Tag Archives: dhaba

Punjabi Truckers Find A Warm Welcome At US Highway Dhabas

A billboard promising a taste of India looms across American interstate I-40. The new Route 66, I-40 is the spine of the Sikh trucking world. Every 100-200 miles you will find a Punjabi dhaba serving heart-healthy meals to diabetes-prone Punjabi truckers. 

Tucked into truck stops with names like Jay Bros (in Overton, NE.) and Antelope Truck Stop Pronghorn (in Burns, WY.), the ubiquitous dhaba serves the needs of the increasing numbers of Punjabi truckers driving down I-80.

Raja Sekhon

Raja Sekhon, an ex-Indian Air Force officer who drives his truck through Canada and the US doesn’t stop at them. When he embarks on his 5-day journey, carrying fresh produce across US and Canada, he packs his own food. 

“From home I bring 4 spelt flour rotis (flatbread), daal (lentil soup), saag (spinach curry) and dahi (plain probiotic yogurt). That’s my diet on the road,” says Sekhon, a graduate of National Defense Academy, (NDA) India’s Westpoint. 

After having flown Air Force fighter jets and other professional jobs, he started driving a truck after retirement at the age of 61.

“Every day on the road I eat a banana, apple, date, fig, and prunes along with a cup of black coffee with haldi (turmeric),” says Sekhon who includes ginger and vitamins as part of his daily diet. Maintaining a healthy glycemic index is key.  

Of the 1.5 million truck drivers on US highways, says the Punjab Truck Association, about 150,000 Punjabis work in the trucking industry. Increasingly, Punjabi drivers are filling the depleting ranks of truck drivers many of whom are leaving due to health problems.

 A pilot study on health and safety for truckers published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that commercial truck drivers have a 50% higher risk of developing diabetes compared to the general population and that  87% of truck drivers have hypertension or prehypertension.

As a double whammy, South Asians like Sekhon have a four to fivefold higher risk for Type 2 diabetes compared to other Asian migrant groups. In a study on the dietary patterns and diabetes prevention strategies for South Asians in Western countries, Dr. Sherly Parackal from the University of Otago states that “Dietary patterns have been attributed as an important independent modifiable risk factor.” 

On an average road trip of ten days, food carried from home by a truck driver will last a few days before it spoils. Most long haul drivers will stop on the road at dhabas to refill their boxes for the rest of the trip. They heat the food on the camping stove that accompanies each trucking duo and make a cuppa chai to go with it.

Balvinder Singh Saini operates Punjabi Dhaba food truck with his wife, Mansi Tiwari, and a small staff of relatives in Bakersfield, California. Saini, 44, was once a truck driver himself, but health problems forced him to find another way to support his family.

“I make sure the food served to truckers is heart-healthy. The oil we use is cold press, the vegetables are non-GMO and organic, the flatbreads whole wheat, and the food portable. At times they pick up forty flatbreads at the start of their journey,” says Saini.

Even on the limited COVID menu, Saini makes sure that a good serving of vegetables is available: Shahi Matar Paneer (peas & cheese), Chole Masala (garbanzo beans), Aloo Gajar Matar Sabzi (potato, carrots & peas), Daal Makhani (pulses), with hand-rolled whole wheat bread Tawa Roti.

“Most Punjabi drivers are vegetarian on the road,” says Gurjeet, who drives a truck with her husband. “It is harder to find vegetarian food on the road. We find long lines of truckers at Subway ordering the vegetarian sandwich.”

In her study, Dr. Parackal associated “animal protein”, “fried snacks, sweets, and high-fat dairy” with greater insulin resistance and lower HDL cholesterol. A “mixed” dietary pattern was associated with obesity and hypertension and a “western” dietary pattern was linked to overall risk for Metabolic Syndrome. Another observation showed a “70% increase in the odds of diabetes per standard deviation in grams of protein intake.” 

