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. Continue reading

On the New (and Old) Curry Denialism or We’re Here, We’re Brown, We Eat Curry, Calm Down!


Two things are seemingly guaranteed in discourse around Indian food in the US. Many non-South Asians will refer to it with the shorthand “curry”, and just as predictably Indian Americans writing about Indian food will periodically rail against this shorthand, sometimes going so far as to issue denials of the very existence of curry. Here, for example, is Madhur Jaffrey in 1989 supplying a Chicago Tribune article with its dramatic title, “Let The Truth Be Known: There Is No ‘Curry’ in India”.  And here now in 2019 is Khushbu Shah with a tweet that reads “Indians don’t eat curry, colonizers eat curry. Never forget.” And these are just two examples. If you do a quick bit of googling of phrases like “curry in India” you’ll find plenty of other denials of its existence. There is only one problem with all of this: it’s not true. Indians cook and eat curries happily and have been doing so for a long time. Why then do some people of Indian origin in the West keep denying the existence of curry as an Indian thing, and also relatedly the existence and use of curry powder in Indian kitchens? Let me try to explain. Continue reading

Indian–eeesh!: The Marketing


When I wrote the first of my pieces critiquing Indian-American food writing I noted that I was quite looking forward to Priya Krishna’s then-upcoming cookbook Indian(-ish) which promised to cover ground not so very often trod in the American food media: Indian American food. That was last autumn. Alas, my hopes withered in the winter under the onslaught of Krishna’s rather disastrous extended promotional campaign for the book and did not recover in the spring. Disastrous, I hasten to add, from the point of view of substance and accuracy; from the point of view of marketing per se it seems to have been a great success. The book has received a number of strong reviews in the American press and has been praised and promoted all over food social media. I bought a copy of the book as well. I have to admit that I did so largely in the hope that it might provide the kind of comedy not seen in this genre since the publication of Rani Kingman’s Flavours of MadrasThe content of much of the marketing certainly pointed in that direction. Continue reading

What the Actual Fuck? (Covering the Coverage of South Asian Food)


On May 13, 2019 Saveur, a serious food magazine (I mean it’s called Saveur) published the picture at left alongside a recipe for jalebis. As I quipped on Twitter, this picture explains a lot about the state of Indian food coverage in the American media. All of which can be boiled down to one sentence: people do not know what the fuck they are doing but feel very empowered to keep on doing it anyway. The picture accompanies a recipe (adapted from Pushpesh Pant) and both accompany a travel article by one Kiran Mehta on a jalebi vendor in Varanasi, Ram Bhandar. I can only hope that the proprietor of Ram Bhandar has not been shown this picture (and if it turns out that this is a picture of jalebis made at Ram Bhandar then no one should ever eat jalebis at Ram Bhandar). Mehta’s piece fits well in Saveur‘s mall food court model of global food coverage: here’s a random Indian thing next to a random Korean thing next to a random French thing next to a random Amazon thing next to a random Ukrainian thing and so on. It’s all touristic breadth, no depth. Let’s start there and work our way back to Saveur‘s crime against jalebis.  Continue reading

Against Family: Errata + Addenda


Late last week I posted the third entry in my series covering writing on Indian food in mainstream American media. As someone who does not really have much of a food following—or much of a following of any kind really—I expected it would be of interest to a few and then sort of disappear. I was surprised, however, to see the piece get shared by a lot of food people on Twitter, including a number of people whose own work I find interesting. This was certainly gratifying. I am not in the food/writing industry and don’t really move in those virtual circles and so it’s nice to see that people who do spend a lot of time reading and writing about food find my views at least of interest. And it was very nice in particular to see lots of people of South Asian origin “liking” it on Twitter. Continue reading

Against Family: Covering the Coverage of South Asian Food


Here is the long-threatened third entry in my series examining the coverage of South Asian food in mainstream American media. If this is the first one you’ve seen you may want to take a look at the first to get a sense of what the impetus for this series is, and the second to get caught up. In fact, in this piece I will spend all my time on an issue that I raised in the first and followed up on in the second: the seeming revival of the trope of family in a lot of current Indian-American food writing, or at least in a lot of writing from some currently prominent Indian-American food writers. Some may feel that this is not a genre that deserves this level of scrutiny but I take Indian food culture seriously and I am paying the writers I refer to in this piece—and the others I’ve critiqued elsewhere in the series—the compliment of taking their work seriously. Continue reading

Covering the Coverage of South Asian Food II: Mangoes, Instant Pots, Hing and More…


In late August I published the first of a threatened series of posts that nobody had asked for: a round-up of recent writing in mainstream American publications on South Asian food (which effectively, and unfortunately, continues to mean Indian food). If you haven’t already read that, you can find my explanation of the impetus for this series and a bit of my own background vis a vis this subject there. Here now is the second installment. This covers things that floated into my distracted field of vision in September and October. Those who worry that the first post may have misrepresented my normal relentless positivity will be glad to know that on this occasion I come almost entirely to praise. This despite the fact that two of the pieces I am covering today are on subjects whose coverage in American outlets can normally be counted on to raise my blood pressure (mangoes and Instant Pots). But, alas, even my positivity has limits and I will end on a more critical note than I begin on: and again it has to do with my reservations about the limits of the genre of the personal, familial narrative in discussing Indian food. Continue reading

Covering the Coverage of South Asian Food: Introduction


I have waited a long time for a moment that has seemingly finally arrived: a critical mass of writers of South Asian descent writing in mainstream American publications on South Asian food. This development—if I am correct in so describing it—has been accompanied by a greater attention in general in mainstream American publications—whether focused on food or not—on South Asian food conceived of in ways different from those in earlier eras. Greater attention is paid now to regionality, to street food, to what we might call contemporary articulations of traditional food. Of course, these things are not happening in a vacuum: they mirror broadly the transformation of food and restaurant culture in the US in the same period. The rise of regionality, the greater attention to vernacular traditions, the re-articulation of foods from these sources into elite foodways (and the writing about them): this has all been happening in US food culture more generally in the post-Bourdain, now post-Chang era. But I’m Indian and so I tend to be more parochially focused on what’s happening with the Indian, or more broadly, South Asian food scene here. But before I get to the current scene, a little unreliable history. Continue reading