The mission of the Southern Foodways Alliance, part of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, is to document, study and explore the “diverse food cultures of the changing American South.” Earlier this year, SFA oral historian Annemarie Anderson interviewed members of the growing South Asian food community in Northwest Arkansas, many of whom moved to the region because they or a family member got a job at Walmart. In 2008, one Indo-Pakistani restaurant and one gas station sold Indian staples in Northwest Arkansas. Newcomers often had to travel hours to get South Asian goods. Now there’s a robust network of restaurants, grocery stores and butcher shops. To see video and read the full transcripts of the interviews below as well as additional interviews, visit southernfoodways.org/oral-history/south-asian-arkansas/.
Community Butcher, Lowell
Ali Momani, born in 1971, is originally from Jordan. He provides a local source of goat and lamb for Muslim consumers in Northwest Arkansas. In 2018, he opened up Community Butcher in Lowell. Momani relies upon farmers and meat processors in Northwest Arkansas to provide locally grown halal meat. He works with a farmer in Centerton to supply lamb, goat and chickens, and he uses a meat processing plant in Winslow. Many Indian restaurants buy halal goat and lamb from Momani. He also butchers meat to order for individual customers.
Momani attended culinary school in the capital city of Amman where he learned to cook dishes like maqluba, kabs and mansaf. In 1995, he came to Dallas just to visit, but decided to stay. While living in Dallas, he managed several restaurants. When his wife got a job with Walmart in 2004, they moved to Northwest Arkansas. After a brief move to Miami, they returned to Northwest Arkansas in 2010:
Oh, we move here to Arkansas because my wife, she get a job at Walmart and we have to move here. So we move here 2004, we stay for like three years, four years, and we move to Miami for five years, and we come back here. So I became a butcher because every time we need to go buy meat, we had to go to Dallas to get like halal meat, you know. We are Muslim, we have to have halal meat, cannot get any kind of meat. And we had to drive all the way to Dallas or Tulsa or Kansas City to pick up fresh meat, so that’s why we came up with the idea to just open my own shop and serve the community here and make sure it’s halal 100 percent and is fresh meat, not frozen or not — you know, just give it fresh the whole time. …
We had to go get the animals from the auction, have to find the goat and lamb from auction, and I keep it on the farm. We have farm in Centerton. And every time what I need, I see what I need for the week, I take it to the meat processing in Winslow, in Arkansas, so that’s what they process the meat there, and I tell like what I need every week, see how much I need, or a month, and I’ll take it there. We take to them live, and they will slice it there and I bring it back to my store.
So the meat processing, they have to go by the Islamic way, so they have to see all the rules, and there’s a guy from the USDA. They cannot do anything without him, and he has to be in the top. Anytime they want to kill, he has to be there. Even if they kill one chicken, he has to be there. They cannot do anything without him. So the guy, he really knows about Islam and he knows, you know, what need to be done before you kill it, and he will go the Islamic way. He’s allowed to be saying the prayer on the animal before they kill it. …
I have a lot of customer, a lot of people from — even non-Muslim, I have like probably 90 percent of my customer they’re non-Muslim, they’re from India, and I have some Americans, some other cultures, people from Iran, from Arab. So everybody who come here, I have made a lot of friends, and even I have some people from Joplin, Fort Smith, they will come to buy halal meat from here, yeah. So we have a lot of — and this one year, my business has grown up probably like double times when I was open. It’s getting bigger and bigger. And everybody like the meat. We always keep the quality for the meat. We always get like fresh meat, small animals, we get the young animals, not the older ones, so they need to be soft and taste good when you cook it, and it’s not going to take a long time to be cooked. So you have to keep the quality of the meat for them, too.