Parackal recommends diabetes prevention strategies such as “Registered dietitian-directed wellness programs that include education, support, and cooperation of truck-stop restaurants are critical to reduce obesity and risk of disease in this population.”

Heart health coach Anita Sathe at the South Asian Heart Institute which guides South Asians in the management of their heart risk, suggests “A plate that is half full of vegetables, a quarter full with grains and a quarter with protein.”

At the Punjabi Dhaba off I-5 in Bakersfield, California, tables have been set up outside and masked clients are seated at a distance of six feet apart. There is ample parking space for truckers to pull in. Twelve dollars will buy four whole wheat rotis, daal (lentil soup dressed with a tadka of ginger, garlic, caramelized onions, and fire-roasted tomatoes) and, for the meat-eater, a treat of lean goat meat curry. Creamy steaming chai is a possibility. 

Balvinder Singh Saini knows that truckers are required to take a break before they complete 8 hours of driving and must stop driving after clocking 11 hours. The truck’s log system records and reports the time spent on the road. His dhaba is perfect for that thirty minute stop.

As the pandemic unfolded earlier this year, truckers have soldiered on through closed rest stops and food chains to deliver essential goods. Balvinder Singh and the Punjabi Dhaba have kept the wheels turning come rain, sunshine, or pandemic, plying truckers with heart-healthy fare. 

The dhaba feels like a piece of home. It has Punjabi music and Punjabi movies on the wall-hung TVs. The ladies in the kitchen, like aunts back in Punjab, wear Indian salwar trousers and kameez shirts and share family gossip while they hand-roll rotis. Balvinder Singh Saini himself stops and chats beside the outdoor tables with tales of his own, watching indulgently while his customers devour their meals.

“It is not just the body of the trucker, it is the spirit that gets nourished at these rustic eateries,” says Balvinder Singh Saini.

Dhabas on US Highways

  • Punjabi Dhaba 2546 S Union Ave Bakersfield, CA 93307
  • Punjabi Truck Stop (I-40, exit 26) -11561 N 1900 Rd, Sayre, OK 73662. (580) 928-2500
  • Panjabi Dhaba Restaurant & Vega Truck Stop 3650, I-40, Vega, TX 79092
  • Punjabi Dhaba 48243 Memorial Dr, Newberry Springs, CA 92365
  • Taste of India 2405 NM-469, San Jon, NM 88434
  • Dillon Truck Stop, San Jon, NM (I-40, exit 356) 
  • Punjabi Dhaba 2650 N Roundup Ave, Kingman, AZ 86401
  • Punjabi Dhaba 7311 Hwy 104 N, Cedar Grove, TN 38321
  • Tandoori Indian Restaurant 12501 Valley View Rd, Shawnee, OK 74804
  • Pilot Truck Stop, southside of Indy (I-495, exit 4) 
  • Spiceland Truck Plaza, New Castle, IN (I-70, exit 123)
  • Spicy BiteTA Truck Stop, Milan, NM (I-40, exit 79) 1203-1299 Motel Dr, Milan, NM 87021
  • Demming Truck Plaza, Demming, NM (I-10, exit 81) 
  • Punjabi Dhaba 7800 Batavia Rd, Dixon, CA 95620
  • Speed Way Cafe I-80 exit, 4, Wendover, UT 84083
  • Punjabi Dhaba 500 A Truck Inn Way, Fernley, NV 89408
  • Jay Brothers Truck Stop Taste of India Rd 444, Overton, NE 68863
  • Akal Travel Center 168 Hunt Rd, Laramie, WY 82070
  • Akal Travel Center Exit 360 off I80 Nebraska
  • Antelope Truck Stop Pronghorn Indian & American Restaurant 4850 I-80 Service Rd, Burns, WY 82053-9808. +1 307-547-3355
  • Jay Brothers Truck Stop Taste of India.

Read other articles in this series:

Road Warrior

Doctors Open Doors To Sick Punjabi Truckers

Ritu Marwah wrote this series while participating in the USC Center for Health Journalism‘s California Fellowship.


