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What AAPI Heritage Month Means To Ben's Chili Bowl's Sage Ali


May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and we've been celebrating by checking in with recent guests about what this month means to them. This week, we caught up with Sage Ali, co-owner of the iconic Washington, D.C., restaurant Ben's Chili Bowl. Ali's father, the restaurant's namesake, was from Trinidad and of Indian descent. And that was a big part of his identity growing up.

SAGE ALI: We were raised Muslim. My dad is, you know, Muslim. So he's from India, Muslim. And so we - even living in D.C., we went to the mosque. And the mosque was a largely Indian community. In fact, at one point, we went from The Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., to a Caribbean-based mosque that was probably 90% Indian. So we were raised with, I mean, we loved, you know, roti and curry and all of the Indian foods and the music and the culture in general, you know. And in fact, Vida, my wife, she's also from Trinidad, from the same community.

MARTIN: Ali says that being Black and Asian American gave him a rich cultural background to draw from.

SALI: It felt to me like I was a little bit lucky because I had a bigger world than most of my friends, you know what I mean? It's like I just had a little bit more to draw from. You know, when we went to Trinidad for a month and stay with my grandmother and she's teaching us how to do the curry and the rotis and stuff every day and teaching us songs and Urdu and stuff, you know, it was just a nice addition because it just added something.

MARTIN: That something included Indian films, which Ali says were a big part of how his father connected to his Indian heritage. But it took Sage a little longer to appreciate them.

SALI: It was funny because my dad, you know, when he was coming up and he was excited about Indian movies, you know, he'd make us watch a few on the old videotapes, Betamax first and then VHS, you know, before it kind of went all digital like it is right now. And, you know, the Indian movies back then were boring as heck for me because they were three hours long. And, you know, just at one point, you've got this action scene. Next thing you know, you got someone belly dancing coming out from behind a tree, you know, so it was kind of funny.

And he - before he died, he took us on a trip. It was a weeklong cruise. And at that time, you know, we had the laptops and stuff. He had a bunch of Indian movies on DVD. He kind of, you know, we're in there, and at certain points at nighttime, we're a little bit bored and stuff. Son, son, come watch this. And we watched these Indian movies. And the new generation of Indian movies was really good.

MARTIN: And speaking of good, if you've ever enjoyed the food at Ben's Chili Bowl, Ali says you can thank his dad's Indian heritage for that, too.

SALI: My dad was Indian, right? My dad was here in America, and he opened Ben's Chili Bowl in 1958. Back then, you want to get a burger? Your options are mustard, ketchup, relish, onions. Pretty much, that's it. I don't even think Tabasco sauce was a big thing back then. So in other words, pop said there was no spice back then. He said American food was really, really bland. And pop's entire philosophy was I'm going to bring spice to America.

MARTIN: And that was Sage Ali, one of the owners of Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.