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