Road Warrior

Gurjeet Kaur Randhwa drove a truck from Central Valley, California, carrying fresh produce to dinner tables across fifty states of the United States of America. A former national level field-hockey player in India, she now deftly navigates the American highways ensuring she stays in good health.In order to maintain her truck-driver’s license, Gurjeet must ensure her blood pressure and diabetes is within the acceptable range. 

Gurjeet’s medical exam report is part of her driving record. It is filed electronically by the Medical Examiner (ME) with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) bi-annually. Any drop in health indices would mean she loses her license or at best, gets recertified every year. 

The looming threat of annual medical exams that can choke off their livelihood, puts pressure on truck drivers to manage the perils of their sedentary lifestyle that result from long hours of driving. Long haul truck drivers in the U.S. have an increased prevalence, over the larger population, of major health risks and conditions across the board—obesity, morbid obesity, self-reported diabetes, cardiovascular risk factors, smoking, and lack of health insurance. 

There are 1.7 million men and women working as long-haul drivers in the US according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey2017). 

Eighteen percent, approximately 30,000 of them, are estimated to be Punjabi says Raman Dhillon, founder The North American Punjabi Trucking Association (NAPTA). The number of Punjabi truck drivers fluctuates based on the availability of jobs. Satnam Singh, a truck driver out of Yuba City says about half of the Punjabi drivers, approximately 20,000 live in California.

This Series will look at (the health challenges Punjabi drivers are facing in order to keep their driving licenses, and how they are navigating this during COVID. The two articles that follow will look at the nutritional value of dhabas (Punjabi truck stops) dotted along the US highways frequented by Punjabi truckers, and how these drivers increasingly use telemedicine to stay relatively healthy on the road and meet their licensing requirements.

Fuel For The Body

Central Valley long-haul trucker Gurjeet Kaur Randhwa

Gurjeet, a gold medalist in Masters in Physical Education, was a Professor at Women’s College, Amritsar before she moved to the United States. Her training in nutrition came in handy as she planned for her life on the road. She is vegetarian when on the road and thinks that most Punjabi truck drivers too are largely vegetarian whilst driving.

“Since it is not considered auspicious to eat meat, I have observed that most truck-drivers do not eat meat when on a long road.”

Sikhism, the religion of a majority of Punjabi truck drivers, stipulates a preference for a vegetarian diet and the Gurdwaras (Sikh temples). serve lacto-vegetarian food to worshippers and visitors. 

“When you are driving a 80,000-ton vehicle, which takes an entire football field length to come to a full stop, you really are riding a rocket. It is a powerful machine and any small mistake can have magnified consequences. Driving long hours, as we do, one definitely wants the blessings of the Guru with us,” says Gurjeet.  Gurjeet has never seen Punjabi Sikh drivers transport cattle to beef factories for that very reason.

Satnam Singh, a truck driver who lives in Yuba City and is an active member of the community,  agrees with her that most are vegetarian while driving. “Not all of them. I would guess 80%” he said. 

Unfortunately, being vegetarian further limits their food-stop choices on the road so drivers pack nutritious meals before leaving home. Gurjeet, when she drives her truck, carries two subzis or vegetable curries per meal. She wraps the chapatis or flatbreads individually in airtight packs to keep them fresh longer. Every truck has a small rest area behind the driver’s seat. It holds a mini-refrigerator, a microwave, and a bed to lay on. On a ten to fifteen-day road journey, there always comes a time when the driver exhausts their stash of food and has to stop and buy a meal. This is where the driver must make informed choices. 

To meet the needs of the truckers, dhabas or food stops serving Punjabi food have sprung up along US highways. In the remotest of places, sometimes hidden inside gas stations are mouth-watering, wholesome delicacies that promise to keep the glycemic index from jumping up.

