California’s Lost (and Found) Punjabi-Mexican Cuisine

TRY OUR ROTI QUESADILLA, the advertisement beckons. In all caps, it promotes the two cuisines the restaurant serves:


MEXICAN FOOD
Specializing in
EAST INDIAN FOOD

As advertised, the roti quesadilla fits right into 2019’s globalized food scene, where chefs of all backgrounds fuse ingredients and culinary techniques, searching for the next great dish.

But this quesadilla, created by the Rasul family at their restaurant, El Ranchero, was not designed to go viral, and the ad did not reach audiences via carefully programmed algorithms. Instead, it ran in Yuba City, California’s local paper, the Appeal-Democrat, in 1977 — squarely in the middle of the restaurant’s 40-year run. And the family that created it was not trying to do something different, or strange — it just made something true to their identity.

The restaurant’s menu and its roti quesadilla were unique to the Rasuls and El Ranchero, but they represented something much larger: Punjabi Mexicans in California, whose localized community, by the 1970s, had already started to disappear.

Between the late 1800s and 1917, men from Punjab, in northwest India, came to the United States to work. They landed on the West Coast, and most found jobs farming in California or logging in the Pacific Northwest; some sold tamales. In California, they generally settled in the Imperial Valley, east of San Diego, just above the Mexican border; from there, some followed farming routes north and eventually made homes in places like Yuba City and Fresno.

These men earned far more money than they had been able to in India, but life in California was not all opportunity: After the Immigration Act of 1917 restricted Indians and other Asians from entering the country, many of the men found themselves stuck; some had wives and children back in India, and they feared that if they left America, they would not be allowed to return. Moreover, California’s Alien Land Law of 1913 prohibited ownership or long-term leases of land to “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” which included Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians — effectively preventing them from owning property, because they could not become citizens.

According to Karen Leonard, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine and author of Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans, almost 2,000 Punjabi men lived in California in the early 1900s, and approximately one-third of them married (or re-married) after settling in the state.

Only a few Indian women reached the United States before the border closed, none of whom settled in the Imperial Valley. Because there were so few Indian women, and because of California’s miscegenation laws, which dictated that people could not marry outside of their race, many Punjabi men married Hispanic women, creating a new, hybrid community. (The miscegenation laws were vague, and some interpretations permitted Punjabi and Hispanic couples — both “brown” — to marry.) The men were often a decade or more older than the women, and in many cases, sets of Mexican sisters, cousins, or good friends married Punjabi men who knew each other, so families within the emerging community were especially close-knit.

About 400 marriages took place between Punjabi men and Mexican women between the 1910s and 1940s

By the 1940s, roughly 400 such marriages existed in California, according to Leonard. The community that formed out of these marriages was often called “Mexican Hindu” or “Punjabi Mexican,” broadstroke terms that weren’t entirely accurate. Some of the women were biracial, and “Hindu” at the time referred to Hindustan, an old name for India, not to the religion — in fact, it’s estimated some 80 percent of the men were Sikh and about 10 percent were Muslim.

Within the community and outside of it, the children of these couples were called “half and halves,” half Punjabi, half Mexican. Their fathers labored long hours in the fields, so raising the children was often left to the mothers, and the new generation grew up as predominantly Spanish speakers in the Catholic faith. But when the men returned home, they still expected their families to eat Punjabi food.

So the Mexican women learned to cook Punjabi meals for their husbands, but adapted the dishes to use more familiar or local ingredients. The language changed, too: My reporting indicates that Punjabi Mexicans referred to parathas as a type of roti — in India they are usually considered two distinct kinds of flatbreads — and used “curry” as a general, catchall phrase to describe dishes served in sauces or gravies, all which have distinct names and preparations in India.

Amelia Singh Netervala was born in 1935 to a Mexican-born mother and a Punjabi Sikh father. She remembers her mother, Rosa Singh, cooking foods from both cultures. “My mother would make dal, and also Mexican beans,” Netervala says. “She would make cheese enchiladas or parathas on special occasions. She learned all [the Indian dishes] from my father.” In the past, articles have referenced Netervala’s family’s chicken curry enchiladas as a symbol of this dual-culture community, but she says this is an error — they never blended culinary traditions in this way. Singh mostly cooked Indian food, as her husband preferred, like aloo gobi and other vegetables with Indian spices; she did sometimes make dishes like rice and pinto beans though, and would prepare menudo at Christmas.

