Against Family: Covering the Coverage of South Asian Food

Here is the long-threatened third entry in my series examining the coverage of South Asian food in mainstream American media. If this is the first one you’ve seen you may want to take a look at the first to get a sense of what the impetus for this series is, and the second to get caught up. In fact, in this piece I will spend all my time on an issue that I raised in the first and followed up on in the second: the seeming revival of the trope of family in a lot of current Indian-American food writing, or at least in a lot of writing from some currently prominent Indian-American food writers. Some may feel that this is not a genre that deserves this level of scrutiny but I take Indian food culture seriously and I am paying the writers I refer to in this piece—and the others I’ve critiqued elsewhere in the series—the compliment of taking their work seriously.

At first or second glance it may appear unremarkable that writing about South Asian food should center on family—after all a lot of food writing centers on family. It may also appear unremarkable that writing on any aspect of immigrant American life should center on family. Family, after all, has long been one of the key structures in the framing of Asian American identity in particular; in much early Asian American fiction, for example, family is the staging ground for conversations about identity and community. The question is what form these narratives take. In writing on South Asian food (and really on Indian food) in American media of earlier decades family often appeared in the form of narratives about the transmission of tradition from grandmothers and mothers to daughters, across time and (diasporic) space. There is an echo here of changes that had been happening in the 1990s in the world of mainstream Bombay cinema and I’d like to use that to sketch the terms of my critique of the current incarnation of the genre.

Those who study Bombay cinema will tell you that the 1990s represent, among other things, the return of family-friendly fare to screens, especially after the violence and sexualized content of much of 1980s cinema. But if in a film like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988)—which could be said to have launched the new wave—your family literally kills you for loving the wrong person (what could be more romantic?), by the time we get to the mid-90s family becomes the sign and site of cultural wholeness. Rather than rebellion against family, the re-inscription of the values of the traditional, patriarchal family becomes the point. Consider, for example, a film like the iconic Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995): if the first half of the film’s plot revolves around the seduction of Simran (played by Kajol) by Raj (played by human golden retriever Shahrukh Khan), the second effectively represents his seduction of her family. Raj only gets Simran once he has demonstrated to her father that he is a “true Indian” despite being of the diaspora. It’s a patriarchal transfer that preserves the structure of the family against the violation proposed quite sensibly by Simran and her mother much earlier: elopement. The general theme of family veneration continues in the wave of blockbusters that follow, many of them set in the West and representing the diaspora to themselves.

Artist’s rendering of me learning that another upper-middle class writer has written an article about their parents.

It is perhaps not surprising that younger disaporic Indians who came of age in the ensuing decade when Bollywood was acquiring cultural cachet and currency in the West (again a post-Shahrukh Khan phenomenon) should articulate their narratives of identity using tropes similar to those found in Bombay cinema. Unfortunately, it appears that the elisions present in the Bombay cinema narratives persist. In films like DDLJ and many other blockbuster films of this era what is meant by family is really upper class and upper caste Hindu family. If family becomes a stand-in for national and cultural identity, both in India and the diaspora, it’s a very particular majoritarian definition of family. The spectacularization of “Indian” culture in much of this cinema—especially in the sub-genre of the wedding film—is very much a spectacularization of the (aspirational) values and lifestyles of wealthy upper-caste Hindus. It goes without saying that it is never acknowledged as such. (And you don’t need me to tell you that all of this maps on to the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and the BJP in India, a rise that is financed materially and intellectually at least partially by diasporic Hindus and organizations.)

As I say, these elisions and conflations come through in an unreconstructed manner in the recent resurgence of family narratives in Indian American food writing. None of the pieces I have particularly in mind set out to center any particular notion of family—be it Tejal Rao’s piece on surnolis that I went over in my first post in this series; Khushbu Shah’s essay on Patel Bros.; or pretty much everything Priya Krishna has recently written. But it forms the unexamined ground of their discourse. Rao is concerned with the transmission of cultural identity in the diaspora; Shah with the growth of Indian groceries in the US; Krishna…to the extent I can make out what Krishna is concerned with it might be to make sure we all know her family is wacky and cool. All of this together might seem to be in the service of reconfiguring what white people think of when they think of Indian Americans (let’s not be under any illusion about who these pieces, or the food magazines and sections they appear in, are aimed at). But all their narratives revolve around upper class, upper caste westernized Hindu families.

Reading these articles—and together they form a composite picture that none may individually intend—you will not get much of a sense, if any, that there are also Muslim Indian Americans or lower-caste Indian Americans or working-class Indian Americans. (Nor will you get a sense that there is such a thing as a larger South Asian community or what the relationships between Indian Americans and Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan or Nepali Americans and their respective food worlds might be.) This is exacerbated by the seemingly built-in convention in the genre of a relentlessly personal and anecdotal field of vision. (Though you might uncharitably also think of it as a kind of laziness: writing glibly about your parents is easy, research is hard.)

Thus Shah’s piece on Patel Bros. is restricted to Patel Bros. because that’s the store her mother has a connection with; the article never expands beyond that scope to look at, or even just acknowledge, how much more heterogeneous the South Asian grocery store scene has become in the last decade and a half as the demographics of South Asian immigration have changed. Similarly, Patel Bros. is marked as catering to her mother’s vegetarianism, allowing her to not encounter meat counters while shopping; but there’s no sense anywhere in her piece that to talk about vegetarianism as emblematic in the South Asian food world is usually to re-inscribe particular high caste dietary practices as the norm (when in fact vegetarianism is by far a minority practice in India leave alone the rest of South Asia). The question of where non-vegetarian South Asian immigrants—whether Hindu or not—whose sense of the home left behind might be connected to meat and fish would similarly go to feed their desires is not one that seems to occur to her as worth raising, if only in the background.