Rejuvenating Zs

Gurjeet and her husband used to drive together, taking turns. As drivers are paid by the mile, this enabled the couple to make a quick turnaround and complete more trips every month. A truck can make only three trips a month barely breaking even. By sharing the driving amongst them the couple would squeeze on a fourth trip. But life on the road was tough. Sleeping in a moving truck was hardly restful. Driving long hours tired Gurjeet out. Lack of good sleep is definitely a factor impacting the health of the truck driver.

Balvinder Singh, a truck driver who now runs a dhaba, agrees. “I could not get fitful sleep on these journeys. When the load needs to be dropped off and another one picked, the driver is at the mercy of the client. Whenever the load becomes available he must pick it up. In a rush to minimize the number of hours spent in wait mode the driver sometimes snatches just 3-4 hours of sleep before he starts loading,” says Balvinder.

The number of hours on the road is strongly regulated by the Department of Transportation.  After being off duty for 10 or more consecutive hours, a  trucker is allowed to drive for up to 11 hours in a period of 14 consecutive hours. The truck‘s Electronic Logging Device or ELD system makes a note of the number of hours the driver has rested and the number of hours he has been on the road. The driver must receive a minimum of 10 hours off duty if transporting property, and eight hours if transporting passengers.

During the COVID-19  pandemic, a  nationwide emergency hours-of-service exemption was in place for truck drivers hauling loads related to the coronavirus pandemic. The relaxed rules allow some truck drivers to rest for less than 10 hours.

The Center of Disease Control (CDC) states that adults who sleep less than 7 hours each night are more likely to say they have had health problems, including heart attack, asthma, and depression. Some of these health problems raise the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Get The Heart Pumping

Most truck stops have facilities for the truckers to shower, shave, eat and exercise. Some have a lounge to relax in and a gas station to fuel up. Gurjeet and the other Punjabi truck drivers rarely use the gyms. “I have never seen any desi drivers in the gyms,” says Balvinder. 

After being cooped up in the truck for long hours Gurjeet would rather be in the fresh air. She advocates a walk at every stop making sure to cover a few miles. As a lady driver, security is a concern. She does not wander too far from the truck but circles her 53-foot long truck, carving out her own track.

Health of Wealth 

The romance of being a truck driver has been captured by many movies and folk singers. The shiny machine humming down the long road of freedom making stops as it travels through new lands and vistas is a vision that fueled the American dream of this professor of nutrition, field hockey player, and yogini. With the drop in loads due to the trade war with China in 2019 and COVID-19 in 2020, the American Dream seems to be souring as truckers fight for loads. 

The drop in container traffic has led truck drivers who served the ports to move into stable but low paying Central Valley produce transportation businesses. Price gouging by middlemen brokers has made it difficult for truckers to meet their expenses let alone make it profitable for them to drive their trucks. Since the beginning of May 2020, commercial drivers have taken to the streets of Washington DC and Sacramento petitioning Congress to take immediate action to improve broker transparency.  A majority of the Punjabi truckers are independent operators who get their business through brokers. A shipper pays the broker, who in turn pays the truck driver for carrying the load. Brokers are taking advantage of the desperation of the independent truckers in COVID times by creaming off the rates. Motor carriers have the right to know how much a shipper is paying a broker and how much the broker is then paying the motor carrier. Brokers often find ways of circumventing federal regulations (49 CFR §371.3) that require them to keep records of transactions and make them available to carriers upon request.

It is time to remember that behind the wheel of the machine is a person who delivers our essential goods, keeps panic of empty grocery store shelves at bay, and drives at great peril to their health, fighting to stay healthy to keep their jobs.

Truck driver Satnam Singh of Yuba City said in Punjabi, “Every day we ride a bomb. We are caught in a triple whammy of less work, low rates, and poor health.” 

Read other articles in this series:

Doctors Open Doors To Sick Punjabi Truckers

Doctors Open Doors To Sick Punjabi Truckers

Punjabi Truckers Find A Warm Welcome At US Highway Dhabas


Ritu Marwah wrote this series while participating in the USC Center for Health Journalism‘s California Fellowship.