I have waited a long time for a moment that has seemingly finally arrived: a critical mass of writers of South Asian descent writing in mainstream American publications on South Asian food. This development—if I am correct in so describing it—has been accompanied by a greater attention in general in mainstream American publications—whether focused on food or not—on South Asian food conceived of in ways different from those in earlier eras. Greater attention is paid now to regionality, to street food, to what we might call contemporary articulations of traditional food. Of course, these things are not happening in a vacuum: they mirror broadly the transformation of food and restaurant culture in the US in the same period. The rise of regionality, the greater attention to vernacular traditions, the re-articulation of foods from these sources into elite foodways (and the writing about them): this has all been happening in US food culture more generally in the post-Bourdain, now post-Chang era. But I’m Indian and so I tend to be more parochially focused on what’s happening with the Indian, or more broadly, South Asian food scene here. But before I get to the current scene, a little unreliable history.
I should say that the view I am taking is a reasonably long one. I arrived in the U.S just over 25 years ago (in August 1993) and have now lived here longer than I did in India (where I was born and raised). I cannot say that in my early, pre-internet-saturation years in the US I was scouring food media so closely for references to Indian food but I think I am broadly correct in describing most food writing on South Asia in my first decade in the US as falling closer to the enthusiastic (at best) or exoticizing (at worst) than to the genuinely knowledgable end of the spectrum. This was, by and large, as true of cookbooks as of (rare) feature articles or restaurant reviews. Even big, respected names could not be relied on: the only letter to the editor that I have ever written was one published by the LA Weekly in the late 1990s, correcting various errors in a review of an Indian restaurant by the late Jonathan Gold.
The rise of online food culture in the early 2000s was a major turning point. First on food forums (in the first half of the decade) and then on blogs (in the second half of the decade) the conversation about South Asian food was utterly transformed. This was because South Asians in the US could now talk directly to each other about their cuisines without the dominant interest in things like chicken tikka masala or tandoori chicken structuring the terms of the conversation. This was an exciting time—whose afterlife still continues. For many of us South Asian immigrants in the US it was the first time that we could not only discuss our own regional food identities but also encounter those of others from parts of the subcontinent we had never visited. I, a Bengali, began to cook Malayali food, for example—which is probably something I would never have done if I’d remained in India.
In sum, the internet allowed South Asians in the US (I include both immigrants and people of South Asian descent in the term) to center themselves in the discussions of their cuisines and food cultures, and not constantly act as translators or guides for curious outsiders. For most non-South Asian foodies it was their first time learning about these subjects. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the online discussions were also far ahead of developments in restaurant kitchens and probably conditioned some of them. And these online discussions and transformations are also part of the background from and into which the new generation of food writers of South Asian descent have emerged. And while there is probably almost nothing about South Asian food now that could be written about in a major publication, no recipe to be “discovered”, that has not already been covered in a blog somewhere, the advent of the new(er) writers is a welcome development.
There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, they are as a group much better writers (in terms of style) than those from the previous generation (again taken as a group). They are also often seemingly of the same educational background and part of the same broader cultural conversation as the mainstream writers and editors who form the crucial networks of the profession. This enables them to get their voices into widely-read outlets in ways that older writers—many of them first generation immigrants—could not: in the past it was probably easier for a South Asian writer to publish a cookbook than to be published in a major periodical or newspaper or site like Eater or Food52 on a regular basis. Indeed, some of them now have a fair amount of cachet and power: Tejal Rao has just been named the New York Times‘ California critic; Khushbu Shah is a senior features editor at Thrillist; Mayukh Sen has won a James Beard award; Priya Krishna is a regular contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker; and so on.
The issue of identity is also important and not just because if people are going to get paid and win awards for writing about South Asian food there’s no good reason why many/most of them shouldn’t be of South Asian origin. After all, food is inextricably connected to broader culture and in-culture people can communicate the texture of that connection in ways that few “outsiders” can. Indeed, a lot of the writing by newer South Asian food writers seems to fall into this vein. Priya Krishna’s upcoming cookbook—which sounds very interesting for reasons I’ll mention below—is about her mother’s diasporic Indian kitchen and her pieces on Indian food refer to this connection as well; Shuja Haider—not a food writer per se—has written movingly about food and immigrant identity. Tejal Rao’s recent piece in the New York Times on surnoli is an excellent example of how food writing can explicate the simultaneously complex and tenuous transmission of identity across the temporal and spatial lines of immigrant movement. These are just some examples.
