Culinary Colonialism, and Hinduism in Houston

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Houston, Texas, USA

A back road in a suburb in southwest Houston leads to an elaborate archway topped with fluttering red and white pennants. Beyond the archway, families mill about a lawn enjoying the day and watching the fountains. Suddenly, the loudspeakers break the silence with a repeating chant: ”Swa-mi-na-ra-yan, Swa-mi-na-ra-yan…” At the sound of the mantra, the people make their way up the steps and through the glass doors of a marble facade.

Entrance Archway at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Houston, Texas, USA

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

  • Hindu Temple
  • Located in Stafford, Texas, USA
  • Inaugurated in 2004
  • Hand-carved in India
  • Visitor Info

Gleaming white and laced with architectural intricacy, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir stands in sharp contrast to the dreary apartment buildings across the street. This is one of several temples that serves the more than 120 thousand Hindu Houstonians, and this particular temple welcomes non-Hindu visitors to observe. Though I’ve seen many Hindu temples in India, I was intrigued by the opportunity to see a different side of my own city.

Inside, worshippers pray before lavishly clothed icons of the Hindu deities in their various incarnations; this ritual viewing of all the icons is called darshan. In the innermost part of the temple stands a golden statue of Swaminarayan, a nineteenth-century spiritual leader who founded the denomination of Hinduism that this temple adheres to. He is surrounded by depictions of scenes from his life and a map of his pilgrimages through India.

As devotees file into the inner shrine, they first wash their hands in a ritual cleansing under the watchful eye of an attendant. Those with clean hands may receive a small pitcher of water which they pour over the statue for blessing. As people continued their darshan, I stepped out and went for some lunch at the cafe across the lawn, which is attached to a small store offering a variety of books, religious items, and imported snacks and sweets.

Among the menu of typical Indian fare, one item stood out to me: a sandwich. I’d never associated Indian food with sandwiches before, so I had to give it a try. It was a baffling concoction, including among other things yellow cheese, white bread and ketchup. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was authentically Indian or some attempt to please the palates of westernized immigrants.

The story, it turns out, is a little more complicated. The sandwich, like the temple itself, is in fact authentically Indian, but instead of being westernized Indian food, it’s rather the opposite. Shortly after India was relieved of British rule in the mid twentieth century, some creative Bombay street food vendors set about assimilating the culinary relics that the colonizers had left behind. And thus was born the Bombay sandwich: a British high tea sandwich stuffed with vegetables such as tomatoes and potatoes (ingredients that originally hail from Christopher Columbus’s ”India”) and topped off with a pungent mix of local spices called chaat masala and the classic Indian cilantro chutney. It’s a relatively recent addition to the millennia-old cuisine of India, but it’s become a classic on the streets of Mumbai.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (Victoria Terminus), Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
The monumental Indo-Gothic facade of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus is the hub of Mumbai’s historic colonial district.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I was actually in Mumbai, ordering a sandwich at a cart outside the city’s Gothic railway station. We watched the sandwichwallah as he made his version by slathering slices of white bread with chutney, layering it with tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, beets, onions, and cheese, sprinkling it with chaat masala, then clamping it all into a handheld iron set over a small grill. After a few minutes, he opened the iron to reveal the pressed and golden-toasted sandwich, which he chopped into bite-sized pieces, doused with ketchup and garnished with crunchy fried flakes called sev.

Street Food Cart, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Bombay Sandwich, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Fast forward yet again: I’m home in Houston working my way through Indian cookbooks in an effort to master a new skill during the coronavirus pandemic. And in one of my cookbooks, lo and behold, is a recipe for the ”Bombay sandwich.” So I gathered the motley list of ingredients and played the role of sandwichwallah for my parents.

The Bombay sandwich may sound like a strange and unlikely combination, as incongruous as an elaborate Hindu temple among the cookie-cutter neighborhoods of American suburbia. Both were made possible by journeys that span the world: of Indian immigrants settling in America, and of European colonists cross-pollinating bits of cuisine around the globe. The result: a unique place to visit right here in Houston, and a delicious lunch!

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