Desi Talk – that’s all you need to know 4 COVER STORY May 26, 2023 Along The Highways, Indian Restaurants Serve America’s Truckers -VEGA, TEX. L ong before dawn on a frosty Febru- ary morning in Dallas, Palwinder Singh rises from the mattress in his sleeper cab and prepares to haul his cargo cross-country. After five hours of driving north along U.S. 287, and then west on Interstate 40, it’s lunchtime. Singh, 30, pulls his semi off Exit 36 into Vega, a quiet town in the Texas Panhandle along the historic Route 66. For lunch, he bypasses the typical long-haul trucker menu of convenience-store snacks and heat-lamp hot dogs at the large Pilot Trav- el Center and instead rolls into the park- ing lot of a modest white building across the street. A sign on the building’s red roof spells out the words “Punjabi Dhaba” in the Punjabi language’s Gurmukhi script, with the English translation below it. The Vega Truck Stop and Indian Kitchen, as it’s officially known, attracts truckers like Singh originally from Punjab, a region spanning northwest India and eastern Pakistan. The store is filled with Punjabi snacks, sweets, truck decorations and a restaurant, known as a dhaba, that serves fresh meals including paratha and butter chicken – a slice of South Asia in the middle of rural Texas. That afternoon, Singh parked his truck, decorated with colorful fabrics and orna- ments called jhalars and parandas. He was promptly greeted in Punjabi by another trucker, Amandeep Singh, of Fresno, Calif., who had also stopped for lunch. As they each poured a cup of steaming chai indoors, the truckers chatted about their drives. The Vega eatery is among an estimated 40 dhabas, and likely many more, that have popped up along American high- ways across the country in response to the growing number of Punjabi truckers, who have dominated the Indian trucking industry for decades. Punjabis now make up almost 20 percent of the U.S. trucking industry, according to Raman Dhillon, chief executive of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association. Punjabis are both truckers and owner-operators, running companies such as Tut Brothers out of Indiana and Khalsa Transporta- tion out of California. They’re challenging the stereotype of the ruggedWhite, male trucker that has long been associated with the industry. “The driving and the trucking is in our blood,” said Dhillon, adding that Pun- jabi truckers have been riding American highways since the late 1960s, especially in California. “And since then they just re- ally swelled. For last 10 years, the Punjabi trucking industry is growing very fast and very big.” The majority of dhaba customers are part of a vast network of Punjabi truckers who share the secrets of the road through WhatsApp groups and TikToks. “There are many friends, it’s very big, there are 1,021 people in this group,” said Palwinder Singh. He said he found out about the Vega dhaba through the group and pinned it on his personal Google Maps, dotted with various dhabas around the country. “Sat Sri Akal,” the owner, Beant Sandhu, greets the truckers in Punjabi, extending his arm to shake their hands energeti- cally and making small talk in their native language. The dhaba’s kitchen appliances whirled and hissed throughout the day, sending ripples of steam into the air as a handful of cooks rotated between julienning veg- etables and sauteing them with meat and paneer in large cast-iron karahis. Sapna Devi, a cook who immigrated from Haryana – an Indian state bordering Punjab – kneaded dough into circles for mixed vegetable paratha. Harry Singh, an- other line cook and an immigrant, stirred yellow onions in a massive pot before scrambling paneer with it to make bhurji. Dhabas like the Vega eatery are tucked into truck stops and travel centers at the edges of sleepy American towns, some with almost all-White populations. Pun- jabi has seeped onto highway signs and billboards; just east of Vega is a truck and trailer sales billboard ad printed almost entirely in the language, alongside a photo of wrestling legends Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. It’s a testament to how Punjabi drivers are changing the face of the U.S. truck- ing industry, the highways they traverse on a daily basis, and in turn, small-town America. And it reflects the growing influ- ence of Punjabis – who are classified as Asians, the fastest-growing racial group in the United States – on rural America. “Punjabis have done a great deal to uplift a lot of rural America. All up and down Highway 5 through California, you have dhabas, you have gurdwaras [Sikh temples],” said Nicole Ranganath, an as- sistant professor of Middle East and South Asia studies at the University of California at Davis. “Rural America is much more diverse than we recognize. Punjabis have contributed a huge amount to our agricul- tural development and economic devel- opment and cultural diversity.” Punjabi immigrants began coming to North America in the early-20th century to work on farms and lumber mills, said Ranganath, who is also the curator of the Pioneering Punjabis Digital Archive. More recently, she said, Punjabi im- migrants have been fleeing rising dis- crimination and violence against India’s religious minorities, including adherents of Sikhism, the majority religion in the Indian state of Punjab. Many brought farming and trucking skills with them when they emigrated from the region, primarily to California’s Central Valley to do agricultural work. Vega is home to fewer than 1,000 residents, the vast majority of themWhite. The town’s claim to fame is its location along the historic Route 66, which ac- counts for most of its seasonal tourism. The town’s only South Asian residents are the truck stop’s Punjabi owners and employees and the motel owners across the highway, who are originally from Gujarat in western India. Originally from Moga, a city in central Punjab, the dhaba’s owner, Beant Sandhu, wears a dastaar (turban) and grows out his beard in line with the Sikh tenet of kesh. “God told me to come here,” said Sandhu, leaning against a counter next to a heat-lamp display of samosas, bread pakoras and aloo patties. About 55 miles west of the Vega Truck Stop is another highway dhaba in San Jon, N.M. And about the same distance to Vega’s east is an I-40 dhaba in the town of Panhandle, Tex., just east of Amarillo – the area’s largest city. Across the state line in Oklahoma, there are more I-40 dhabas near the towns of Sayre and Cromwell. The dhabas also pepper other pockets of small-town America, including in York, Ala., Burns, Wyo., and Overton, Neb., which aren’t known for sizable Punjabi populations. The Sandhus have made a name for themselves in Vega and say the town has embraced them, despite some residents having reservations about the family when they first moved there. Sandhu and his wife emigrated from Punjab to Northern California in the 1990s, where they joined a large Punjabi community and had three daughters. Beant Sandhu worked in various physical- ly taxing jobs, including janitorial work. A family friend told them about how lucra- tive a gas station could be and connected them with an opportunity in Texas. They bought a Chevron gas station in Granbury near Dallas in 2006. Although they found the business rewarding, they wanted “something challenging, something differ- ent, something bigger,” said Arjot Sandhu, the Sandhus’ 25-year-old daughter. By MeenaVenkataramanan Washington Postphoto byCarolynVan Houten The Vega Truck Stop and Indian Kitchen attracts truckers who hail from Punjab, a region spanning northwest India and eastern Pakistan. Washington Postphoto byCarolynVan Houten Washington Postphoto byCarolynVan Houten A customer orders food at the Vega Truck Stop and Indian Kitchen. Butter chicken is among the fresh meals that offer a slice of South Asia in the middle of rural Texas. - Continued On Page 5 The Vega Truck Stop and Indian Kitchen, sometimes referred to as a dhaba, sells snacks and truck decorations from the Punjab region of India. Washington Postphoto byCarolynVan Houten