Nor, of course, does she say anything about the production and distribution end of things that allows for South Asian groceries to now stock so much more than was the case when I arrived in the country in the early 1990s. Where are all those vegetables being grown? What are the distribution networks that supply desi stores all over North America? What is the economics or ecological cost of feeding diasporic desire for fish from the homeland where problems with fisheries are rampant? Where is all the halal goat and chicken and beef and lamb on sale in the South Asian groceries that Shah’s mother does not go to coming from? All of these seem to me like interesting questions to ask about the world of the South Asian grocery store. Of course, Shah does not ask any of them either because she’s writing about her mother.

I hope it is clear that I am not saying that it is a problem for Shah, or any other writer, to write about their families per se. The problem is that the particular genre in which many of the currently prominent writers operate, and in which editors at major newspapers and magazines and websites commission pieces, threatens to become effectively the only one in which Indian food culture is talked about in the US, and it severely limits the discourse. And as charming, and sometimes affecting, as the individual stories can be, it seems to me that the genre also threatens to freeze South Asian immigrants permanently in the moment of arrival*. Shah, for example, tells us in one short paragraph that her mother’s immigrant story has “evolved” but the rest of the piece is entirely about a return, literal or metonymic, to that original moment of arrival, dislocation and difference. Out there is America but inside Patel Bros. is home. If only things could be so simple.

These are not, of course, the only problems with the genre. If on the one hand it seeks to normalize Indian American identity against earlier stereotypes (curry breath!) it rarely seems aware that it is engaging in a hetero-normative practice of its own**. It is always the traditional nuclear family in these narratives—no sign of anything queer, no sign of identities that seek to step outside those norms. Writers like Shah and especially Krishna seem anxious to dispel the notion that they might be taken for someone fresh off a boat but they also rarely seem interested in rocking any boats. (I apologize for the pat structure of the previous sentence.) Even if you want to tell stories of white collar immigrants why not extend this out to look at the lives of people who transgress the conservative norms of the community or even just at the lives of single men and women arriving as coders? How are the latter group driving the evolution of Indian food in the contemporary US? The problem with getting stuck in looking at the past is that you miss what the present might tell you about possible futures.

I’ve focused on Shah’s Patel Bros. piece here but she is not, of course, the only or even major proponent of the genre. The writer who more than any other has weaponized the upper class/caste family narrative is Priya Krishna. I haven’t said much about her here because I’ll be reviewing her new cookbook, Indian( (-ish) soon—maybe next week—and I may as well save my thoughts about her approach for one piece. In closing I’d like to instead highlight a couple of things I’ve read recently—one published recently, one almost exactly two years ago—that show how writing about family does not have to be limited in the ways I’ve critiqued above. One is by another Indian American writer and Managing Editor of Eater, Sonia Chopra; the other is by the India-based Meher Mirza, though published in Food52.

Mirza’s essay on topli paneer begins with an account of meals eaten with her extended family (but note how the conventions are tweaked in the telling) but expands well past that with fewer words than deployed by Shah in her Patel Bros. piece. She takes in the history of the Parsi community, starting with an apocryphal story familiar to many Indians, but goes on from there to describe histories and circuits of production that even most dedicated Indian foodies wouldn’t know much about, not to mention a type of paneer—traditionally coagulated with calf intestines or chicken gizzards!—that completely upends most everyone’s understanding of what paneer is. Family in her piece is a way in to a larger story not the whole of it and it’s not a story that’s been done to death.

Similarly, Chopra’s essay, part of the recent, very interesting “United States of Mexican Food” feature on Eater, is about family and the articulation of a unique Indian-American identity and cuisine but it is decidedly not her own family’s story. Instead she excavates the history of California’s early working class Punjabi immigrants and their intermarriages into local hispanic communities and the cultural/culinary hybridizations that ensue. None of this is news to academics interested in South Asian American history but I can’t recall the last time I saw this covered in the mainstream food media. (Upper) middle class families’ trajectories I know a lot about and frankly I don’t find very much that’s interesting in the samey stories that get told about them; but there are lots of other stories to be written about South Asian America.

That is to say, even in American media it is possible to do more. Now if only all our major Indian American writers would actually do it. But it’s not just the writers. Editors at the newspapers, magazine and websites that commission articles on South Asian subjects have to also educate themselves about the field—they have to also ask themselves why there aren’t more South Asians among them who can commission and more rigorously edit pieces that go outside the established boundaries of the genre; and they have to look more often to excellent writers who are already working in the field who don’t get the kind of play that the familiar names do***. Otherwise we will be doomed to repeating the same tired narratives every 10-15 years.

As always, these are my views and if you don’t like them…I have others.

*A friend quipped that some of these pieces in fact infantilize the writers’ parents.

**I don’t mean to imply that this is a problem with all Indian-American food writing. Mayukh Sen’s work in particular is interesting precisely because he pushes against most of these tropes. He’s also a very good writer.

***Sen, of course, has won a James Beard award. Mirza, Sharanya Deepak and Iva Dixit are some of the others I’d like to see a lot from (and I hope I am not damning them by endorsing them here). It would also be nice to see more writers from parts of South Asia other than India and more Muslim and non-upper caste writers.

2 thoughts on “Against Family: Covering the Coverage of South Asian Food

  1. Interesting series that many of us clearly identify with. (Like kitchari!) But the sarcasm and wrath, such as in the post on mangoes by Bhattacharya, seem unnecessary. Your criticism may be justified, but the larger picture is lost in the rants. My two paisa.


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