Lisa and Abhijeet Purakayastha
Khana Indian Grill, Fayetteville
Lisa, born in 1957, is from Houston, Texas. Abhijeet Purakayastha, born in 1962, was raised in India. Abhijeet moved to Texas from India to attend the University of Texas. They met in Houston at an advertising agency. A few years after they married, they opened an Indian leather import business. In 2006, the Purakayasthas left Houston and moved to Fayetteville. Lisa and Abhijeet were used to the accessibility of Houston’s diverse food scene. When they first moved to Arkansas, they had difficulty finding Indian spices and vegetables. And they missed the easy access to Indian grocery stores and restaurants. As they settled in Northwest Arkansas, Lisa and Abhijeet began to make Indian food for their new community. Soon after, they decided to start an Indian restaurant. In 2015, they opened Khana Indian Grill. Khana serves a small menu featuring dishes from many regions of India. Lisa and Abhijeet use their menu to educate Arkansans unfamiliar with Indian food:
But before I met Abhijeet, I really didn’t think I liked Indian food. When his mother arrived for our wedding, she started cooking, and it was very simple food. A dal, maybe some sauteed potatoes, something like that, but just the freshness and the … new way that she used spices, it was new to me that you wouldn’t just go to the grocery store and buy a jar of spices. She actually used whole spices and roasted or toasted them and ground them herself. And just the flavor that resulted from that was a revelation to me. So, she started teaching me to cook. She introduced me to a lot of new foods, too. I remember one day, I came home from work and she was making these patties that she calls sago wadas. And they’re basically balls of tapioca, which in my mind before was just some ucky, gooey sweet dessert — but balls of tapioca that she’d soaked in yogurt and mixed with potato and green chilis and cumin and peanuts, and then was shaping into patties and frying. It was just so far off of my comfort zone that I said, “No, that’s OK, I’m not really hungry.” But then she finished them and put this beautiful plate down with some chutney on the side, and I was in love, OK? It was wonderful. She is really the one that started us on this journey. Abhijeet would try to cook a little bit, but again, he grew up with his mother and sisters cooking, and he didn’t cook so much on his own. [Laughter.] …
We knew that there was a lot of confusion about what Indian food is … . It’s pretty much like Italian food was in America [in] the 1950s and ’60s. It was pretty much spaghetti and meatballs or pizza; people didn’t know much about it. But with new immigrants coming in or people opening restaurants, Italian restaurants from different regions of Italy, people’s exposure to different regional dishes grew. So, now people know the difference between Northern and Southern Italian food. It’s gotten much, much more sophisticated. Well, we knew that in this area especially, we were kind of back in the 1950s of what people knew about Indian food. So, I wanted to make it simple. Often, when you go into an Indian restaurant, you’re handed what looks like a book. There’s page after page of dishes that you are not familiar with and have never heard of, and then sometimes it’s not very clean. Anyway, we just thought about what we might like to see in a restaurant and what we liked in our favorite restaurants, and we also wanted, too, to be a part of … whatever cultural diversity was here. Because it seemed that we were meeting just a pretty much homogenous group of people, and we hoped to attract more diversity through our doors. So, that’s why, on the door, it says, “All Welcome.” OK? It’s been wonderful. We made friends with the couple, Ali and Rose, that own Rose Stop in Springdale, and they are from Iran originally. So, they are the kindest, nicest people ever, and we had a birthday party for Rose about six months after we opened. All of a sudden, here was this huge Iranian community that turned out for it. So, that connected us to that. It connected us to other people that grew up maybe in a rice culture … .
We drove up one day and, actually, it was my brother, who looks like a big redneck, and he was in a truck and he drove up and there was a group of Muslim women praying in our parking lot. So, he was happy to see them and he got out and said hello, but he scared them, because you can imagine in Fayetteville if you’re praying on a prayer rug with a hijab on and some redneck comes up to you, you’re not really sure of the response. So, I think he managed to — through sign language — convey to them, “Hey, I’m friendly, I’m so glad you’re here.” So, but anyway, that’s the type of experience that we’ve loved. We want to facilitate that, that sense of, here at — see, I’m gonna cry when I talk about this. [Laughter.] But anyway, just here at the table, we can all sit together and have a meal and all be a part of the larger family. …
I would like to encourage people in this area that have a food background in their family, that have some type of ethnic food restaurant, to open their own place. It’s a daunting prospect, from the finances of it. It’s been hard for us and complex and complicated. It’s hard, and I get that. But I think there is so much that cultural differences, culturally diverse restaurants, can add to a community. They can be meeting places for people; they can really help expose and educate people about other people’s lives. That’s how we find commonality, is through food. So, the more places that open up, the more things that take the plunge — for example, we decided that we wanted to serve an Indian ice cream called kulfi. We didn’t have the place to make it, we didn’t know how we were going to do it, and we found a woman in Rogers who has a Mexican ice cream place. So, we’ve worked with her to develop the recipe, and then decided that we would serve her version of popsicles. So, we have kulfi popsicles, that we provide the cardamom and the saffron and the pistachios to her, and she actually makes them into a popsicle shape because she has the molds and the know-how. So, we like that kind of collaborative effort, kind of cross-cultural collaborative effort. We just like to see anybody that thinks they’d like to have a restaurant do it.
