How a rural Oklahoma truck stop became a destination for Sikh Punjabis crossing America

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SAYRE, Okla. – Truck Stop 40 is easy to jump. Yellow billboards with bold red letters advertise it at Exit 26, halfway between Amarillo and Oklahoma City, promising a “truck and service garage” that sells sandwiches. But mechanics and fast food restaurants are easy to find on Interstate 40 and in and of themselves are no reason to stop.

For hundreds of American Indian truckers who pass by each day, the two words that are not in English are more appealing.

“Taji roti,” they say in Punjabi. “Fresh food.”

Today, as the number of Sikh truckers has grown, dozens of no-frills freeway stops selling food from the Punjab region of India have sprung up along America’s highways. Truck Stop 40, on the outskirts of Sayre, Okla., Population 4,625, is among the oldest, largest and best known.

Main street in Sayre, Okla.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“We don’t know anyone in town, but with the Punjabi truckers we are famous,” says Harpreet Chhoker, 52, who, along with her husband, runs the 24-hour vegetarian restaurant next to a horse pasture for many years. 11 years old.

She talks behind the cash register in the simple restaurant, where there is seating for a dozen on pink laminate tables, a television showing Bollywood videos and Indian news, and plenty of cups of hot chai to take away for them. truckers in a hurry.

A handwritten menu of daily specials is recorded in front of her. They include chole puri (spicy chickpeas served with puffed fried wheat bread), makki di roti (flatbread made from cornmeal), bhindi (crispy okra in a light tomato sauce), and dal (lentils). black). Fresh yogurt is made daily for the lassi, a sweet mango or spicy smoothie with salt and water. One of the most popular dishes is Indian instant coffee – beaten with milk, sugar, and cocoa to resemble cappuccino.

The Chhoker family truck stop includes a delicatessen, a mechanics shop, a vegetarian restaurant and parking for truckers who stay overnight in their trucks.

The Chhoker family truck stop includes a delicatessen, a mechanics shop, a vegetarian restaurant and parking for truckers who stay overnight in their trucks.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Truckers come in and out. They talk in Punjabi headsets while they eat.

Brothers Randeep Singh, 21, and Hardeep Singh, 24, stop on their way back to Fresno after loading their trailer with dog food in New Jersey. After immigrating in 2016 from the city of Hoshiarpur in northern India, they worked in gas stations before switching to trucking. “We don’t have a lot of breaks, so when we do, we always try to stop here,” says Randeep, taking bites of chole puri.

Ahmad Tasawar, 34, is on his way to California from Baltimore and orders lentils with rice. “It’s much better than stopping for Taco Bell,” says Tasawar, a Pakistani Muslim who has driven for seven years and is one of the few non-Sikhs around.

Truckers line up to place orders at the Chhoker Family's 24-hour vegetarian restaurant.

Truckers line up to place orders at the Chhoker Family’s 24-hour vegetarian restaurant.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Not all South Asians. Edmund Paddon, 56, arrives from Toronto to make a deposit in Albuquerque before picking up tomatoes and corn in Nogales, Ariz., For the return north. “There’s a truck stop down the road, but that’s all fatty food,” Paddon says, eating paratha (wheat flatbread) with pickled mango.

An American flag covers a window at the back of the dining room that overlooks the nearby mechanical shop, where Chhoker’s husband Raj Chhoker works daily on tire alignment and alternator replacement.

The couple has 20 employees, all Punjabi Indians who live in the field in caravans. Almost all of them are immigrants recruited by word of mouth. They maintain supplies, a mechanical workshop, a gas station, a delicatessen and a Sikh temple housed in a trailer. Raj, 61, dreams of one day building a motel and a casino.

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Edmund Paddon, a truck driver from Toronto, stops for dinner.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“My plan is to create my own town here,” says Raj, a former trucker who moved his family from suburban Houston to the 10-acre lot in 2005 after spotting a “for sale” sign during a delivery. . He bought it for $ 200,000 and now lives in a two-story house with Harpreet and his two sons.

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To enter Truck Stop 40, you exit I-40 and veer north, crossing the freeway below before seeing an 80 foot American flag and a large red barn-like structure painted on it. the word “Tires” in large print. To the right of a glass vestibule is a much smaller white sign that says “Indian Food”. Outside you see the freeway and hear the trucks roaring down the road. Inside, you hear the Punjabi twang and smell the potatoes and carrots sizzle with ginger, cumin and turmeric.

Two Sikh truckers have dinner.

Two Sikh truck drivers have dinner.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a stark contrast to downtown Sayre, about five miles southwest of the highway. Its quiet six-block main street is made up of two-story brick buildings renovated to give them an old Western feel that evokes the city’s beginnings in 1901. This is when the city arose the along what would become Route 66. There are at least 10 churches, and the few restaurants – a cafe, steakhouse, barbecue, Sonic, and Mexican restaurant – mostly close at 6pm or earlier.

The entrance to the Truck Stop 40 restaurant.

The entrance to the Truck Stop 40 restaurant.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The county is 88% white and the Chhokers, one of the few families around who are neither white nor black, mostly stay among themselves. Getting from Houston to a small town was difficult at first, says Harpreet, who previously worked as a cashier at Walmart. She remembers those early summers when she saw “just all the dust and nobody” from the lot.

To keep herself busy, she started giving chai to truckers who came for repairs. Soon they convinced her to sell food.

“I used to miss seeing Indians,” says Harpreet. “Now we have so many coming every day – you don’t even see that many in the big city. “

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