Covering the Coverage of South Asian Food: 2021 Edition, Pt. 2

After a year’s hiatus, I restarted this series on the representation of South Asian food two weeks ago. Having taken most of 2021 off, I predictably had far more pieces to highlight than I could fit into one readable post. And so I broke the round-up into two parts. The first part, which included pieces published in FiftyTwo.inGoya JournalWhetstone South Asia, Vittles etc., was entirely positive. That run of unimpeded positivity ends in this concluding part of the round-up. This list too contains a number of pieces I liked a lot but it also includes some that I was more ambivalent about or that seem to me to participate in larger narratives I find dubious (I regret to inform that both curry and masala chai are involved). VittlesGoya Journal, and Whetstone South Asia are featured again but are now joined by some other outlets as well. Let’s begin with one of those.

(Just in case you’re not very smart I will point out that entries 1-8 are in Part 1.)

9. I very much enjoyed the unsolved mystery reported on by Barkha Kumari for Atlas Obscura. At stake is the origin of a street snack sold in many parts of India. And by “origin” I mean not place or community of origin but actual botanical origin. Is the thing a slice of stem? a root? And of what plant? But it’s not just the issue of classification that’s interesting; it’s also the gap alluded to—even if it’s more than a little buried in the piece—between scientific and subaltern knowledge. The plant scientists would just like to know what exactly the damned plant is—seemingly a type of agave; the vendor who seemingly helps crack the mystery, however, is more guarded: divulging the source means breaking a code of silence and may even mean legal trouble. All in all, it’s yet another reminder of just how heterogeneous food and food knowledge is in South Asia and that “expertise” does not only lie in elite spaces. Read it.

10. Speaking of expertise looking very different depending on who is doing the looking and at what, here’s a quick plug for the three part series published last year in Vittles on “60 South Asian Dishes Every Londoner Should Know”. London, as I have quipped on more than one occasion, is among the major South Asian cities and if  you want to eat the proof of this you should let Vittles be your guide. The link is to the first installment but you can follow the links to the others. Read it.

11. And back to Whetstone South Asia, Amrita Amesur’s piece on the politics of dog meat is a good introduction to both the place and practice (not very prevalent) of the consumption of dog meat in Nagaland and to the complicated place of Nagas and other tribal peoples from the northeast in the web of Indian cultural identity. Nagas—and others from the northeast—are often subject to racist discrimination in other parts of India on the basis of visible difference. Their status as other is also produced metonymically through references to the implied barbarity of dog eating. Amesur’s piece makes clear that the outrage and the new legislation prohibiting the consumption of dogs are also part of this production of Nagas as other. That is to say, the point of the legislation is not to actually save dogs but to identify Naga culture as other and require that it erase cultural difference in order to be allowed entry into the mainstream. Read it.

12. Yes, it’s Farah Yameen again, this time for Goya Journal. In this piece Yameen simultaneously details the place of different fats/oils in the cooking of different Indian communities (stratified by caste, religion etc.), the complex relationships between those communities, and what has been and is at stake in the various shifts in consumption and production/marketing of edible fats/oils over the last century. As with all of Yameen’s pieces this one defies easy summary. Read it.

Okay, it’s time to enter the territory of the questionable.

13. Broadly speaking, all of masala chai discourse in the US falls inside this territory. Rarely, however, have I seen masala chai being asked to do as much work as it is in Leena Trivedi-Grenier’s piece for Epicurious. [Read it.] At various points in the essay it is Trivedi-Grenier’s connection to “the flavors and traditions of my Gujarati family”; part of a constellation of flavours that have seen her through “marriage, difficult childbirths, professional losses and wins”; her grandmother’s “daily escape from the loneliness of a new country”; for the colonized “an act of rebellion against the British” (this courtesy Sana Javeri Kadri, proprietor of Diaspora Co. who also shares with us the nugget that “as our national symbol…it’s a very symbolic one.”); and for the poor “a crucial form of sustenance” (this courtesy Madhushree Ghosh who seems to think people who cannot afford food can afford milk, sugar and spices; I’ll have more to say about her contributions to the piece below). Trivedi-Grenier provides the customary railing against white people’s cultural appropriation of masala chai—but really can you blame them? It’s obviously a miracle drug, capable of anything. (In passing, we are told that among the sins of white-owned brands is packing masala chai into teabags; someone needs to tell Trivedi-Grenier and Epicurious that masala chai teabags are sold by Indian companies to Indians in India as well.)

