Celebrating Indian independence with a picnic

Multiple generations of Indian and Indian-American women and girls pose for a photo at the Indian Independence Day picnic on August 21. Photo by Jesse Morales.

Against a backdrop of classic Southern park scenes  — historic farmhouses, a merry-go-round, lush pine and oak trees crowding the horizon — paired flags swished in tandem through the hot breeze. Below the flags, Indian and American, a group of women who shared those dual identities gathered for a photograph to honor them. Dressed in an eclectic mix of traditional Indian tunics and typical American fashion, the vibrant hues of their clothing reflected the colorful alloy of cultures that defines the India Association of the Triad.

Paired flags. Photo by Stallone Frazier.
Paired flags. Photo by Stallone Frazier.

In a similar way, the cuisine present at their Indian Independence Day picnic on Sunday at High Point City Lake Park comprised the tell-tale heart of that fusion: pav bhaji, or curried vegetables with leavened rolls, and cold Carolina watermelon.

Held beneath a high-ceilinged picnic shelter, the celebratory meal served a dual function. While non-Indians could enjoy a friendly, informal introduction to the nation’s food and culture, adult members of India Association of the Triad emphasized their main purpose for holding the Independence Day Celebration — to pass Indian culture down to their children.

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Children enjoy wearing traditional Indian festive dress at the Indian Independence Day picnic on Aug. 21. Photo by Stallone Frazier.

Over a bowl of spicy pav bhaji, a stew-like vegetable dish flavored with coriander, curry, cinnamon, cumin and cardamom, one young family vocalized their desire to transfer the food culture of their native India to their 1-year-old daughter.

Sangeeta Kaul and her husband Amit Pandit reminisced about their mothers’ affinity for rogan josh, a classic Kashmiri entrée. Based on goat meat, rogan josh is “full of oil and spices,” Kaul said. While the dish reminds the couple of home, Kaul said, “We prefer to cook more healthy food, and less oily and fried food.”

Kaul said that cooking Indian food at home represents one way she can “keep teaching small things” about Indian culture to baby daughter Aadya.

“We teach her to greet everyone by saying ‘namaste’ and folding her hands,” she said. “We teach her that the moon is god, the sun is god.” Pandit said that he’s passed on his vegetarianism and love for animals.

And the Indian Independence Day cookout delivered hearty, all-vegetarian fare with bold Indian spice and flair from the American South. While Indian restaurants abound in the Triad —Tandoor and Saffron in Greensboro, High Point’s Msala, and Nawab in Winston-Salem, among others — each specializes in its own particular array of dishes from India’s 36 states and territories. In keeping with the national Independence Day holiday, though, India Association of the Triad’s picnic featured a central dish that was universally palatable and suitable for most diets.

Pav bhaji, unofficial food expert and volunteer cook Poonam Kushwaha explained, consists of “vegetables, like green peas, onion, potato and tomato, and spices like ground pepper, coriander, turmeric and chilies all cooked in butter and lemon juice.” Indians consider the dish’s sauce-and-bread-roll combination a “very fulfilling snack,” Kushwaha said.

While pav bhaji has roots in northern India, Kushwaha said, “Each Indian state and culture has its own cuisine. Coastal food uses a lot of coconut oil, while food in the South has more peanut and coconut.” She also emphasized that “We have a lot of variety in vegetarian options.”

Association President Ashish Sadhu said that the picnic shelter housed much “unity in diversity,” in terms of both food and people present at the event. “Even under this shelter,” he said, “I see people from all different parts of India. What’s nice about being in America is that we have all those people here in one part” or location.

Adding to the kaleidoscope of voices, Sheetal Sadhu, a family member of Sadhu who volunteered at the event, said that the picnic “conveys a little bit of tradition to our kids,” adding that the Independence Day celebration — and eating pav bhaji — “connects them to their roots, because this is their home and most of them have never been to India.”

Amrish Soni, a tall man clad in a crisp white shirt adorned with an Indian flag pin, also related the importance of “connecting parents, like most of us who are immigrants, to our kids who grow up here.” Soni said that the India Association of the Triad has facilitated the transmission of Indian culture, including Indian-American food culture, for more than 25 years.

While India Association of the Triad’s primary objective remains to facilitate cultural exchange within the Triad’s Indian community — bringing together the diverse cultures within India itself — the association also exists to share constituent Indian cultural traditions with Triad residents. Sunday’s picnic managed to attract several curious locals, but many association members expressed the widespread appeal of their Diwali, or festival of lights, dinner to non-Indian Triad folks.

Yet as the scent of curry blended with a cool watermelon aroma in the summer air, Indians, Indian-Americans, and present Americans alike enjoyed just such an opportunity for cultural exchange — along with the gustatory delight of pav bhaji served with fresh green chilies.

Find India Association of the Triad at iatnc.org. Save the date for their catered Diwali event coming to the Greensboro Coliseum in early November.