Pandiya’s South Indian Cuisine, Bentonville
Maya Sivakumar moved to Milwaukee, Wis., from South India in 2000 with her husband. She and her friends often had to travel to Chicago to get spices and bags of rice for cooking. While in Milwaukee, Sivakumar got a job as a bank teller and eventually became a manager. The difficulty of finding a South Indian restaurant inspired her to open her own.
In 2014, Sivakumar and her family moved to Dallas. In 2016, Sivakumar franchised a restaurant called Kumar’s in Irving, Texas. A few years later, she started helping her brother-in-law manage his restaurant, Chennai Café in Bentonville, Arkansas. In 2018, Sivakumar moved to Bentonville and took over ownership of her brother-in-law’s restaurant and changed the name. Pandiya’s features a buffet of mostly South Indian dishes, though Sivakumar is thoughtful about adding requested dishes from other regions of India. Every Sunday and Thursday, Pandiya’s serves lunch on banana leaves:
Here we basically have all Indian cuisine, but we focus in South Indian cuisine, more South Indian. But we have other, like West, East, North, all sorts of cuisine. South Indian cuisine is more, like, spicier, more flavorful than comparatively the Northwest or East Coast. As I said, here, the local people, like the local American crowd, they like, like, the flavors, but not spicy, so we changed a little bit of that spices and flavors and we changed a bit according to their taste, and we have also, like, you know, you can make mild, medium or spicy, any way you want it.
And we put like lot of specials. Like, say, for example, if somebody come and ask, “Hey, we are from this state and this food is very popular there,” it’s not in our menu, so what we will do is we will just put like for that weekend special, Friday, we have this one. Saturday, we have this menu, like that. And also in the buffet I try to put more items that will attract all sorts of people, not just like focusing on one community so that, you know, people can come and enjoy — all sorts of people can come and enjoy.
One good thing about this community I can say is a lot of local white American people, they love just not like the few bland stuffs we have. They try to explore everything. Even on Thursdays and Sundays, what we do is — like in India, the weddings and all the festivals, we do serve food in banana leaf. So we put like three or four side items like vegetables, curries, everything. That was like — very few restaurants are doing in America, in banana leaf. I would say maybe we are the first one who started in Dallas. So maybe three or four restaurants for the entire U.S. So that was, I thought — it won’t get popular here because of the small community. Then people started asking why I’m not doing that here that I used to do in Dallas, so then we started serving on Thursdays and Sundays that banana leaf meals. So we serve both for vegetarians and also for the meat lovers. We have two options. They can come and pick it. …
Sometimes I get like really frustrated, and if I’ll be standing, “Oh, my god, do I have to run this business?” Like that I’ll be thinking. A few customers will come and tell, “This is the best food we ever had. I have never had this kind of a food in my entire U.S.” Some kinds of these feedbacks and comments make me come every day and do this business.
Aroma Pakistani & Indian Cuisine, Bentonville
Sayed Ali, born in 1949, is originally from Pakistan. He moved to the United States to get a master’s in business administration from California State University in 1978 and returned to Pakistan after receiving his degree. He and his wife moved to the United States for the second time in 2005. Finding work in California was difficult, so he moved to Bentonville in 2008 to be closer to his daughter, who worked for Walmart.
