Immigrant Stories Through Food

For many immigrants, stories are often told through the food they serve: stories of identity, of community, and of family.

Jerry Lee slinging some noodles. (Photo by Tiffany Wong)

At Tasty Hand Pulled Noodles in Hell’s Kitchen, Jerry Lee arrives at 10 am every day to to prepare the dough for lamien — homemade Chinese noodles. Lee learned the technique of noodle-pulling from his father-in-law in the Chinese province of Lanzhou, where lamien originated.

When Tasty Hand Pulled Noodles opened 10 years ago, the clientele was exclusively Chinese. Now, Lee says, it’s “50/50.”

“Maybe they want to try some authentic Chinese food. I think this is different, between real Chinese food and American Chinese food.”

For loyal customers, the experience of “authenticity” is not only in taste, but also in sight, smell and sound.

At Brick Lane Curry House, in East Midtown, owner and head chef Sati Sharma conveys his British-Indian identity through freshly-made curries.

Sharma named the restaurant after Brick Lane, an East London street that is home to a Bangladeshi food market. There, he also learned how to make Phaal, a notoriously spicy curry that leaves diners crying and sweating.

This curry contains some of the world’s spiciest peppers, such as habanero, dried red chilies, ghost peppers, and Carolina Reaper peppers. They’re so potent that chefs must wear gas masks while cooking with them.

“If you want to do something spicy, might as well be the spiciest in the world.”

Inside Atlantic Halal Meat in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by S. Moreno West)

Saeed Ahmed is the owner of Atlantic Halal Meat, a Brooklyn butcher shop that primarily caters to Latino and Muslim communities. An immigrant himself, Ahmed came from Lahore, Pakistan, through a circuitous route via France, Guatemala and Mexico in the late 1980’s. He was 21.

“I wanted the dollars.”
A photo of Saeed Ahmed when he immigrated to the U.S. (Photo by S. Moreno West)

Animals at Atlantic Halal Meat are slaughtered by Ahmed’s brother at a Brooklyn slaughterhouse. The animals are killed under zabiha–an Arabic term for the rules of slaughtering animals in accordance with Islamic law.

Ahmed says his non-Muslim customers prefer meat from local butchers as opposed to supermarket chains. His shop provides a trustworthy and familiar alternative for a large portion of Brooklyn’s immigrant population.

Ahmed’s customer list, written in English and Urdu. (Photo by S. Moreno West)
Ahmed clears the remains of of a lamb from his cutting table. (Photo by S. Moreno West)

Ahmed says his story differs from more recent stories of immigration to the US such as those told by his employees.

“Before it was very easy to cross from Mexico. Now it’s very difficult and dangerous. Before nobody said nothing.”

More often than not, the stories of immigrants behind the food Americans eat go unheard.

Ahmed in his meat locker at Atlantic Halal Meat. (Photo by S. Moreno West)

Written and Edited by:

Tiffany Wong, Amanda B. Williams, and S. Moreno West