Covering the Coverage of South Asian Food: Late Summer 2020 Edition

It’s been a while since I’ve posted in this universally beloved series. Not since last December, in fact, when I finally posted my review of Priya Krishna’s book Indian (-ish). It’s not that I haven’t had come across very many pieces on South Asian food in the last eight months that I could have written about here; it’s just that with all the other shit going on I haven’t really had the energy. And so I’ve sniped and carped about a number of things on Twitter and constantly put off turning some of them into longer pieces for the blog. I do have a few percolating, however: a piece on the hidden place of caste in Indian (American) food writing and media; a piece about food and the tradition/modernity binary; a piece on food, diaspora and nostalgia; and a few others that are still no more than germs. I hope to get at least one of them out in the next month or so. In the meantime, here is an entry that covers a few things that have recently caught my eye. Most of these are pieces that I enjoyed a lot (a couple with a few quibbles/reservations); I end with a more critical look at two recent pieces on chaat, one in the New York Times and one in the Washington Post that may seem innocuous but traffic—to different degrees—in the depressing register of the exotic. 

1. Though this series is meant to focus on writing on South Asian food published outside South Asia, I’m going to start here by drawing your attention to this piece by Farah Yameen on Bakri-Eid. Published in, this is one of the best pieces of food writing I’ve read in a while. It centers on food, specifically the meat produced by the ritual sacrifice called for on Bakri-Eid or Eid al-Adha, but what the piece is really about is the social contracts bound into the practices of the festival. Yameen writes about her family and her childhood but there is no romanticizing of the past or the present here. Her account of the division of the sacrificed goat/bakri into its component parts opens up both a view of Muslim foodways that rarely make it into accounts of Indian food and the feudal and caste and class bonds that persist in them. It really is a remarkable piece of writing.

2. Vidya Balachander’s recent piece on hing in Whetstone is another example of of food writing that is simultaneously a (superior) entry in a familiar genre and a deconstruction of its premises. She provides an engrossing history of hing or asafoetida from the medieval period to the present and examines its centrality to Jain and orthodox Hindu foodways that proscribe the use of onion and garlic. Just when you’re thinking, “well-written but so far, so familiar” the piece pivots into an interrogation of culinary traditions and practices of purity (an echo of a part of Yasmeen’s piece) and the normalization of caste taboos and structures that remain unexamined in the usual modes of writing about Indian food. I’ll have more to say soon myself on caste and Indian food but in the meantime, I heartily recommend Balachander’s piece.

3. Sharanya Deepak writes in Vittles about the Humayunpur neighbourhood in South Delhi that is home to a large population of migrants from the states of the Indian Northeast and to a number of restaurants that serve the cuisines of those states. I’ve written reviews of a couple of the places Deepak refers to in her piece (Eat Pham and Hornbill) but Deepak’s interest here is not in the restaurants qua restaurants but in the fault lines that run under them that underline the continued othering of the peoples and cultures of the Northeast in the Indian mainstream. (In this it also reads as a corrective to my own more hopeful read in 2016 of the growing visibility of Northeastern food in Delhi.) To talk about a “food city” or just a city in the singular, Deepak reminds us, is to elide and obscure its deep divisions.

(By the way, I’ve said this before many times on Twitter but Jonathan Nunn’s Vittles may be as close as there is to a good thing having happened in the food world during the pandemic. On a weekly basis Nunn provides a platform to various writers to do the kind of cultural writing you don’t see very often in the regular outlets. The first “season” of Vittles was London-focused but the field of view seems to be expanding now. If you don’t already subscribe, you should.)