Lest we get too complacent about all this, however, it’s good to remember that Rao’s employers continue to publish claptrap like this piece about “kitchari”. Then again, things like Kitcharigate get enough derisive attention on Twitter. It’s also important to guard against complacency in reading and evaluating the work of the new generation of South Asian(-origin) writers and also that of more serious non-South Asian writers writing about South Asian food. I don’t usually see much/any of this in the social media spaces (Twitter mostly) where these kinds of things usually get adjudicated. Therefore I’m going to do an ongoing series here on the blog, reviewing food writing on South Asia in major publications and pointing out errors and problems I see (I’ll also point out things I like about the relevant pieces).
Here to get us started are some problems in pieces that have crossed my field of view in the last few month. This is not by any means a comprehensive list—merely things that caught my eye (and usually these are pieces that I found interesting enough that the issues I had with them seemed worth talking about). Here, and going forward, I’ll divide them into two broad categories: things that evoke larger questions for me, and things that are more nitpicky. Inevitably, there will be pieces that fall into both categories. My intention here is certainly not to tear down the work of the promising young writers I’ve mentioned (and others) or for that matter attempts by non-South Asian writers to engage meaningfully on this terrain. But as someone with a deep investment of identity of his own in the matter of South Asian food I would like to see this body of writing responded to with some rigour and not just enthusiasm. Of course, I will get things wrong myself and as nothing is more pleasurable than pointing out when a critic has made errors of their own, I hope you will write in with relish when that proves to be the case. In the meantime, consider these interventions examples of complaints by a well-meaning but cranky uncle (I fear I am closer in age to the parents of many of the writers below than I am to them).
This first set will cover the summer of 2018. If there are pieces I’ve missed please let me know. The next installment of this series will be published once I have enough to write about or if something that particularly exercises me shows up (as for example with the bullshit Lucky Peach article on mangoes a couple of years ago).
1. Why the fuck can we still not stop talking about butter chicken? Here is Priya Krishna on rotis in Bon Appetit. The article seeks to displace the ubiquity of naan but guess what shows up as an editorial recommendation (I assume) to eat rotis with? Yes, it’s butter chicken. It also showed up in another Krishna article about Instant Pot cooking that was published in the New Yorker earlier this year. Hmmm maybe Krishna does need to push back against this tired cliche. I have nothing against a good butter chicken (though very little separates a good butter chicken from a bad butter chicken) but it’s 2018. Also, Krishna’s description and instructions for making rotis are a bit odd to my eyes. Certainly, different homes do things differently but I’m yet to encounter a common practice of cooking rotis or chapatis (not entirely the same thing) till they’re brown and blistered. Tandoori rotis, yes, but that’s not what she’s talking about here. Most rotis of the kind she writes about that I’m familiar with are on the soft and barely blistered end of the continuum (even when puffed up on an open flame as for phulkas).
2. What does it mean to say that “Sweetness is very much gendered female in Bengali cooking”? This is Mayukh Sen being quoted in an interesting longer piece by Ruby Tandoh in Eater on sugar. He goes on to say, “There’s a word, mishti, that stands for both Bengali sweets and is also used to describe someone, usually a woman, who is ‘sweet’ (pleasant, youthful, and non-threatening/demure).” This is a bit of a head-scratcher as “mishti” is the Bengali word for “sweet” and it doesn’t seem particularly significant one way or the other that the word sweet should be the generic name for, well, sweets. There is no gendered divide that I am aware of in the love of sweetness in Bengali cooking. Sugar is everywhere in most Bengali cooking–not just in mishti/sweets–and the love of sweets is a general cornerstone of Bengali identity; it doesn’t mark one as feminine as it does in the Japanese example that follows in Tandoh’s article. I asked Sen if he could elaborate on this a bit on Twitter but heard nothing. There may well be a case to be made for the broader claim but so far it seems like a sharp-sounding formulation without much substance behind it—and I say this as someone who in his own professional life is constantly describing ways in which things are gendered.