There are many things in this essay that I have objections to (not least the author’s recipe for masala chai which apparently requires 8 pods of cardamom per cup) but I will restrict myself to comments on two of them. First, the reliance on the tired trope of family and ritual. Some of the quotes above already a give a sense of how this goes: masala chai is both a ritual connection and a familial one to Indian culture and history. (One might wonder why masala chai should be special in this way compared to any number of other things but whatever.) The problem with the framing Trivedi-Grenier gives us on both fronts is that it drowns messier aspects of cultural practice in the misty framing of tradition. In one place we are told that as a child she never understood why her grandmother took 20 minutes to drink her tea after moving to the US. This is presented to us as “as much a ritual as her daily prayers” and is finally explained as “her daily escape from the loneliness of a new country, a connection to the land and people that she left”.

But there’s another possible answer in the very next paragraph where we are told that “in her late 20s with a husband and five sons, Motiben made masala chai five times a day on a one-burner kerosene stove: at 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. for the family, at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. for the family farmworkers, and at 3 p.m. for an extended family visit.” Could it be that the older Motiben really just relished finally being to able make a cup of tea for herself and drink it in peace? Trivedi-Grenier goes on to ask, “how did making masala chai come to dominate Motiben’s day?” The answer she gives is “white greed and Indian resistance.” That the answer might begin with Indian patriarchy is not considered because tradition here is being invoked only as romance.

Trivedi-Grenier is out to rescue us from a white incarnation of masala chai “completely divorced from its important history and culture”. But if the culture that she seeks to re-insert is romanticized, the history of tea doesn’t fare so well either. Masala chai is presented as a vector of resistance to colonialism but for all her historical research—which we are told is “ongoing”—the timelines and realities of tea drinking in India don’t really line up with this narrative. This narrative is thematized via input again from Madhushree Ghosh who tells us that “the British drank and sold high-quality whole-leaf “orthodox” tea, but the masses of India drank CTC tea”. Now the problem with this formulation—plucky Indians taking the inferior tea they were given and resisting the colonizers with it—is first that while the CTC method was invented in the early 1930s it didn’t actually become viable until technical adjustments in the 1950s; technical adjustments made by Indians after colonialism ended (see Sarah Besky’s excellent book, Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea). And since then CTC has been the dominant mode of tea worldwide, not just in India: the majority of Brits have also not been drinking orthodox leaf tea since CTC came into its own.

Second, while it is certainly true that the tea aimed at the Indian mass market in the 1930s, from which masala chai emerged, was of a lower quality, tea drinking itself was resisted by Indian nationalists as a colonial ploy and it wasn’t until well after independence that the production and consumption of tea as national drink really got underway (for more see Phillip Lutgendorf’s “Making Tea in India“; Trivedi-Grenier cites this essay but seems to have read it very selectively). Tea’s 20th century Indian history is fascinating but it is altogether more complicated than the potted version Trivedi-Grenier (via Ghosh and Javeri Kadri) gives us. And it should be pointed out as well that the exploitation of tea plantation workers is not—as presented by Trivedi-Grenier—a colonial artefact: it continues more or less unchanged in contemporary India. It may suit the branding of companies like Diaspora Co. to present the consumption of masala chai as partaking in a tradition of anti-colonial resistance but for better attention to its history you’ll have to look elsewhere.