4. Another place that you should be looking for excellent food writing is Gastro Obscura, the food outlet of Atlas Obscura. Reina Gattuso’s piece, “Cracking the Case of South India’s Missing Vegetables” is good evidence for this statement. Gattuso’s essay begins with Meenakshi Ammal’s classic cookbook, Samaithu Paar, which she is careful to label not simply as a Tamil cookbook but as a Tamil-Brahmin cookbook. She notes later in the piece that Ammal’s vegetarian book necessarily leaves out vast chunks of the cooking of a state that is 97.5% non-vegetarian. The meat of the essay though is concerned not with Ammal’s book but with the case of vegetables taken for granted in Ammal’s book that are now not so easy, if at all possible to find in Tamil Nadu. The reliance here on the experience of one person, Akash Muralidharan, introduces some uncertainty—Tamil friends I forwarded the link to the essay to pointed out that some of the “missing” vegetables are in fact quite easily found—but the larger question of how industrial agriculture, and the Green Revolution in particular, have drastically altered agricultural biodiversity is an urgent one. I would have liked to hear less about Muralidharan’s quest and more about the small organizations working to preserve heirloom strains—perhaps in a post-pandemic world this follow-up will be possible.

5. On the late-breaking front, I enjoyed Samin Nosrat’s piece in the New York Times this week on sabudana khichdi. Nosrat recounts her attempts during the pandemic to crack an Indian-American friend’s family’s recipe for this Marathi staple made with tapioca pearls (sabudana) a dish she encountered by chance in a conversation with said friend on the podcast they do together. The article is really centered on the problem of learning to cook new things during the pandemic; it doesn’t set out to make any broad claims about the dish or Indian food. But in limiting its scope in this way it also effectively underlines the everyday nature of much of Indian cooking and the use of things like microwave ovens to achieve traditional effects. The pleasures here are those of the mundane.

My only reservation about the article—as I noted in a brief exchange with the genial Nosrat on Twitter—is with its use of the term “tapioca pilaf” to describe sabudana khichdi. Nosrat noted that she was trying to solve the problem of how to not set white American readers down the path of thinking of tapioca pudding. My hesitation has to do partly with the use of the word “pilaf”—both because that spelling is not the Indian English spelling, which is now quite common in the Indian restaurant world in the US as well (“pulao”) and because I don’t know that I’d describe sabudana khichdi as a pulao to begin with. The article makes clear early that what we are looking at is a savoury stir-fry of tapioca pearls and I think asking white American readers to do some work to figure the particulars out in recipes like this would be a good contribution to de-centering them and their needs in American food writing. Further on that point I also wondered about the italicization of transliterated words like “khichdi” and “sabudana” in the article—this does not seem to be standard practice at the Times these days.

A few quibbles aside, the above are all pieces that have two things in common: 1) they’re very well written; and 2) they resist the tendency in writing about South Asian food in the West to present its subject in the broad register of the exotic (of course, Yameen’s piece was published in an Indian outlet and is not aimed at an American readership). In closing, let me break this uncharacteristic run of positivity with a look at two other recent pieces that fail one or both of the above categories.

6. Priya Krishna’s article on chaat in the New York Times also came out this week. Let me say, first of all, that the usual indifferent writing aside, this was not a very problematic piece as Priya Krishna’s pieces on Indian food go. There are no errors of fact or odd observations that jump out; unlike in the piece she wrote on chaat for Bon Appetit a couple of years ago—and which she seems to have recycled parts of for this piece—we don’t have a “‘panipuri’ literally translates to ‘water bread’ in Hindi” moment here. Which is not to say that there are no problems at all.

The first odd thing about the piece is that it seems to function as an advertisement for the chef Maneet Chauhan’s upcoming book, Chaat (which despite the name seems to include recipes for biryani, momos etc.). Krishna brings no critical framing in the article, which functions almost entirely as a series of quotes and paraphrases by a chef who has written a book. The predictable over-reliance on one person’s “expertise” means that we are confidently told that the word chaat, “is derived from the verb chaatna, “to lick” in Hindi and Urdu”. That’s certainly one of the likely etymologies but it’s not the only one. (I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m surprised that Krishna didn’t do the work of checking on this a little bit more.)

Later there are a few more odd assertions from Chauhan that just sort of whiz past. For example, she says that chaat-walas “are the people who brought to the forefront the regional cuisine of India, because whatever they are selling is what’s available locally”. What does this even mean? Brought to the forefront where? She then goes on to say that chaat-walas have influenced her greatly because they don’t follow set recipes. For one thing, isn’t that true of all home cooks as well? Ascribing the power of this influence to chaat-walas seems hard to separate from the fact that there’s a book called Chaat being sold in the article. For another, what is the basis for saying that chaat-walas don’t follow their own recipes? They’re not cooking from scratch on the streets; most things are prepared ahead of time and consistency from day to day is what brings customers to one stand or the other.

