Who Judges Indian Food Writing? (And a Couple of Other Annoyances)

Here, just in time for Thanksgiving, is the latest entry in my series of occasional posts that cast a cold eye on the coverage of Indian food in the American food media. (See here for all the other entries so far.) Don’t worry: unlike my previous entry, on curry denialism, this is not 50,000 words long (even though curry denialism rears its head again here). You should be able to finish reading it before the year ends.

It’s true that with the busy season at work I’ve not had a lot of time to look at food Twitter—my main source of material for this series—very closely in the last few months. Nonetheless, it does seem to me that there’s been less egregious stuff written recently about Indian food than in months previous. If you disagree please point me to things I may have missed, in the comments or via private message. In the meantime, here are three things that recently caught my eye and which I have some reservations about. One of them is not even strictly speaking from the American food media, though it does have to do with a Condé Nast publication. I’ll start there.

Who Judges Indian Food Writing?

I had somehow missed Condé Nast Traveller‘s first-ever Indian Food Writing Awards in 2018. But the announcement of the 2019 awards caught my eye. I think it’s probably a good thing for Indian food writing for these awards to exist and I’m sure the nominees and eventual winners will all be worthy but I was surprised by the composition of the jury*. There are six people on it. Of these two are Divia Thani, an editor at Condé Nast Traveller and Durga Raghunath, representing Zomato, India’s answer to Yelp and collaborator on/co-sponsor of these awards. The two of them are the only Indians on the jury. The other four, representing food writing and not the management of the award are all American: Ruth Reichl, John Birdsall, Tejal Rao and Andrew Knowlton. Reichl, of course, needs no introduction to American foodies; Birdsall likewise is one of the most respected American food writers in the business; Rao is one of the very best young food writers; and Knowlton is Editor-at-Large of Bon Appétit, which these days is not exactly a guarantee of quality but is certainly a meaningful credential in this context. So what’s my problem?

Well, to put it delicately, how much do these people really know about Indian food? Okay, maybe that wasn’t very delicate. But it’s a fair question. Reichl and Birdsall are very experienced food writers but I’m not aware of either of them having any kind of in-depth knowledge of Indian food. Rao is also an excellent writer and she is of Indian origin, but if she’s written anything that suggests that she has a strong understanding of Indian food, I’ve not seen it. I don’t mean any of this as a diss—there’s no reason these people should have deep knowledge of Indian food: it’s not their beat. (Oh, I forgot about Knowlton: he works for a food magazine that thinks chapatis should look and be made like this.) Is being a fine food writer, or an employee of Bon Appétit, enough of a qualification to override a lack of actual knowledge of the category?

One way to answer this question is to ask if you can imagine an American food writing award turned over to a jury comprised predominantly of Indian food writers resident in India: people who would know American food and the American food world predominantly as represented by American restaurants in India; who may possibly have travelled to the US a few times; who may have American friends and may possibly even be America-philes. Would this be enough to cover for an almost certain lack of knowledge of what the major issues in the wider world of food in the US are? What the histories and major developments in restaurant culture are? What the nuances of regional cuisines and micro/macro community politics are? What is a genuinely novel take on food culture in the local context and what is hackneyed? I don’t think it would be and for good reason. Certainly, Reichl, Birdsall and Rao are more than capable of judging good or bad writing but to know what the best Indian food writing might be requires more than simply being a good writer or even a good food writer—because there’s no such thing as a universal food writer: food writing, like food, comes out of specific contexts.

I’m not saying that the jury should not have any non-Indians on it and I certainly don’t fault any of these American writers for accepting the invitation. I’m just surprised to see that non-Indians are the vast majority of the jury and that it includes no established Indian food writers (they do exist). In response to my asking about this on Twitter someone from the magazine said that “[B]eing on the jury would disqualify many great Indian food writers from actually receiving the award”. Okay, but even if we take this seriously why not have Indian editors and writers from the broader cultural beat who are both eminently qualified to judge good writing and know far more about the wider Indian food scene than any of the Americans on the jury? That list is very long indeed.

The reason I fear is that the world of Condé Nast Traveller as it relates to India is a sadly familiar one in which the imprimatur of American (and British) figures is far more important than that of local writers and indeed is seen as the true guarantor of quality and legitimacy. It’s a long-established neocolonial hangup but not one that seems to worry too many of the people on food Twitter who are otherwise quick to decry what they see as neocolonial hangups in the context of Indian food.

Not This Shit Again

Speaking of which, the denial of the existence of curry as an Indian thing popped up again in a piece by…wait for it, wait for it…Priya Krishna in Gravy, the journal of the Southern Foodways Alliance. The piece is about the question of whether Indian food will ever become mainstream in America but it includes this throwaway bit:

Indian food is also still largely defined by the word “curry,” a somewhat meaningless term popularized by Europeans during their colonization of India to describe the various sauces and stews they encountered. The term allowed them to erase regionality or nuance among dishes. It led to “curry powder,” the yellow-hued seasoning sold in American grocery stores.

Again, as I’ve said before at some length, there is far more to curry than European or American understandings/usages of the word, just as curry powder is not just a “yellow-hued seasoning sold in American grocery stores”. It’s one thing to decry the overly generic deployment of the word “curry” in talking about Indian food; but when writers like Krishna talk about it you don’t get any sense that they have any idea what the history of curry in India itself is. This seems like a problematic omission if you want to criticize (neo)colonial understanding of Indian food, erasing as it does the actual postcolonial re-articulation of the term in India.

I have more to say about other things in this piece by Krishna, especially the obsession with mainstream American recognition, but I’ll save that for another time.

Nostalgia Is Not Enough

Let me close instead with a suggestion to Arati Menon, the author of this piece on Maggi’s Hot & Sweet Sauce on Food 52, and also to other young first and second-generation immigrant writers and, more importantly, to the editors who commission them, that nostalgia is not enough. Pieces like this one are the food media version of that stand-up comedy scene in that classic Simpsons episode: “Americans eat ketchup like this, Indians eat ketchup like that”. Yes, Maggi Hot & Sweet Sauce is wonderful and a cornerstone of my life as well but there has to be something more to writing about it than to say that this brand of spicy ketchup is popular in India. There’s a brief nod in the piece to the product and brand’s history but it’s both simplistic and incomplete (Maggi launched other spicy sauces in India too: Chilli Garlic, for example). Most of the piece is instead about nostalgic identification. What should it have been instead? Well, ideally, the nostalgic hook should have been used only to open up the history of tomato sauce/ketchup in India, which ranges well past the Maggi lineup (the most significant brand of Indian ketchup, of course, is Kissan); not to mention the whole world of Indian chilli sauces. Researching and writing about all this would actually be interesting and if the discourse of Indian food in the US is to advance it has to really get past the genre of charming stories.

Okay, that’s enough for this edition. Hopefully you made it to the end. As always, these are my opinions and if you don’t like them…I have others (probably also annoying). Please feel free to heap coals on my head either in the comments here or on Twitter.

*And the same was true in 2018 when the jury for the first edition of the awards included Thani, Mayukh Sen (like Rao, one of the very best young American food writers around; but he’d be the first to tell you that he doesn’t know a whole lot about the ins and outs of Indian food); Adam Rapoport (also of Bon Appétit; see above); and Anjum Anand (a British cookbook writer.)

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