The Indian-American: Why cooks of color get boxed-in to become the voice of ethnicity
Even as we straddle our bicultural identities, the chefs continue to be identified with their inherited culture.
I am an American immigrant from New Delhi, India. It’s a detail I often skip over when introducing myself. I moved here when I was 14 to start high school. Ever since then, I have felt intricately woven into the fabric of American life. I just call it life.
I am a foodie. This is the detail I begin with, generally. I am an avid cook, a WSET certified wine snob, food writer, host, and blogger. Eating and making dishes from all parts of the world brings me true joy (Marie Kondo would approve.)
India gave me a wonderful foundation of flavors and spices, yes. But it’s the seamless integration of my past with my present that represents me. I tend not to differentiate the two because it is a progression in life. However, I have found my culinary voice has merit mostly when I speak of Indian food: the world of the far east that the American palette finds exotic, exciting, and often… different.
I always say that food can tell the story of our times. The Black Lives Matter movement is a worldwide one, and one that can also be seen through food. Cooks and chefs of color whether Black, Asian, or Mexican, are often expected to represent exactly that in their cooking: their ethnicity. Chefs of color get stuck in this boundary of inherited culture. When was the last time you heard of a Black sommelier? Tahiirah Habibi is one, and a woman, at that. Jon Renthrope is Louisiana’s first Black brewmaster. Padma Lakshmi, an Indian immigrant, is exploring the narrative of American food in her new show, Taste the Nation. These are only a few examples where tastemakers are no longer clichés attached to the color of their skin.
I am proud of my Indian heritage. It’s an unshakeable foundation that helps my culinary journey. But I try not to use it as a crutch. As a food writer, I’ve covered beer and wine pairings with Thanksgiving dinners, the rise of CBD as an ingredient, Super Bowl athlete diets, and Cinco de Mayo food traditions. I hosted the show, “Around the World in $40” on HLN where I covered and cooked international meals with people from different backgrounds. My Indian history has always been a part of my perspective, but it’s not all of it. It’s this conscious decision to evolve in my culinary voice that helps me from becoming a one-note writer and cook.
[Left]The author as a child, seen here with her mother. “I am from here now, but India will never leave me. It’s not two separate people,
nor am I reborn. It’s this duality that I do not see in myself, or
in my food,” she says.
Chef Gordon Ramsay does this well. I have been cooking through his cookery course. He’s a white English man best-known for his beef wellington, seared scallops, and colorful vocabulary. Something entirely un-Indian. But once you peel back the layers, you see that Ramsay cooks with spices, sauces, meats, and vegetables from parts of the world I have never even heard of. And if huge voices like his can show diversification, then it is set to become a household commodity. He’s taught me more about cumin, chili, curry leaves, and turmeric than my own upbringing. His defiant nature to constantly redefine what it means to be an English chef is inspiring. I can make gnocchi from scratch, and a mean chicken curry if you test me. That is my American cooking.
[Right] Celebrating her American citizenship, acquired earlier this year, in March.[Left bottom]“Making my first Thanksgiving dinner with my German- American father-in-law. Turkey, stuffing, pie—the classics I grew up watching in Hollywood movies.”
I am married to my loving white husband who enjoys a samosa just as much as pizza. This is what my American normal looks and feels like. And yet, when you think of American food, you may not think of beans, sushi, or homemade chutney.
I’m a newbie American. I took my oath this year, a week before the country shut-down because of Covid-19. A grin fresh on my face from the ceremony, my family and friends still teary-eyed waiting behind rows of chairs, a volunteer asks me: “Where are you from?”
It’s a thoughtless, automatic answer, like saying “Bless you” when you sneeze:
He says, “Think again.”
A sheepish smile crosses his face, knowing the trick worked every time.
I was supposed to say, “America.”
I didn’t know how I felt in that moment. The taste in my mouth, a bit bitter but deep, like umami. Wonderful
if had the with the right amount of salt, funny even. Unpleasant when the moment is sweet.
I am from here now, but India will never leave me. It’s not two separate people, nor am I reborn. It’s this duality that I do not see in myself, or in my food. I am the chai-drinking pasta-maker wine connoisseur desperate to differentiate herself from an ethnic caricature. I am just as I am…someone who loves food. Not Indian food, Italian food, Spanish food. All food. (Well…most food. Bananas are gross.)
And I hope like my dinner plate, it is this America we are heading towards: a beautifully vibrant one without comfortable labels of predictability. Leaving you with a sense of awe and surprise…like trying a new wine you had no idea could smell like roses.
Henna Bakshi, originally from New Delhi, India, is a Writer/Producer at CNN. A foodie at heart, she is the host of multiple cooking series and currently enrolled in level 2 wine certification via Wine and Spirit Education Trust.
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