Here Chauhan—and the article that centers on her—lapses into the “local colour” trap, where Indian street food is presented as the “instinctive” other of “restaurant chefs” and Indian food of this kind is tacitly presented as offering authenticity and fun (chaat parties!); and the piece as a whole eschews anything that might require research in favour of sensation and emotion. This framing is encapsulated quite clearly, if unselfconsciously in the piece:

Chaat is meant to be a sensory overload, she said. “You are hit from every aspect — colors, smells, sounds” — an experience not unlike walking through parts of India.

It’s not clear if the part outside the quote is a paraphrase of Chauhan or Krishna’s own editorializing but beware any food article that traffics in this kind of culinary tourism.

7. This tendency is even more pronounced in Tim Carman’s recent piece on paani puri in the Washington Post. The piece is framed confusingly—I’m not even referring to the illustration that sits atop it which features an absurdly overstuffed paani puri. Carman tells us at the start that when the pandemic ends he will be on a plane to Mumbai but ends by saying that Bengali Market in Delhi is where we’ll find him when the pandemic ends. Make up your mind, man, are you going to Mumbai or Delhi?

Mumbai or Delhi though, Carman knows what he’ll be going to India for:

I will feel the summer heat on my skin like a wool blanket. I will delight in the sounds around me: the low rumble of scooters as they race past, the air punctured by their bleating horns, and the polyrhythmic incantations of the tabla, emanating from a speaker invisible to the eye. I will savor the flavors of the pani puri as they flood my mouth, trying my best to live in the moment like Padma Lakshmi did as a child in Delhi.

[Yes, you’re right, he’s going to go to Mumbai as an adult to eat as Padma Lakshmi did as a child in Delhi. And I think he thinks all Indian streets come with tabla-based soundtracks the way Netflix shows on India do.]

Wherever he ends up, he will, as he says a bit later, “enjoy a full-contact experience with life again. It will be glorious.”

One might wonder why a “full-contact experience with life” can’t be had in the US, eating American street food. But in fact, this sentence is the crux of the article, entirely representative of the role that Third World street food plays for the bourgeois metropolitan foodie: it is the site of excitement, of authentic life; its otherness is its calling card. In the meantime, all poor Carman has is melancholy. He sits in various formal Indian restaurants in DC contemplating set orders of paani puri that to add insult to injury don’t come with “polyrhythmic incantations of the tabla, emanating from a speaker invisible to the eye”. Someone should also tell him, by the way, that there are many, many chaat restaurants in India that also offer this exact same experience of constructing your own paani puri to Indians (though they’re also thankfully devoid of an invisible tabla accompaniment).

Operating as it does in the register of the exotic, the article does not make any attempt to offer concrete information on paani puri (the differences between paani puri, gol gappas and puchka are consigned to the arguments of purists); what it’s after, again, is sensation. To the American foodie trapped in Washington DC by the pandemic a version of India as represented by street food provides the “antidote”. The article itself is functions as a touristic substitute: you’re not going to be able to go to India this summer to eat street food (and let’s face it most readers of the Washington Post wouldn’t eat street food in India even if they went there in the summer) but you can get that charge by reading about it.

It’s depressing to see that this kind of thing, this serving up of Third World life as sensation that can be consumed by an enervated First World bourgeoise, is still so easily found in mainstream American publications (Nosrat’s piece seems the exception to the rule and there too there’s a lexical centering of mainstream readers). On the other hand, it’s at least a good thing that there is a growing number of smaller outlets that provide readers with alternatives. Perhaps instead of hoping/waiting for mainstream publications to shift their frames of reference we should just celebrate the ones providing platforms to writers interested in doing other things. But we can’t ignore the reach of mainstream publications either and so it remains necessary as well to critique them.


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