Immigrants, America, Grandmas and Recipes

April 27 2017

There seems to be a pattern when a new wave of immigrants hits the American shores. First, they are understood as a monolithic group. Their individual stories are squashed into a common history. Romans and Napolitanos are Italians. Chinese and Koreans are Asians. Tamilians and Bengalis are Indians. In our food, however, the nuances of our motherlands are nurtured and preserved. Our kitchens keep old ideas new and bring new life to old traditions as we shape them to fit our modern lives. And as our food emerges from our homes onto the plates of other Americans, our narratives begin to become our own again.

In that spirit, I want to share a recipe passed along by my grandma. We are Tamilian Iyengars from Chennai, but my grandparents brought my mom and her brothers to Queens, New York in 1973 to fork a branch in our family’s diaspora. You rarely see our food in restaurants, but it is vibrant, flavorful and colorful. The first recipe below is Adai, a cousin of the dosa (which itself is kind of like a crepe). The second one, Thogaiyal, is like a chutney. Over the years, my grandma began substituting traditional vegetables for ones that grew in her backyard in Houston- adapting her childhood Indian food into something pointing towards the Indian-American. As my generation takes root, I hope we’ll pick up the mantle and create a cuisine that uniquely represents our identities; both fully American and deeply Indian.


- 3 cups of Parboiled rice
- ¼ cup Chana Dal
- ¼ cup Toovar Dal
- ⅛ cup Urad Dal
- ⅛ cup Coriander seeds
- An inch piece of Ginger (adjust to taste)
- 5 dried Red chiles (adjust to spice tolerance)

Soak the above ingredients for 3 to 4 hours then grind everything together into a thick, smooth batter in a high-powered blender or better yet, a wet grinder.

- ½ Yellow onion
- A few sprigs Cilantro
- A few Kari leaves

Chop and add these to the batter.

Heat up a flat griddle and add a little bit of oil to lightly coat it.
Spread the batter like a thicker dosa (watch a youtube video for the technique)
Add a teaspoon of oil around the edges to help it crisp up. Let it cook until the adai starts lifting and the batter is solidifying.

Flip the adai and let it cook longer. Some people like it crispy, some like it soft; just make sure that the batter has cooked through.

Eat this with thogaiyal (below), or try it with brown sugar and ghee.


- 1 Zucchini, or equivalent amount of other vegetables.

Get creative here. Use what grows in your region-- some common ideas are eggplant, tomato, ginger, cilantro.

Chop and sauté first, then grind it.

- ½ cup Urad dal
- ¼ cup Chana dal with just enough oil to coat,
- ~4 red Chilies
- A dash of Hing
- A tsp of cooking oil or just enough to very light coat the above ingredients

Toast the ingredients above until golden brown. Remove them from heat and soak in water for 10 - 15 minutes.

- Tbsp Tamarind concentrate
- Salt to taste

Grind all of the ingredients above into a coarse paste and combine with the ground vegetable. The final consistency should be thick, coarse and scoopable by your adai, or mixable in some yogurt rice.

If you try this at home, please let me know how it goes! And if you are interested in the stories of food and history that our (metaphorical and literal) grandmothers hold, let me know as well-- I have a project in the works!

Nikhil Kumar
New York, NY
[email protected]

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