Dinner at the Amelia Singh Netervala’s childhood home in Phoenix in 1951

“My mother’s food was absolutely delicious. You can’t find what she made anywhere else,” Yuba City resident Kartar Smith remembers. Her mother, Anastasia Dhillon, was of Mexican, Spanish, and French descent, and her father, Kapur Dhillon, was Punjabi. In traditional Punjabi chicken recipes, Smith says, “you make the tadka [tempered spices] and all of that other stuff, but my mom didn’t do that. My mom would use the canned curry spice that she would get at the store — the one spice — and she would add tomato sauce to it, which is Spanish or Mexican.”

Smith’s family has been friends with the Rasuls for four generations; her grandfather and Gulam Rasul came from the same part of India, and their families knew each other in the Imperial Valley. The Dhillons also owned a restaurant in Imperial Valley’s El Centro, where Smith was born. After her family moved to Yuba City, they reconnected with the Rasuls, and she remembers eating at their restaurant El Ranchero often. “My uncles and my father, they were born at the early part of the 20th century, and they would go there for dinner whenever they could,” she said. El Ranchero, she thinks, was perhaps the last restaurant of its kind.

El Ranchero, later renamed Rasul’s El Ranchero, opened in Yuba City in 1954 and operated for four decades. Gulam Rasul, a migrant farmer, left agricultural work behind to start the restaurant after he and his wife, Inez Aguirre Rasul, realized that people loved their food —relatives remember now that they were never not feeding family and friends. Gulam and Inez Aguirre had 13 children, many of whom worked in the restaurant from time to time, and when Gulam died in 1967, his son Ali took over and ran the restaurant until it closed.

Ad for El Ranchero in the September 12, 1969 issue of the Appeal-Democrat newspaper

Tamara L. Rasul English, Ali’s daughter, wanted to follow in her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and run El Ranchero after her father decided to retire. But she says her dad believed he would never truly stop working if it stayed open. He was too enmeshed with the restaurant, referred to simply as “Ali’s” (sometimes pronounced “Ollie’s”) by regulars, who would often bring their own pots to fill up with his chicken curry — or just drop in to buy him a beer.

While most of El Ranchero’s menu was Mexican, the Rasuls served a few Indian dishes, like chicken and lamb curries, seasonal curried vegetables, and rotis. English notes that the restaurant was the first in the Yuba City area to serve any “East Indian,” or what today we would call “South Asian,” food.

A few of the Mexican plates were influenced by the Rasul family’s traditions, like the restaurant’s take on chile verde — “We would make ours out of beef, because our grandfather, being Muslim, wouldn’t allow pork,” says English — and curry dishes were served with Spanish rice instead of Indian-style rice, but the restaurant generally didn’t attempt to fuse Indian and Mexican together. Customers sometimes took things into their own hands, though, ordering Mexican dishes like chili and beans to eat with parathas, combining the two cuisines themselves.

Ad for El Ranchero — printed as “El Rancho” in error here — in the July 1, 1977 issue of the Appeal-Democrat newspaper

The exception, and the restaurant’s sole crossover dish, was the roti quesadilla, which was on the menu from the beginning. It had melted cheese, onions, and shredded beef sandwiched inside a paratha, and it came served with a curry chicken dipping sauce, as well as salad or rice and beans. “Some would use the salsa that came with dinner as a dipping sauce for the quesadilla as well,” English remembers, “so there was customization for specific customers’ tastes.”

The roti quesadilla was nicknamed the Hindu pizza, and later, as people started to consider “Hindu” an outdated phrase, the Indian pizza. “This was something specific,” English says. When she worked at El Ranchero, people would tell her they went to other restaurants and ordered quesadillas, and that they were “nothing like [Rasul’s].” She’d reply, “‘Of course not, that’s a Mexican restaurant — you’re not going to get this there.’”

At El Ranchero, the Rasuls served the kinds of food that they made for themselves. English says that the family worked at the restaurant six days a week, so dinner was always eaten there. “We would eat items that were on the menu as well as our own ideas, such as a chile verde, bean, and cheese burrito made with a roti instead of a flour tortilla — so good, I can almost taste it!” English remembers leaving the restaurant with her father early one night to go see the Yuba City High School homecoming football game. “We ate those warm burritos in the cold air with everyone around us telling us how good they looked and smelled and [that they] wished they had one. It was something only my dad and I could have that night.”

Punjabi Mexicans ran at least a couple of other restaurants in California around that time, including one in El Centro and one near Fresno in Selma. But none had the staying power of El Ranchero, and no records that I could find show those restaurants serving both Mexican and Indian dishes — much less anything that combined food traditions from both cultures on a single plate.

El Ranchero became a staple in the community, as demonstrated in this ad for El Ranchero in the local Yuba High School 1966 yearbook

During its 40-year run, Rasul’s became a space where the whole community gathered. Locals who moved out frequently came back to visit and eat at the restaurant with their parents and children in tow. And Punjabi-Mexican families from all over made a point to stop at the restaurant whenever they found themselves in Yuba City. “[When] people were in town, they had to make sure they stopped in,” says English. “It was kind of like home base.”

