An immigrant community's traditional food includes meals and recipes that originated in their home culture. It can involve unique ingredients and food preparation tools.

Traditional recipes are passed down through communities and served at special gatherings that honor a group’s culture and heritage. They are also shared with people outside the community who are interested in diverse foods. Sharing a meal is one way to share between cultures.

Ethnic and Specialty Foods

If you ask someone what the traditional food of certain groups are, they might easily come up with answers like tacos for Mexicans, chow mein for Chinese, and even lutefisk and lefse for Scandinavians. This shows how closely connected our cultural identities are with the food we eat. Sometimes these food associations are inaccurate or stereotypical, however, or they have become more Americanized than food back home.

Even though Maria Esther Diaz had lived in Willmar for many years, she upheld her Mexican traditions through the food she made. At first, finding ingredients for her recipes was hard, but it has become easier over the years.

Q: Have you retained any of these cultural traditions?
A: I have. For my food, I only cook Mexican. I make my own tortillas and I try to make everything from scratch: my salsas [sauces], sopas [soup or soupy casseroles], cálditos del pollo [chicken soup], everything in here, in this cooking, it’s traditional.

Maria Esther Diaz

Interview with Maria Esther Diaz, 2010

Ethnic Food Restaurants

Many immigrants to Minnesota started restaurants where they served traditional food for their communities. Not only were these restaurants a way for them to make a living, but they also became a way for them to share their culture's recipes and traditions with the rest of Minnesota.

Tashi Khongertsang is a Tibetan American who moved to Minnesota in 1996. He opened Tibet's Corner, the first Tibetan-owned restaurant in Minnesota. He explained that he wanted to open a Tibetan restaurant to introduce his culture to Minnesotans.

[I opened the restaurant] to introduce my culture, Tibetan. Because like the Midwest, especially like Minnesota, and I heard like—I mean there’s so many people they don’t even know about Tibet and stuff. So you know, this is like part of introducing our culture, our people where we from, what things we are going through right now. Like people can learn a lot when they come to my restaurant, actually.

Tashi Khongertsang

Interview with Tashi Khongertsang, 2005

Born in Thailand, Noi Sinkasem came to the United States and originally lived with her sister, who owned a Thai restaurant in Minneapolis called Sawatdee. When Noi moved to St. Cloud, she opened a second Sawatdee restaurant to introduce Thai food there.

Interview with Noi Sinkasem, 2012

Festival Food

Food is frequently included at cultural festivals, as an easily identifiable representation of the unique communities that make up our state. These festivals become places where people can share their traditional foods with the wider community and help increase awareness of Minnesota's culinary diversity.

One long-running festival is the Festival of Nations, first held by the International Institute of Minnesota in 1936. This event celebrates the many ethnicities and cultures of people living in Minnesota. A highlight of the festival are the international cafes, where attendees can try a wide variety of traditional foods in one place.

Shanti Shah helped organize the India exhibit and restaurant for the Festival of Nations in the 1970s on behalf of the India Association and the School of India for Languages and Culture (SILC). By selling traditional Indian food, they were able to raise money for their organizations and share many aspects of their culture.

The first year, I organized the exhibition. For the food, Stephen and I had made almost four hundred gulab jamans to sell… I don’t think either of us could look at gulab jamans for a while afterwards.

Shanti Shah

Interview with Shanti Shah, 2004

Food Heritage

Food traditions are passed down through generations along with our cultural heritage, and the food we eat is central to our identity. People associate their food with their culture and are proud of both.

Like many immigrants to Minnesota, Louis Medina raised his family eating traditional food. He raised his children to also enjoy food from Mexico, where he was born. Now grown and married, his children and their families still enjoy eating Mexican food. They come together to share meals, even though they now have mixed cultural heritage.

I have a daughter that is married to a Polish man. He loves Mexican food. He'd rather eat Mexican food than anything else. All my children. My son, comes down here and has his "frijoles", and "tortillas" they love Mexican food. I haven't seen one of them that doesn't come here and has a meal with us, they love Mexican food.

Louis Medina

Interview with Louis Medina, 1976

Martha Castanon grew up moving between Minnesota and Texas with her Mexican-born parents. She spoke about being intentional about sharing traditional foods with the younger people in her family.

Interview with Martha Castanon, 2010

To see how immigrants preserved their culture in traditional clothing, music, and dance, use the page links below.