When he moved to Northwest Arkansas, it was difficult to find halal meat. Ali raised goats and lamb for halal slaughter on his farm in Avoca (Benton County). He sold the farm and opened up his restaurant, Aroma, in 2008. Ali and his wife, Sughra, prepare and sell dishes like fresh roti, lamb chops and biryani. Their menu is fully halal. Ali is involved in the local Muslim community in Northwest Arkansas, and Aroma often provides food during religious holidays:
We came to USA for the second time in 2005, and we came to California. We stayed there for about two months, and then I had hard time finding a job, although I have M.B.A. from California State University. I had difficulty finding a job because of age or maybe because of religion, I don’t know, because of the way I look. I had a beard. And my daughter was here working in Transplace America. Right now she’s working in Walmart. So she suggested that we move here closer to her. She was here. We were in California.
Then in August 2005, we decided to move here. I came here, tried to find a job.
Had a beard and had difficulty for about maybe four or five days, then I shaved my beard off and found a job with Arkansas Support Network. There I worked three years. It was such a job that I had to stay with some client overnight and my day was free. Later on, they gave me so much time in the day also, but we decided to do some business.
So I started going to farms, getting goat meat and selling goat meat, because goat meat was not easily available in Arkansas. People came to me. Finally we had a farm in Avoca, 120-acre farm. I was overseeing most of it, but on that farm we grew goats. So people came to buy goat meat from us, and some will ask if we could make some biryani for them. Biryani is very popular among Indians. We started making biryani and then we said we can start the restaurant. …
It’s very difficult to survive right now. Most of the time you come here, you find the restaurant empty. That is because of buffet. Other people have buffet at lunchtime, and we were losing money on the buffet because Americans are very careful in eating, using the buffet. They take whatever they want to eat, but the other population, like Indians, Pakistani and people from that area, they used to take a lot of food without trying to judge how much they can eat, and they would leave a lot of food behind. Our trashcans were full. So, basically, and our buffet price was very reasonable, and we were adding continuously more and more rich items, like we had samosa on the buffet, we had tikka on the buffet … .
One day I saw somebody walking — we had Mango Shake also — somebody eating and drinking whatever they wanted, wasting whatever he wanted, and then he was walking off with two Mango Shakes. So that way we were losing the money. So we had to shut down the buffet, and people started going to other restaurants.
But, still, some of our items are such that they are very popular, our biryani and our tikka, so at lunchtime people who don’t care about buffet, eating too much over there, they come here and enjoy their food. …
In Ramadan, we have big gatherings, we break our fast at sunset and people try to bring their food so that people can break their fast. They’re fasting during the day there’s no eating one and a half hour before sundown and then they start eating at sunset. So people bring food because they think it will make God happier if people break their fast with their food. So we have big get-togethers in the mosque, and then people order food from here, and most of them are from South India. South India a little bit different recipes, so their choice of ordering either from here, which is a common food between south and north, biryani is pretty popular, so if they order biryani, the first reference is Aroma.
Flavors Indian Cuisine, Kwality Ice Cream and Grill and World Food Mart, Bentonville
Himabindu Sreepathy, born in 1981, is originally from the Andhra Pradesh state in Southern India. She obtained a degree in medicine. When she married her husband, Raja Bavirisetti, in 2007, they moved to Houston. Raja got a job at Walmart in 2009, and the couple moved to Bentonville, where Indian restaurants and grocery stores were scarce. Bindu learned to adapt to her surroundings. She bought local produce, made curries out of celery, and searched the internet for pasta recipes.