Today, a quarter-century after the restaurant’s closing, people still ask English if she’d ever open it again; she says she might consider doing a pop-up dinner here or there. Online, in articles and Yuba City Facebook groups, people remember Rasul’s El Ranchero and what it brought to the area, filling a need for the Punjabi-Mexican community while introducing others to Indian food.

“A lot of people would say, ‘why do you have both of those foods, it sounds kind of like an odd thing,’” English tells me. “But it’s not as odd as you think. It was good for the community, as far as flavors introduced.”

By the time the first Punjabi-Mexican children reached their 30s, in the mid-1940s, laws were changing. California repealed its miscegenation policies, lifting racial restrictions on who could marry. In 1946, President Truman signed the Luce-Celler Act, which allowed Indians to become naturalized citizens, meaning they could own land in their own names instead of relying on their children, who were citizens by birth; their wives, who had technically lost their rights to citizenship by marrying men who couldn’t obtain their own; or white or Mexican landowners to hold property for them.

On the other side of the world, India gained independence from the British in 1947 and split into two countries, India and Pakistan. Called Partition, this created some deep mistrust between predominantly Hindu Indians and predominantly Muslim Pakistanis in South Asia as well as parts of the diaspora. It also led to a reframing of some Muslim parts of the Punjabi-Mexican community, who subsequently became known as Spanish Pakistanis, and to strengthening patriotic ties to different countries in South Asia.

Netervala, who grew up in El Paso, Texas, and Phoenix, says that she cannot recall her Sikh father’s Muslim friends ever coming inside her house. She realized later that this was in part because the Muslim men kept halal, and the chicken her mother cooked with wasn’t. “Their wives, who were Mexican, they could come to the house and eat. But the men never ate — they stayed outside, talking to my father.” But by and large, internal bonds within the Punjabi-Mexican community stayed strong even after Partition. Netervala does remember discrimination by Mexican women outside the Punjabi-Mexican community, however. “I think some of the Mexican women resented those women that were married to Indians that were doing well,” she says. “We always had a car, as I recall, and my mother dressed well. In school, because of my last name being Singh, they used to make fun of me.”

Dancers from Ensambles Ballet Folklórico and Duniya Dance in traditional Mexican and Punjabi dress on stage together in a 2015 performance of Half and Halves, a dance celebrating the Punjabi-Mexican community and its history
Paul Benjamin

Luce-Celler opened up the border, permitting 100 Indians (and 100 Filipinos) to immigrate each year. It was followed in 1965 by the less restrictive Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished the discriminatory quota system and encouraged more Indians to come to the United States. With more Punjabi women emigrating from India and marrying Punjabi men — by the 1970s, Leonard reports, Yuba City High School had more Punjabi students enrolled than Punjabi-Mexican — the dynamics for the Mexican women who helped build this small community began to change.

From the community’s earliest days, Mexican women had cooked in the gurdwaras that their husbands helped found, which became important community hubs for all Punjabi Mexicans in addition to being Sikh places of worship. Though many of the Sikh men who came to California in the early 1900s cut their hair and stopped wearing turbans daily, thus abandoning one of the five outward expressions of the Sikh faith, they still brought their families to gurdwaras, especially on special occasions. The first opened in 1912 in Stockton, California (one, in El Centro, was purchased from the Japanese in 1948 — before internment, it had been a Buddhist temple), and Punjabis of all faiths, not just Sikhs, frequented these locations, which also proved to be useful places for organizing meetings, such as for the revolutionary anti-colonialist Ghadar Party.

Netervala remembers traveling from Phoenix to the gurdwara in El Centro every fall. For years, her mother helped local wives make chapatis and cook for langar, the community meal served in all gurdwaras. Then the Punjabi women arrived. “When some of the women from India started coming, they didn’t want the Mexican women who used to cook there — they sort of put them to the side, kicked them out,” Netervala says. “They didn’t particularly want them in their kitchen. They wanted to cook their way, [even though] the Mexican women had learned from their husbands how to cook Indian food!”

Outside the gurdwara in Stockton, CA

The South Asians who came to the United States after 1965 distanced themselves from the earlier, less-educated immigrants, who mostly worked as farmers. The new-to-America South Asians wanted to retain strong cultural boundaries; in Making Ethnic Choices, Leonard writes that they “feel threatened by the Punjabi-Mexican descendants and are anxious that their own children ‘remain true to the culture.’” They did things like reinstate the policy of sitting on the floor at the gurdwara, not in chairs, as had become common practice for Punjabi Mexicans. And in some instances, Mexican women were accused of poisoning the new Punjabi women.

