supplies as they stroll past cilantro bouquets, stacks of crimson chilies, and basmati-in-burlap, when Lakshmi pauses. “This is my nemesis,” she declares, pointing to an overflowing karela crate. Vijaya makes a lukewarm appeal for the knobby green gourds, notorious for their bitterness, before Lakshmi steers her away. “When we were here, no Indian stores, nothing,” Vijaya muses, as they sift through an okra pile, time traveling to New York City in the early 1970s. She evokes her days as a single mom and oncology nurse, when spaghetti upma — “This weird Frankenstein of a dish,” as Lakshmi once described — passed for the occasional dinner.
In the years that followed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, as Indian Americans arrived in the United States in greater waves than ever before, such mishmash meals were their improvised realities. Unable to source ingredients from grocery stores, they settled for understudies — Wonder Bread slices stood in for chapatis, apple butter subbed for date and tamarind chutney, and Ruffles potato chips replaced papad — or tucked certain non-negotiables into luggage on return trips from India. “In went white poppy seeds, and resin made from date syrup, and as many tins of Ganesh mustard oil as possible…in, on occasion, went something fresh, and therefore, flagrantly illegal,” writes Jhumpa Lahiri, recollecting her parents’ brass-latched Food Suitcase, a treasure chest they ferried from Calcutta to Rhode Island in the 1970s. For some Indian Americans, these mealtime hacks represented immigrant ingenuity. For others, the absent ingredients only amplified their otherness.
It was these hunger pangs that Mafat Patel, a Chicago-based engineer, and his brother, Talashi, sought to quell. Mafat left his family’s farm in the Mehsana district of Gujarat in the late 1960s to study at Youngstown State University in Ohio. He opened the inaugural Patel Brothers, a drab, 900-square-foot space on Chicago’s Devon Avenue, in 1974, serving a burgeoning Indian community, formed around hospitals and universities, like the Illinois Institute of Technology. Though the 1970 census recorded just 51,000 foreign-born Indians in the United States, from 1980 to 2013, their presence in America doubled every decade, boosting Mafat and Talashi’s business.
Today, there are 51 Patel Brothers stores across 19 states in the country, making it America’s largest Indian grocery chain. To second and third-generation shoppers, a Patel Brothers run isn’t just a necessity, like it was for their parents and predecessors. Instead, the chain’s ability to house distinctly Indian ingredients with American comforts means it is a consumable hyphen and a nostalgic pursuit, suspended between a hereditary homeland and where they currently dwell. Yet nowadays, some of the very consumers that grew up shopping here, namely urban Indian American millennials, don’t always have easy access to Patel Brothers locations. Instead, they opt for neighborhood farmers’ markets or the nearest Trader Joe’s to skip long train rides or sitting in traffic.