It’s been a while since my last round-up of notable writing on South Asian food. I’d actually been planning to post the next iteration in December but as I kept procrastinating the list of pieces I wanted to include kept growing and growing and the task began to seem more daunting and more like work. And so now it’s the end of the first week of February and I have a VERY long list of pieces I want to draw your attention to. To make sure I finally do it I’m going to break this into two parts. The first part today will cover a big chunk of the list and then next Sunday I’ll post my thoughts on a few more, in particular on one recent piece that got a lot of love on social media but which I found rather problematic. Which one was it? You’ll have to wait till next Sunday to find out. Today I have nothing but positivity. Perhaps this is because I’ve stopped paying close attention to what’s published in legacy media but 2020 seems to have seen a major uptick in the quality of writing on South Asian food in American outlets. And, oh yes, as I said in my year-end post, going forward this series will not be focused centrally on writing in Western media; I’ll be including pieces published in South Asian outlets as well (I’ve done this occasionally before too but it will be standard procedure now).
The publication that has single-handedly raised the bar for coverage of South Asian food in the US is the magazine Whetstone, or more accurately their online-only W Journal. I have a subscription to the magazine itself and recommend that you support them too if you can. But even if your interest is primarily in South Asian food you should support them just on account of W Journal. Under the stewardship of the excellent Layla Schack they’ve put out a steady stream of high quality writing on South Asian food. I praised them for this back in October and they’ve just kept going since. So much so that they’re now looking to launch a separate vertical on South Asian food history and culture. The also excellent India-based Goya Journal is now going to have company/competition in this space. I could highlight a large number of pieces W Journal has published in the last few months alone but I’ll restrict myself to three.
1. Let’s start with Niranjana Ramesh‘s mapping of Chennai as a “city of fish”. For many North Indians, leave alone, North Americans, Chennai and Tamil Nadu more generally remain identified with vegetarian food. In reality, Tamil Nadu—along with the rest of the South—has one of the largest populations of non-vegetarian residents in the country and Ramesh deconstructs standard expectations by focusing not—as is usually the case—on the foodways of the upper caste communities that are more likely to be vegetarian but on the fisher communities that could be said to represent, to borrow a chapter title from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a city visible but unseen. Read it.
2. Zinara Rathnayake‘s essay on the place of lamprais in Sri Lankan cuisine and culture charts the history of the Dutch Burghers of Sri Lanka, now a small minority, through the iconic dish whose adoption by mainstream Sri Lankan kitchens and tastes serves as an allegory for the precarious state of Burgher identity in the country. Particularly welcome in an American food mediascape that continues to identify South Asian with Indian.
3. Also welcome for the same reason, and raising it explicitly, is Mahira Rivers‘ examination of the near invisibility of Pakistani restaurants in the American food scene. The partition of India in 1947 (into India and Pakistan) and then of Pakistan in 1971 (into Pakistan and Bangladesh) drew national/ist lines through cuisines and Rivers reminds us that many of the dishes that are taken as iconic Indian dishes in the US—or in India, for that matter—could just as easily be said to be Pakistani. But with far lesser cultural capital accruing to Pakistani and Bangladeshi cuisine in the US the cuisines of these countries—beyond the most recognizable dishes—remains unappreciated, and in the case of the most recognizable dishes placed under the Indian flag, so to speak. More attention from food media would seem to be a good way to begin to change that.
Moving on from W Journal…
4. Speaking of Pakistani cuisine, Maryam Jillani does a deep dive on Goya Journal into the cuisine of the Shinwari Pashtun tribe of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Jillani details the rising profile of the lamb-centric version of the cuisine that has become very popular apparently among Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns alike in different parts of Pakistan while also accounting for critiques of this incarnation of the cuisine as served in restaurants. A very interesting read.
5. The question of food and national identity is also front and center in Paromita Vohra’s piece on Karachi halwa that is characteristically sharp and witty. She looks at the complicated entanglement of the past and present of a sweet that she does not really like (confession: I don’t either) in contemporary Indian politics where the demands of nationalist scripts can be at odds with local ones and even more so with history. Vohra, a filmmaker and columnist, does not often write about food. But reading this piece you will find yourself wishing she did. (You should certainly follow her on Twitter.)
6. And as nationalist crises go, the ongoing farmers’ protest in India and the BJP government’s ongoing repression and demonization of it are only the most spectacular case in India right now. This particular issue is of course also a food issue. Tied up in it are not only farmers’ rights but also a whole host of complicated questions about agricultural policy and practice and the environment. These are all issues that most food writers tend to stay away from. Farah Yameen, however, is not a full-time food writer and her excellent essay on the historical place of food in protest movements in the subcontinent—also on Goya Journal—is a must-read.
7. Sharanya Deepak is a food writer who does not shy away from the political and her piece for The Baffler on what is at stake in the farmers’s protests works as a very good explainer for those outside the subcontinent who do not follow these issues closely. You might say it’s odd to include this in a round-up of food writing but, again, everything that relates not just to the consumption but also the production of food should be central to what we think of as food writing.
8. Also excellent is Deepak’s piece for Fifty Two on the Indian history of custard/powder, one of the many legacies of British imperialism and like many of those legacies subject to a great deal of Indianization. Deepak charts custard’s movement from white colonial kitchens—where Englishwomen were liable to bemoan the difficulty of making custard in India—to the post-independence era where custard powder with corn flour as a thickener became a mainstay of middle class Indian kitchens under the marks of both modernity and vegetarianism. It’s a fascinating read and very representative of the very high quality of idiosyncratic writing being published each week by Fifty Two, one of the best things to happen to Indian cultural writing in a while.
9. Finally, this is not about any particular piece per se but I do want to give a belated shout-out to Pooja Pillai’s excellent recipe column for the Indian Express newspaper. “The Back Burner” features a recipe each week often with introductions that add interesting context. Her recipes are rarely of dishes familiar to readers outside the subcontinent and I recommend following her on Twitter so you can keep up with them as well as her other excellent pieces on food and culture—for example, her recent piece on issues of gendered kitchen labour in the foodie era.
Okay, this has gotten pretty long and so I’m going to stop here. Next Sunday, as I said, I’ll point you to some more pieces I really liked over the last six months and also take up in more detail my problems with a more recent one. Even keeping in mind that there are a few more to come in the next installment do feel free to let me know if there are other pieces from the last five months that you think are noteworthy—given my shoddy, fragmentary note-taking it is entirely possible that I have completely forgotten about other pieces of interest that I’d once meant to include.