The Punjabi-Mexican “old-timers” thought of themselves as more modern — more American — than the provincial new immigrants, who in turn did not approve of the established community. As a result, the Punjabi Mexicans kept separate from the newcomers, strengthening their identity and holding their own cultural events, such as the annual Mexican-Hindu Christmas dance — also called the Old-Timers Reunion Christmas Dance — which started in 1974.

But the dance, first created to celebrate the Punjabi-Mexican families and their descendants, evolved, and the invite list expanded to include a wider community of Yuba City residents. By 1988, only one-tenth of the attendees were from Punjabi-Mexican families. In 2008, it was reported that the dance “barely draws a handful of people anymore.”

The hybrid community that had formed when there were no other alternatives for Punjabi men was no longer as necessary, and it began to change with the times. (Yuba City is now home to one of the largest Sikh populations outside of India; each year, over 100,000 people — almost double the population of the city — attend the annual Sikh festival and parade.) The second generation, the children of the first Punjabi-Mexican marriages, did not face pressure to marry within their small community; Leonard writes that marriages between Punjabi-Mexican brides and grooms were the “least preferred” and “outnumbered by marriages with Anglos and Hispanics” — her records show that, between 1930 and 1969, only 11 marriages were made between Punjabi-Mexican brides and grooms. The total number of Indians in California had remained below 2,000 through 1970; by 1980, the Indian population in California had jumped to more than 57,000. “When Indian women started coming to the States, Indian men preferred marrying Indian women as opposed to Mexican,” Netervala remembers. “Once in a while, I see in the India Abroad paper that there’s a couple — Mexican girl married to an Indian man — but that’s quite rare nowadays.”

“It was just a point of history,” Smith says. “Because of the laws, it brought people together, that’s what it is.”

Today, Indian restaurants across the country have Mexican-influenced dishes on their menu, ranging from guacamole at New York City’s GupShup to lamb tikka tacos in Los Angeles or street paneer ones in Houston. Yet even in California, where the Punjabi-Mexican community was strongest, today’s Indian-Mexican restaurants don’t look to that history. Ashok Saini, familiar with Yuba City’s Punjabi-Mexican community of the 1940s thanks to friends who had settled in that area, says he was not influenced by this part of California’s past to open a restaurant that sells “Punjabi burritos” — basmati rice, spiced chickpeas, and ingredients like jerk chicken or curried pumpkin all rolled together in a whole wheat tortilla.

At Avatar’s Punjabi Burrito, with locations across the Bay Area, Saini serves what he calls a fusion of Mexican and Indian cuisine — the staff mixes their own flours for tortillas at the restaurants, drawing inspiration from traditional Indian and Mexican flatbreads — but on Saini’s no gluten, no cream, no sugar menu, there’s a clear emphasis on health food. There’s certainly nothing like Rasul’s roti quesadilla, which existed for and because of a very specific community, at a very specific time in history.

Curry Up Now’s Quesadillix, made with paneer and mozarella inside an aloo paratha

Akash Kapoor, who started the fast-casual Indian concept Curry Up Now in the Bay Area in 2009, says he was driven by the success of the Kogi Korean BBQ taco trucks. Roy Choi “was doing it with Korean food — burritos, tacos, and other stuff,” Kapoor said, and it made him think about what he could do. “We were going for high volume. How does someone walk away from the truck and [the] food stays hot, and you can eat it while you’re walking around? The burrito is an automatic.” His restaurants serve burritos with fillings like Kashmiri lamb stew, saag paneer, and samosas, as well as a quesadilla that sandwiches mozzarella cheese and Indian-style meat or paneer inside a potato-stuffed paratha. It invites comparison to the Rasuls’ signature dish, but evolved from a completely different cultural moment.

Today, chefs are thinking about marketing; they’re trying to get customers in the door, and they’re being deliberate about the flavors and culinary traditions they’re combining. But for Rasul’s El Ranchero, catering to Punjabi Mexicans born in the first half of the century, the roti quesadilla was more than just something new and different — it represented the organic community of Punjabis and Mexicans brought together by a confluence of immigration policies, labor laws, and cultural similarities. “We love food. So whatever the inspiration, it’s all good,” English says, when asked about restaurants selling the food she ate at home without acknowledging the history. “But there is something to be said for family comfort food recipes.”

Netervala isn’t quite sure what she thinks about today’s food trends. “This is just something made up,” she says. “Chefs are always trying different things, so they’re just doing things on their own. That’s not how we had Indian food — maybe I’ve been missing something!”

Sonia Chopra is Eater’s director of editorial strategy.

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