14.The good news, though, is that for a brief but better researched version you don’t have to look much further than an article in Goya Journal by Samarth Singh Chandel, also published in 2021. [Read it.] Chandel goes over much the same ground as Trivedi-Grenier but his account of the “rather erratic and long process” by which tea finally came to be a viable national drink in the 1970s presents all the complexity that the Epicurious piece lacks, even if in places it reads like a paraphrase of Lutgendorf’s article (which is linked in it—it’s a free download; you really should read it as well).

Let’s get back to the questionable. And, yes, it involves the dread monster, “curry”.

15. Such is the state of curry discourse in the US (even sorrier than that of masala chai) that Sakshi Venkatraman’s piece on it for NBC News is actually a relative improvement. [Read it.] This because it grants that at least some South Asians make and eat curry, though for some reason it seems to limit the provenance of the practice to South India and Sri Lanka. Elsewhere the usual greatest hits of the genre can be found: the claim that curry is an English word [debatable]; that colonial Brits called all Indian food curry [they did not]; scars from lunchtime teasing in American schools [those bullies have a lot to answer for]; Indians Americans who don’t even know, “what the hell is curry?” [for this I think we must blame their parents]; etc.

Also present are the requisite dubious claims about food and Indian tradition and the expected blindspots in them. We are told, for example, that against the individualism of the west, for Indians food is “a form of collectivism” [hmm this must be why food is one of the principal sites of boundary policing in Indian culture]. This collectivism is manifested in the figures of mothers and grandmothers cooking joyously for other people—gendered labour again is not visible here even when it is being described. And there are some weird leaps. Of a food blogger we are told:

“Her mom would cook for the family even when she was tired. A toor dal with chilke wale aloo (lentils with potatoes) was one of the most common after-work dinners. She takes issue with the way people see Indian food as always being in a fatty, buttery tomato sauce.”

Her mother cooked for the family even when she was tired (because god forbid her father could have helped out) and so it is offensive that Americans see Indian food “as always being in a fatty, buttery tomato sauce”. Okay. And if you want to complain about oversimplification of Indian food you might want to start with “toor dal with chilke wale aloo” being turned into “lentils with potatoes”.

(By the way, why is it so troubling that non-Indian Americans don’t recognize the names of dishes from different Indian regional cuisines, as comes up later in the piece? Most Indians don’t either. Is there in any case some law I am unaware of that people in every country must know the names of every single dish eaten in every other country? If so, I’m in trouble—I live in Minnesota and all I know of Swedish food is meatballs and lingonberry sauce; I blame IKEA.)

But as I say, Venkatraman’s piece is a relative improvement if only because it allows (howsoever mystifying limitedly) that at least in some cases “curry” is an appropriate term. The piece also correctly notes that not all Indian food falls under the category of “curry” but you have to wonder just how many non-Indian Americans with an interest in food actually exist these days who think that it does. Your average North Indian restaurant in the US has very few instances (usually correct ones) of the word “curry” on their menu and I’d guess that popular dishes like chana masala, saag paneer, dal makhani, alu-gobi, baingan bharta, butter chicken, korma, rogan josh etc. etc. are all known only by those specific names. Are we sure there is a problem here that requires this by now quarterly ritual of American food media pieces denouncing it?

16. If you read renowned edgelord, Gene Weingarten’s reference in an alleged humour piece in The Washington Post to all Indian food tasting the same you might think so. I found it hard to get too worked up about it partly because, let’s face it, it’s not actually an inaccurate characterization of the food found in most North Indian restaurants in the US; and partly because at a time when Indian restaurants are everywhere in the US, and Costco and Trader Joe’s and even your local supermarket sell prepared Indian foods the battle for the mainstreaming of Indian food in the US seems to have been won. I was far more appalled, in fact, by Shikha Subramaniam’s piece published a few days later by the Post as a corrective. This not just because it begins predictably with the sentence, “There is no such thing as “curry” in India” but because it goes on to furnish a laundry list of embarrassing touristic cliches about India:

“Half of my family is from the north: Imagine white-topped hills and sapphire lakes that freeze over, kites drifting over a mustard field, road trips where camels and elephants pass you decked in gold, and celebrations marked for weeks with intricate henna on your hands. The other half is from the south: land of magnificent temples, hot blistering beach towns, lotuses, coconut trees, Kanjeevaram silk sarees, and bunches of jasmine woven through your hair.”

