What’s the difference between a paratha and a tortilla?

An Indian immigrant worker harvests beets in Hamilton City, California, for the Sacramento Valley Sugar Company, ca. 1907–1915. Photo courtesy of the California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections.

By Rishi Reddi, guest blogger

This blog is part of the Gourmet Intersections program of Intersections as American Life: the Smithsonian Asian-Latino Festival 2013.

What’s the difference between a paratha and a tortilla?  Or, curried beans and refried beans?

A little-known community that bridged South Asians and Mexicans sprang up in the Imperial Valley of Southern California in the 1920s, and knew the answers to these questions. The region had been arid desert before these folks and other brave souls surface-irrigated the land with water from the Colorado River, turning the Imperial Valley into one of the most fertile in the country. Because of immigration pressures, race-based mores, and (of course) true love, many of the South Asian men from Punjab married Mexican women who lived in the area. These couples formed unconventional families with Punjabi fathers, Mexican mothers, and tri-cultural children, who even today can recall the unique and complex aspects of their youth.

Norma Saikhon’s father emigrated from Punjab in 1916 and her mother grew up in Mexico before moving to the Valley in 1931. She tells of how many of the South Asian men, laboring in work gangs to build the railroads in the western United States, continued to cook and eat Punjabi food communally. When they married and settled down to farming, they taught their wives how to cook South Asian food, and the women learned with great enthusiasm. Weekday meals were always of Mexican flavors, but Sunday dinners, wedding feasts, and funeral meals were always of the South Asian variety. The Mexican wives competed with each other, often very obviously, as to who made the best Punjabi food—especially chicken curry!

Despite the seeming similarity of some of the foods—such as Mexican tortillas and Punjabi parathas—Norma recalls how they were actually very different: tortillas were lighter fare and made with white flour; parathas required more labor and consisted of whole wheat.  The families ate beans everyday—mixed with curry, mint and ginger on Punjabi days or boiled with onions, cheese or salsa on Mexican days. But some foods, like Rice Pudding, also known as arroz con leche in Mexico and kheer in South Asia, transcended cultures and continents and were known to all.

More about our guest blogger:

Writer and lawyer Rishi Reddi is the author of the award-winning collection, Karma and Other Stories, published by Ecco/HarperCollins in 2007. Her first novel, West, set in the immigrant communities of the Imperial Valley in the 1920s, is forthcoming.  Find out more at


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