Covering the Coverage of South Asian Food: 2021 Edition, Pt. 1


It’s been a while since I last published an entry in this series. A whole year, actually. You might think that this is because there hasn’t been very much worth reporting on and that’s partially true. By which I mean that there either has been a downtick in the rate of publication of questionable material on South Asian food from food media in the west or that I have blessedly missed a lot of it. But it’s only partly true because in the last year there were quite a few pieces published that I in fact liked very much. The reason I didn’t get around to recapping them all earlier is simply that I am lazy and slow and the never-ending pandemic made me lazier and slower still. Now, before 2022 gets too far out of the gates, it’s time to highlight some of those pieces. The list is rather long and so I am splitting it into two parts. Today I have eight pieces that I recommend highly. The second part will be posted next weekend and will include more pieces I recommend highly and also a couple of pieces I had more mixed or less positive responses to.

Despite the length of the two-part list I should add that this is not a definitive list of pieces published in 2021 that I liked. Another—one of several—of my bad habits is that I do not bookmark/save links that catch my eye, trusting instead to memory. This worked fine when I was posting entries every few months; but now that I am casting my newly-52 yo brain back over a year of writing it is doubtless the case that I have forgotten some things that I really liked (and probably also some things that I didn’t). And before I get going, a reminder as well that as of a couple of entries ago this series no longer focuses only or primarily on pieces published in Western outlets. Alright, let’s get to it.

1. One of my very favourite pieces of writing of any kind in 2021 was Ahmer Naqvi’s excellent piece on biryani in Karachi that closed out the first “season” of the excellent FiftyTwo.in (Season 2 is now in progress—you should read it all). Naqvi tracks the history and transformations of biryani outside and in Karachi, a great city of immigrants, resisting the familiar fixed identifications of the different incarnations of the dish with Muslim origins or locations of one kind or the other. His essay fleshes out instead Nilanjan Hajra’s argument for the evolution of biryani across the Indian subcontinent for a much longer time. The biryanis he brings together in his piece—and the wonderful characters who make and serve them—serve as evidence for the claim that biryani—like all food, like all culture—is always on the move. And where better to see this than in a city of immigrants? Naqvi’s essay is not just about biryani (though biryani is a noble subject in itself); it is also a map of Karachi and the communities that have come to call it home. Read it.

2. Due to my compromised attention span I don’t follow very many people on Twitter and have trouble keeping track of most of those I do follow. But someone whose tweets I always pay close attention to is Sarover Zaidi, a philosopher and social anthropologist who teaches at the Jindal School of Art and Architecture. I recommend Chiragh Dilli, the blog she co-writes with Samprati Pani, unreservedly. The piece I am recommending here though was published not on Chiragh Dilli but in the journal E-Flux. It is on the place of food and kitchens, specifically the Sikh langar in the historic farmers’ protests that began in North India in late 2020 and have continued since. As she elucidates, at the protests “cooking and serving food is both an act of protest and also a reminder towards, what the protests are trying to protect, namely food security and its production in India” and her essay charts the “kinships, friendships, and alliances across villages, castes, and classes” that form in the protest kitchens and the possibilities they gesture and work towards. Read it.

3. Rida Bilgrami’s piece for Whetstone South Asia is also about food in and as ritual—though not in the context of political protest but in that of grieving, in particular during Ashura, the first 10 days of the month of Muharram that for Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at the Battle of Karbala. Whetstone South Asia, under the able editorship of Vidya Balachander has really become one of the very best places to find high quality writing on South Asian food that simply ignores the simplistic, usually touristic framing it is usually subjected to in mainstream American outlets. Bilgrami’s piece both tracks the food served communally during Ashura in different parts of South Asia and underlines the place of food in the keeping of memory/history, which is to say in the formation of identity. Read it.

4. Also published by Whetstone South Asia last year was a piece by the author of one my very favourite essays of 2020: Farah Yameen. In this 2021 essay Yameen muses on the place of the hand in cooking. Expectedly, the piece is not a mere celebration of the taste of food prepared with the touch of hands; it also charts the regimes of anxiety around hygiene, class and caste, and the gendered narratives of the place of the hand in domestic and professional cooking contexts. It is a fascinating and also moving piece that resists an attempt to summarize it. Read it.

5. I have sung the praises of Jonathan Nunn’s Vittles many times before. I do not believe I have ever read anything on Vittles that was not stimulating/thought-provoking or well-written or both. That is a really remarkable thing. If you do not yet subscribe to Vittles you should really do so: some of the best stuff is only available to paying subscribers. I’m not sure but I think this piece by Vivek Menezes on the pasts and presents of leavened bread in Goa was one such. Even in India, non-Goans associate Goan food predominantly with vindaloo and xacuti etc. But the various breads may be an even more essential cornerstone of Goan cuisine and life and Menezes tracks how that came to be in another essay that engages history where most would only fetishize food. Read it.

6. As always, I enjoyed a number of the pieces published on Goya Journal last year. Among them was this essay by Varsha Sara Babuji published in November on Kerala’s relationship with Middle Eastern food. The connection between Kerala and the Middle East—the Gulf states in particular—is well-known. In this piece Babuji focuses not on Malayalis abroad but on those who’ve returned from the Middle East as employment opportunities there have faded, and have opened restaurants serving various Arab foods—though as always in India, this is a story of adaptation to local tastes. Read it.

7. From earlier in the year on Goya Journal I very much enjoyed Nikita Biswal’s piece on the “aunty bars” of 1950s and 1960s Bombay—not least because until I read the piece I had never heard of them. Biswal writes of how the rise of alcohol prohibition in India in the period led to the rise of discreet, casual home-based speakeasies run by Catholic women in the suburbs of Bombay and it’s a fascinating tale. Prohibition, and with it the aunty bars, are an artefact of the past but in Biswal’s telling this unlikely sliver of the past comes alive and the modern city is revealed yet again as palimpsest. Read it.

8. For a collaboration between Diaspora Co, and Whetstone, Shirin Mehrotra writes about the history and place of chillies in South Asia. I have to say I’m not so sure in the abstract about the notion of articles such as this being housed on merchants’ sites where they invariably serve a marketing/e-commerce function. But there’s no hard sell in Mehrotra’s article which is very good on both the history and culinary geography of chillies in India—which, of course, arrived as part of the Columbian Exchange, probably with the Portuguese and in the centuries since have not only all but displaced pepper but also taken over its name while being thoroughly Indianized in both the field and the kitchen. Read it.

Alright, that’s the first installment. There’ll be another seven or eight pieces covered in the second part next week. You can expect to see more from Goya Journal and Viittles and Whetstone there—as well as a few pieces I have some or many reservations about.


 

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