As I said on Twitter at the time, I would rather that people not imagine any of this. It just goes to show, as I have always said, that when it comes to exoticizing India no one does it better than us Indians. Also annoying, by the way: the parade of American foodies who joined the “Oh, of course there’s no such thing as curry in India” chorus. You know what’s better than being counter-intuitive? Being counter-counter intuitive. Start here.

17. Alright, let me end more briefly with a partial return to the territory of the positive. Grandmothers feature heavily as well in Sejal Sukhadwala’s piece in The Guardian from the very end of the year. [Read it.] But not in expected ways. Sukhadwala wittily tweaks the tired tropes of grandmothers transmitting tradition, pointing out that culinary and social practice continue to evolve in ways that seem to evade the food sections of mainstream publications. There was much in this essay that I enjoyed.

So why only a partial return to the territory of the positive? Well, partly because I am a miserable bastard; and partly because the narrative of modernity that underlies Sukhadwala’s critique needs more interrogation. The desire in the piece is to resist the traditional grandmother trope becoming  “a straitjacket, restricting our understanding of the rich and varied lives they have led”. But counterposed to this trope are counterexamples of a very specific kind:

“Mothers and grandmothers in India were sometimes adding rosemary and thyme to their curries in the 1920s due to the British influence; dancing in jazz clubs in the 1930s; graduating as lawyers and engineers or running bars in the 1940s; hosting supper clubs in their homes in the 1950s; whipping up cocktails and canapes in the 1960s; and may have offered you a slice of green-chilli-flecked pizza from their new electric oven in the 1970s.”

As you can see, alternative images of grandmothers—or their entry into modernity over time—are seemingly graphed only/largely in terms of westernization. The choice offered implicitly is a binary one: either grandmothers grinding masalas all day or grandmothers “dancing in jazz clubs” or making cocktails, canapés and pizza. But can/should cliches only be dispelled by demonstrating westernization? What of women who seem to cook what look like traditional foods but now do so in ways very different than before? Women who use packaged pre-ground masalas or mixers instead of painstakingly grinding their own? who cook dal in pressure cookers and fish curry in microwaves? Women, in short, whose food may seem very traditional but whose cooking practices may also have deviated from “tradition” over time—which is to say whose practices have evolved along with tradition which, no matter what traditionalists say, never stands still. By all means let’s have accounts of more kinds of mothers and grandmothers—including those who don’t like to cook—but let’s go for the full spectrum and not just the figures who will be legible as “modern” to elite figures in the west.

And let’s not forget as well that Youtube and social media, which Sukhadwala only notes as spaces where Indians of all ages and genders are looking up recipes for new dishes, are also spaces where more traditional recipes are now being transmitted more widely than ever before. This transmission is now outside the narrow framework of family and community and has led to a massive multilingual democratization of the food internet; indeed bypassing completely the gatekeepers and circuits of western (or for that matter, South Asian) food media. This kind of thing too is a major shift in traditional practice and transmission that needs to be recognized even if no jazz clubs or cocktails or pizzas are involved.

Well, seventeen articles is a lot. Still, I know there are pieces published on South Asian food in 2021 that I have forgotten about. If you think there is something truly notable that I have failed to celebrate—or something truly egregious that I have missed the opportunity to knife in the back—please let me know, either in the comments or via more discreet channels. I can promise you though that you will not need to wait another year for the next entry in this series. I may have a round-up of the first quarter of 2022 before April is too far underway.


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