The exponential growth of the Indian American population over the last few decades and their inclination towards desi vegetarian foods has led to a grooming market for Indian vegetables in the US. Seeing an opportunity, Indian farmers in the US have now started growing desi vegetables in the country.
From the days of relying on mainstream American produce and a few grocery items like lentils and rice imported from India, desi stores in the US have started making a variety of produce, including locally grown green vegetables, available. Indian immigrants who left home for America but still long for desi food have found comfort in Indian vegetables.
“UP (Uttar Pradesh) mein makke ki roti ko guwar ki phali ke saath khate the hum log (We used to eat corn flour roti with cluster bean in UP),” Santa Clara resident Neetu Jain reminisces. “Ab yahan guwar phali milti hai, India jaisi kakdi mil jaati hai (Now we get cluster bean here, even Turkish cucumber is available now).”
Babita Sharma, the owner of India Cash & Carry in Fremont, remembers the dearth of vegetables two decades back. “Asian vegetables like karela (bitter gourd), bhindi (okra) were there but not suitable for Indian cooking and prices were very high.”
Sharma recalls how the rapid rise of the Indian population in the San Francisco Bay Area raised the demand of niche produce.
“Market mein jaise ek bomb phek diya ho! There was an explosion of demand once H1-B visa-holder Indians started arriving in large numbers, followed by their wives and parents. They started requesting for everything Indian - Parwal (pointed gourd), radish, drumstick leaves, toor liva, papdi, tinda, cholai, dosakai, gongura leaves – authentic things you can't even think of; names that I had never heard of! Now we know which Indian sub-community requires what speciality items for their food and celebrations and our India Cash & Carry has it."Babita Sharma
Now famously referred to as ‘Okra King’ – or ‘Bhindi Badshah’ – it was natural for Harbhajan Singh Samra to start growing vegetables upon arriving in California in 1985.
Born in a farmer’s family, he came from Punjab with a master’s in economics and the experience of supplying his family’s produce to numerous Indian states.
“When I came to the US, we lived in San Fernando valley where there were just 2-3 Indian stories. There was no karela at all, no bhindi, maybe just a few chillies,” says Samra.
Sometime later, he was delighted to chance upon a box of okra at a wholesaler’s stand. Soon after, Samra started supplying vegetables to Indian stores. Starting with a few boxes whenever he could find them, he soon saw the demand for okra grow in the Los Angeles area and then in the San Francisco Bay area, and started urging farmers to increase supply.
At the time, Samra was the only source of Indian vegetables. But he felt that the available variety of okra was inferior to the ones preferred in Indian cooking.
“Because of my farming background, I started importing seeds from India and trained growers,” says Samra who started growing okra at a farm in California’s central valley – famous for its ‘Punjab-jaisi’ fertile soil and its abundant Sikh farmers. After getting the “supply under control,” he looked eastwards.
“I went to New York where okra was supplied from Florida. Their quality was too over-ripe. I took my sample from California, but no one was convinced,” he says.
A storm off the coast of Florida in the mid-nineties proved to be a boon for okra lovers.
“It wiped out the chilli crop in the Dominican Republic. So, folks from New York called me urgently for some chillies. I sent them a few boxes of the okra I was growing, for free. They sold out the okra in no time. You see, the Gujarati ladies want tender okra which snaps at the tips. It was initially the Gujaratis who created the demand for Indian vegetables in the USA. Punjabis had chicken as it was cheaper."Harbhajan Singh Samra
After that, there was no looking back – he now supplies five varieties of okra.
“Pehle California mein okra thori moti hoti thi jo Asian log prefer karte hain (Earlier, some okra used to grow in California which Asians prefer). Now the slim, long okra is coming from Mr Samra. It is thin and slender, jise India mein lady’s finger kehte hain wo Indian okra hai (okra is what is called ladies finger in India). People are so happy to get that,” says Babita Sharma.
From Indian Jujubes to Red Carrots: Samra Produce’s Expanding Operation
From a one-man operation, Samra Produce grew to be one of the largest growers and distributors of Indian vegetables and fruits in the USA, with hundreds of acres of farmland in California’s Coachella area, plus growers in Central and South America, among other regions. Famous for being a ‘grassroots immigrant farmer’, Okra King is proud of the fact that during some times in the year, there are ‘more Indian vegetables available in the USA than in India’.
“We were the first in growing many things. We are always looking for suitable spots to stable year-round supply of Punjabi tinda, Indian eggplants, mustard saag, varieties of chillies, tindora, sem phali, mooli, cholai, curry leaves, and many more. Now we are growing Indian ber (jujube),” he says.