Raja grew up helping his father in their family business, and he missed entrepreneurial work. In 2011 Bindu and Raja opened an Indian restaurant, Taj Indian Cuisine. It later became Flavors Indian Cuisine. In 2015 they opened World Food Mart, a grocery store that sells Indian ready-made goods, vegetables and other international products. Kwality Ice Cream and Grill, which sells kulfi, baked goods and a savory menu packed with Bindu’s recipes, opened in 2018:
I mostly work in the kitchens, and Kwality, and I did help in the flavors, streamlining the recipes for them, getting the proportions right, as well as with the help of the chefs working there. At Kwality, 70 percent of them are my recipes, combined with additions from other chefs and my pastry chef and other people. At the food truck, 80 percent of the recipe ideas were from my husband, Raja. Well … and the store … I don’t know what I do at the store. It’s more like inventory management, managing the schedules, ordering stuff, seeing if everything is in place, where I want it to be — easily accessible, because we think it should always be a pleasure. Shopping should be a pleasure for the customers. If it’s haphazardly placed all over the store, no one is going to seriously know what we have, so we think it should be well-organized. I help in keeping things in order. …
I have been cooking since 1991. Like my mom, she is … I think, at the age of 40 or 43. She’s 43, I believe. So, she went to do radiology. So, my mom wasn’t with us, so it was just me, my dad and my sisters. So, I would be the — since being the eldest in the house, I was the one doing the cooking. … I started cooking, entering the kitchen when I was in sixth grade, I believe. I think so, yep, sixth grade, maybe. I don’t like eating the same thing twice in a day. [Laughter] And being a vegetarian makes it very hard when you are in U.S. Once we came to U.S. after marriage, it was like we would go — me and my husband love food. We love experimenting with — and I wouldn’t like it when I go into a restaurant, and I was like, the first thing even before being seated, I would ask them to show us the menu because it’s most meat-based in this country. …
I mean, it was never a hassle, because most of them, it was maybe 70 percent were like we did, have an option for vegetarian food, non-meat based food and stuff. But when I came here is when I had to actually learn more recipes, because that’s when I learned Italian cooking. Food Network. [Laughter] I would like, my husband loves pasta. That’s when it was like, every Friday night was pasta night for us. He still says, “You should put that recipe, I have never tasted that.” I’m like, “We will see. Maybe we will add pasta to the menu, too, here, one day.” Then I would look. See, when you try to create new recipes, you’re actually going to the supermarket, grocery store, and seeing what you’re getting. We love doing seasonal. Of course, not many like seasonal stuff, but now, trend has become that people want to eat seasonal foods. That’s how I was like, so we had so many recipes that I could experiment with. Then … I would, like, cook new things every now and then, but the serious cooking, the large-scale cooking, came when last year, we decided that for Flavors, we wanted to have a … what do you call? A proper recipe. Not like, say, in India, where the cooking is more like “You taste, you put.” Oh, there’s a little salt, you go ahead and add salt. I mean, that’s what my mom taught me. There was no such thing as a recipe. It’s like, we were like, “You watch and learn.” I have never gotten a recipe from anybody in India. If they ask a recipe, they just say, “Stand beside me. Come on, stand.” Say, “Go ahead, you take a handful of this, a spoon of that, a bowl of this, and fry.” They don’t have time — it’s just that, for them, they say, “If it smells good, that’s when the recipe is correct.” I mean … [Laughter.] It’s a weird thing in India. That’s how people teach. …
[A]t Flavors, it’s still — it’s Indian, but we have modernized — not exactly modernized, we have made it more American. It’s more American taste. It’s milder, it’s creamier, it’s people who have grown — like myself — my kids don’t like spice. My daughter is like, “No.” She cannot even, black pepper, no, she will not tolerate anything. It’s more the palate, what we have adjusted the food. We’re still having the same recipes, but the palate, we have changed. Even here at Kwality, we still have the chicken tikka, paneer tikka, but the way it is presented, a panini, which is not an Indian thing. So, we’re trying to have what we get in India, but things everybody can try.
We still have things which are very typical Indian in the menu, but we are trying to see that everybody enjoys it. It’s why restrict food to selected few? Yeah, like the pizza. Pizzas, we have tikka, paneer tikka pizza, butter chicken pizza, chicken tikka pizza. Something that’s not — pizza is not our stuff, it’s Western. But the buttered chicken, the chicken tikka, what we put in the sauces, it’s all Indian. We are trying to merge things here, where at Flavors, we are trying to … it’s still Indian food, but adapted to the taste of people who are here.