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Indian Americans: The New Voices Bringing Diversity to Food Writing

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Indian Americans: The New Voices Bringing Diversity to Food Writing

By Shaan Merchant

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because people other than Alison Roman can make turmeric popular — and do it with a lot more authenticity.

By Shaan Merchant

  • The food writing industry is in the middle of a reckoning over race and ethnic identity.
  • Amid that upheaval, Indian American food writers are rising to positions of influence and working to create more space for diverse voices in a predominantly white industry.

In 1993, New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl published a now-iconic review of twin experiences at one of Manhattan’s finest French establishments, Le Cirque: one when she dined in the guise of an unpolished tourist, the other when she dined as herself, one of the country’s most revered restaurant critics. The disparities in treatment were an impetus for a heated debate on hyper-opulent fine dining and contributed to the downfall of Le Cirque. But they also told another story: Identity shapes our food experiences

It’s a reality at the center of fresh tumult in the food media world. Bon Appétit faced a moment of reckoning last year after a photo emerged of its then editor-in-chief in brownface, along with allegations of racially problematic practices at the magazine. Popular columnist and cookbook author Alison Roman and several other prominent food figures have faced accusations of appropriating ingredients from different cultures, thus divorcing them from their historical significance. Within that churn, several Indian American food writers have risen to positions of prominence in the industry, offering diverse voices and fresh perspectives previously unavailable to most Americans.

In August, Sonia Chopra took over as executive editor at Bon Appétit. Khushbu Shah is the restaurant editor at Food & Wine magazine. New York Times California restaurant critic Tejal Rao is the winner of multiple James Beard awards — the most prestigious recognition for food writers in the U.S. Priya Krishna, Nik Sharma and Mayukh Sen are also among the most powerful and critically acclaimed writers in the food world, where Madhur Jaffrey — widely credited with bringing Indian cuisine to the West’s attention — was once a lonely figure. 

I feel an extraordinary responsibility not only to rep South Asians in that room but to also rep every other person that’s not in that room.

Khushbu Shah, restaurant editor, Food & Wine

For Indian Americans, among the most influential yet diverse ethnic communities in the U.S., food often serves as a unique bond. “When you’re part of a diaspora, food becomes a central force of culture,” says Shah. You can be “fluent in the food” of your heritage, even if you’re not fluent in the language. Sen, who has won several awards, including a James Beard, for his food coverage, agrees: “Of the many subcultures that exist within India and the diaspora, food means a lot to all of them. That may be why these narratives are important for us to share.” 

With their recent gain in influence, though, Indian American writers find themselves in precarious positions: hoping to bring much-needed authenticity to coverage of South Asian food without pigeonholing themselves as “Indian food writers” and also trying to represent the voices of all minorities while still bringing nuance to their coverage. To make matters even more complicated, this beef Wellington of complex representation is wrapped in the puff pastry of an industry that continues to be centered on the white gaze.  

“No matter how much establishment recognition I get … there’s always a part of me that feels like an outsider in the industry, someone who does not belong,” says Sen, who approaches the difficult questions of representation by shifting his narrative focus to people who might have felt the same way throughout their careers in the industry. “I look for people who may have felt as though they are on the fringes of this dominant food culture. This very white, very straight, very male industry,” he explains. 

Indeed, Shah cautions against misconstruing the rise in influence of Indian American writers as a sharp uptick in numbers. “When you compare that to the number of white food writers, it’s nothing,” she says. “The reason we stand out is because we’re really the only people in the rooms,” she adds, explaining that at many of the publications where she has worked, she was often the only writer of color. 

As an editorial leader, Shah wants to change that. “I feel an extraordinary responsibility not only to rep South Asians in that room but also to rep every other person that’s not in that room,” she says. “I want to make sure that we’re doing enough Latinx stories, that we’re doing enough Japanese stories, Chinese stories, Thai stories.” 

And there’s now room for all of those voices, say experts. “People want new and diverse stories,” says Emily Contois, an assistant professor at the University of Tulsa who studies identity in food media. “There is innovation and creativity that we haven’t seen yet because we haven’t nurtured and cultivated it.”

In editorial meetings, Shah has frequently had to oppose the argument that when one Indian food story is published, another can’t be for several months. “The scarcity mentality is the ultimate form of white supremacy,” she says. “People are so starved for representation right now and there’s so much work to get done.”

While representation “absolutely matters,” it is only a part of the solution, Contois says. “It’s really about shifting … access to means of production, to actually be able to produce these stories, to have the power to make these decisions with equal pay, with equal authority.” 

Shah agrees. “Until gatekeepers change, the reality of this is that whiteness is always going to be centered,” she says. “Representation is just the first step. It isn’t the end-all, be-all … but it’s a powerful first step, and it’s a step that needs to be taken to then get to the place that we want to get to.”

Despite the hoops they’ve had to jump through to gain recognition in the industry, Shah and Sen see a path forward. “If this year’s shifts are any indication, perhaps we will get to see longer-lasting changes,” says Sen. 

And Shah is clear about the road map needed for that change. “Creating more space for more stories and showing those stories can be successful and worth investing in, I think that’s how we can change food writing and the faces within it.”

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