On May 13, 2019 Saveur, a serious food magazine (I mean it’s called Saveur) published the picture at left alongside a recipe for jalebis. As I quipped on Twitter, this picture explains a lot about the state of Indian food coverage in the American media. All of which can be boiled down to one sentence: people do not know what the fuck they are doing but feel very empowered to keep on doing it anyway. The picture accompanies a recipe (adapted from Pushpesh Pant) and both accompany a travel article by one Kiran Mehta on a jalebi vendor in Varanasi, Ram Bhandar. I can only hope that the proprietor of Ram Bhandar has not been shown this picture (and if it turns out that this is a picture of jalebis made at Ram Bhandar then no one should ever eat jalebis at Ram Bhandar). Mehta’s piece fits well in Saveur‘s mall food court model of global food coverage: here’s a random Indian thing next to a random Korean thing next to a random French thing next to a random Amazon thing next to a random Ukrainian thing and so on. It’s all touristic breadth, no depth. Let’s start there and work our way back to Saveur‘s crime against jalebis.
Holy city, narrow streets, lots of people, wandering cows, wafting aromas…the full repertoire of Indian travel writing cliches is covered economically in Mehta’s piece. And it doesn’t stint on the requisite historical and cultural generalizations. Let’s go through some of these. We are told that jalebis “may have been brought by Turkic invaders, also known as the Mughals”. Now I don’t know who brought jalebis to India but large swathes of North India were ruled by various Turkic kingdoms for a few hundred years before the Mughals showed up; “Turkic” does not equal Mughal. We are also told that “the continued popularity of the dish in the north Indian state” may be attributable to the fact that “present-day Uttar Pradesh was once the heartland of the Mughal Empire”. Well, maybe, but this does not explain the popularity of jalebis everywhere else in India as well—could it just be that sticky sweets are generally very popular in India? Then there’s the insight that “Anna, or food, holds a special place in Hinduism”; this must be true because obviously no other religion gives any sort of ritual or other significance to food…
Once the article gets to Ram Bhandar—through “labyrinthine lanes”, you’ll be surprised to hear—it’s on more solid ground. Jalebi making is described nicely and if you squint at the picture of the halvai making them you will be able to see what proper jalebis should look like. Which brings us to the recipe and picture that the editors of Saveur saw fit to run alongside Mehta’s piece. Let us note first that in the year 2019 the recipe bears the headline, “Indian Fried Dough with Saffron Syrup (Jalebi)”. Are we really still doing this sort of thing? Quite apart from the fact that it de-centers jalebi in a recipe for it, it’s also a horrendously bad description. At least so I thought while eating my Frozen Milk with Dissolved Sugar (Ice Cream). But this pales next to the picture.
What the actual fuck is that thing? Worms emerging from mastodon dung? Intestines of a jaundiced rat? Orgy time in the octopus tank? Donald Trump’s hair piece in the wash? Cheese fries? I don’t fault the editors of Saveur for not being able to make jalebis well; it is not easy to make jalebis. The fact that they are adapting a recipe by Pushpesh Pant may also be an issue—Pant’s recipes are not models of reliability; though since they don’t say what the nature of their adaptation is it’s hard to know where to place the blame. But the real question is why if you cannot make jalebis are you offering your readers recipes for jalebis? And please note that the language of the recipe implies easy familiarity and expertise: we are told how it’s “typically made”, what yogurt does for the dough, that lime juice is “a popular addition to the sugar syrup”. Why, you’d think these people have been making jalebis all their lives! Except no one involved seems to know that they have made an abomination or if they do, have felt the slightest bit of embarrassment about running the picture anyway. To quote myself again from Twitter: why do American food magazines feel no shame about not just committing crimes against Indian food but also posting the evidence on the internet?
I know we are supposed to feel thankful and flattered that our cuisines get any attention from these magazines at all—a good number of people who should know better take this line every time some piece of folly like this gets published. And it may even be the case that these magazines are trying very hard to be more culturally inclusive and enlightened. The problem is again that mall food court model of global cultural coverage that I referred to above. These magazines want to have diversity of coverage but not to the point where they do it in any meaningful way. As a food writer who shall remain nameless said to me a couple of months ago in a different context, diversity for too much of mainstream American food media is entirely decorative. It’s a way of checking boxes, of displaying interest without actually taking it seriously. Because if you took it seriously you would wait to publish your article on jalebis (or rotis or whatever) till you had found someone who could actually make one. If you took it seriously you’d have someone among the “Saveur Editors” the recipe is credited to who might actually know how embarrassing that picture is.
And please remember: even though your Indian food coverage may be aimed at jaded white Americans* looking for a new piece of information, a new thing to talk about, there are also Indians reading these pieces; and for those of us who’re not simply happy to just be noticed by white Americans it feels very strange, very dismissive to see aspects of our cultures trivialized in this way. Perhaps you don’t mean to do this, perhaps you are trying to do better. But please: do better.
*And things like this make it hard to have any illusions about who the implied/intended audiences of these magazines are.