His latest item that is flying off the shelves is the red-coloured Indian carrot. “We have a massive demand for red carrots. If I supply 1,000 boxes, the demand is for 3000!”
The push to introduce red carrot came from Samra Produce’s Marketing Director Jassi Batra, who grew up in Punjab. Soon after joining the group in 2015, she felt the need to introduce what her family relished back home.
“I came from Malerkotla. My family was very big on carrots. Hum log gajrela khatam nahi hone dete the winter mein. Yahan wo red gajar nahi hoti thi to gajar ka halwa nahi ban sakta tha (We don’t let gajar halwa get over in wintersm but there was no red carrot here). I was raised by a farmer, so when I joined, I thought why not grow Indian carrots, and same for bathua which was also big in my family. This is what makes us stand out. Being growers, we must be creative and business-minded – what is it that I can bring that others don't have,” says Batra.Jassi Batra
Samra Produce grows moringa over a hundred acres. Being a health craze, moringa leaves and its drumsticks are in high demand not only in the south Asian community but among other ethnic communities as well.
Samra is proud that he has grown Indian ‘ber’ in Coachella and is working on a few more new items to introduce to the desi plates in the coming years. Each new item takes 4-5 years from the growing stage to getting to the supply stage. It is a hard and labour-intensive line of work, with strict safety standards, lots of wastage, and low margins.
Florida: Growing Home to Indian Vegetables
With its warm and tropical climate, Florida is also suitable for growing Indian fruits and vegetables, making it a hub of numerous small, medium and large farmers.
Based in Homestead, Jalaram Produce is among the largest growers and distributors of desi vegetables. Its founders and owners, the Raoljis who moved to the US from Gujarat, have been in the business for decades.
Prafula Raolji, whose brother-in-law (husband’s brother) started growing methi (fenugreek) in his backyard and then on the farm, says the family was the first to introduce methi leaves in the country.
“They are always in high demand. We grow many items - long green garlic, Indian eggplant, green valor, desi papdi, guar beans, snake and other gourds, many types of valor beans, patra, curry leaves, guavas, karela, etc,” Raolji says.
Jalaram Produce also uses growers in different regions and countries in the Americas with varying weather conditions to maintain supply across stores in the USA
“It is heartening when people tell us, ‘it is because of you guys we are having Indian vegetables’,” Prafula Raolji proudly shares.
Bringing Innovation to Farming
As Indian Americans make their names in tech, medicine, finance, academia, and politics, innovative growers are nourishing their desires. Creating routes from farms to desi tables, catering to its many sublime tastes, pioneer farmers are feeding the American dream of the over four-million-strong Indian immigrant diaspora.
“When I was pregnant, I was craving for a short, rare type of beans (radish pods) that I had only in Southern Maharashtra where I am from. I felt very lucky when a family friend in the US was able to prepare the specialty for me,” San Mateo-based Shilpa Patil fondly recalls.
Vidhya Raghunathan of Fremont says that with anything and everything available, "In the 14 years that I have been in the US, I have never missed any Indian vegetables especially living in Bay Area.”
Her husband Lakshminarayan Sivaramakrishnan agrees, “I feel that the best and fresh Indian vegetables, all that I need for my health and to satisfy taste buds are available with the many Indian grocery outlets.”
At a tech event recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella asked ChatGPT to name the most popular South Indian breakfast items. Along with idli, vada, dosa, pongal, uthapam, the AI also included biryani. Nadella disagreed with the bot which called biryani a South Indian 'tiffin' and apologised.
Nadella is known to be fond of eating and preparing Hyderabadi biryani – the multi-layered flavourful rice dish. Indian grocery stores in San Francisco Bay Area and all over the USA are well stocked with herbs, spices, and vegetables that the likes of Nadella and other Indians use to cook biryani and other dishes that they grew up with, as they make a life thousands of miles away from India.
The stores carry their demands to the farmers.
“Gujarati vegetables, south Indian vegetables, Maharashtrian vegetables- farmers grow according to demand. Ab to jamun ke per laga diye hain logon ne. Canada mein amla aata hai, yahan bhi aa jayega. Layine lag gayi thi when I started selling ganne ka ras with adrak and lemon juice. Jasmine flowers, mango leaves, neem flowers, bil-patte, items needed for prayers and festivals – every day we provide information to farmers about what our Indian community is asking for."Babita Sharma
The most frequent request which has remained unsatiated for years is for Indian mangoes. Neetu Jain says, “Mera manpasand aam langada hai, wo asli aam hai. Dasheri aam ke ras ka swad to kehlo aatma mein aa gaya hai (My favourite mango is langda, that is the real mango. Dasheri mango's juice tricles into the soul).”
Some more soul-quenching, farm-based innovation is surely on.