3. Why not place surnolis more firmly in more local culinary contexts? I referred to Tejal Rao’s recent piece in the Times above. I really do like it—especially as a parent myself who is constantly making the foods of his childhood for his hyphenated American kids—but I was struck by the fact that her article evokes pancakes to describe surnolis but never once mentions dosas, which are far more the local referent for the genre. To compare surnolis to pancakes, she says, correctly, “is a kind of injustice”; but to compare them to dosas is not, yet she does not do it. The closest we come is in a reference to South Indian cookbooks which were full of recipes for pancakes. I think it is not difficult to imagine what the response would be in the relevant quarters on Twitter if a non-South Asian writer were to frame a South Asian dish entirely in western terms. Yes, the dishes she refers to are formally pancakes but not one of them is given their local name. I was also surprised, given the piece’s focus on the transmission of identity, that no clear identification is made of surnolis being a Konkani specialty or what exactly it means to be Konkani (where? who?).
[To the last point, I notice that the current version of the article on the website identifies her father as Konkani but this was not the case in the original piece—which you can see via the Wayback Machine; look for August 22. I had asked her about this on Twitter—she didn’t respond to that question then but I’m going to assume the change (which was made the next day and is not marked in the current version) was made as a result.]
4. Meat eaters were/are “a minority among Hindu vegetarians” in Bombay? This is Mayukh Sen again, this time in a piece in the New Yorker on the revival of Sameen Rushdie’s cookbook. Yes, he’s paraphrasing Rushdie but it’s an assertion that you’d hope an informed food writer would flag to check (a check would immediately reveal that it is wrong). Non-food related complaint: Sen misses the opportunity to mention that the glorious figure of the Brass Monkey—she who demolished Evie Burns, the killer of cats—in brother Salman’s first opus, Midnight’s Children was based on Sameen Rushdie.
1. Are we being self-conscious of the limits and pitfalls of the modes of nostalgia or generational connection in talking about South Asian food? On the one hand, many of these articles—and others I’ve read in the past—are moving largely because they cover this ground. On the other, South Asian food is a vast subject that is worthy of explication and discussion in its own right and I worry that the trend is away from that direction. In Shuja Haider’s recent piece on paan, for example, you learn a lot about what paan means to him in terms of coming to grips with his diasporic Pakistani identity and about his memories of paan eaters; you also learn very interesting things about the chemical composition of paan. But you never are told anything of paan’s contemporary articulations: chocolate paans etc. Paan remains fixed in a nostalgic gaze. In itself, not the end of the world (it’s just paan) but it’s also symptomatic of a larger issue in some of this type of writing—see also Tejal Rao’s surnoli piece.
2. Are we at risk sometimes of wandering into a new form of exoticism? Here again is Priya Krishna, this time in the New Yorker. It’s a fun piece about an enchanting, highly popular Youtube video series but it’s also somewhat context-free. Krishna does a good job of describing the feel of the videos but the piece never strays very far from the structure of the “look at this crazy thing that foreigners are doing” genre. What might have made it a little more complex (if longer)? Maybe doing something with the fact that this series demonstrates that South Indian food, despite stereotypes to the contrary, is dominantly non-vegetarian (stewed lamb heads with eyeballs indeed). Or perhaps placing this series in the larger context of Indian Youtube food videos and channels. (Also, in the nitpick category: why is the cooking utensil in which Gopinath cooks described as a wok instead of a karhai, or more accurately, whatever the local term for the damned thing is? After all, early in the article we are told that a lungi is “a kind of sarong” but when it comes to the actual kitchen term in a food article all we get is wok.)
Bloody hell, I’m almost at 2500 words! I’m going to wrap this up. I’ll echo at the end what I noted above. It’s a great thing that so much more interesting and engaging writing on South Asian food is being published in influential, mainstream outlets in the US. I very much support this writing (and these writers). But I’d like to push them—to the extent that any of them or their editors will ever read these posts—to be more rigorous, less anecdotal. The larger subject of South Asian food has not been done well by in the US in the past; it would be sad to see the emerging opportunities for more complex coverage to be squandered. Nothing would make me happier than to have no more material to write about in this series.
And to end on a more positive note, here are a couple of free suggestions for editors for pieces on South Asian food that they might think about assigning or commissioning:
1. Where do all the esoteric South Asian vegetables available in stores like TBS Mart come from? Where are they grown?What are the networks of production and distribution that have resulted in a sea change in what South Asian kitchens in the US can cook now compared to when I arrived in 1993? How does this track with demographic shifts in South Asian immigration to the US? (How) are mainstream groceries adjusting at all to this phenomenon?
2. Does Indian-American cuisine exist? If so, or if not, what might it look like? Priya Krishna’s upcoming Indian-ish book might open this question up.
[Of course, it’s not just writers of South Asian origin whose pieces on South Asian food I’ll be checking in this series. And if you come across pieces that you think are relevant, please do let me know.]