Art: Susan Chen
Last year, I visited a relative’s house in New Jersey. He and his wife grew up in Bangalore, and a recent kitchen renovation set the stage for the reveal of a larger transformation that had been quietly underway for years. They detailed the many moves that had gone into building their ideal pantry, spice routes forged with relatives back in India, tireless expeditions to local Indo-Pak grocery stores until the choicest brands and items had been identified through trial and error, the studied deployment of an Instant Pot in such military action that fresh yogurt and ghee were always on hand, not to mention dal and rice. As I took in this simulation — a Bangalore kitchen, painstakingly re-created — I felt a twinge of anxiety. It seemed improbable that I’d ever meet someone who would be interested in shaping a life and a kitchen that so poetically transports a person to that other place. Not that I desired such an outcome, exactly, but nevertheless I felt its unlikelihood as a loss.
If you are a member of the Asian diaspora in America, the push-pull around foodstuffs may be a tension you recognize. On the one hand, there is the desire to maintain a connection to the ancestral land. On the other, a sense that too much weight is placed on food as a source of meaning and identity. There’s an impulse to share and celebrate all the culinary wonders of an inheritance and to bristle when some wellness influencer mispronounces turmeric or khichdi.
The formula is written into our mythology. Consider the lunchbox moment, a narrative trope in which the Asian kid realizes her Asianness, her difference, when she is bullied in the school cafeteria for the “exotic” meal her unwitting parents have prepared. Flashforward to adulthood: Food becomes a mode of reclamation from the white bullies (who now probably fetishize those same dishes they once mocked, all that pungent kimchee and curry) as well as a thread to the parent and the lost country. In both scenarios, food holds the key to a sense of self.
Why, though? Surely other minority groups possess their own lunchbox moments while Asian communities possess diverging legacies. But Asian food has crowded out Asian languages, arts, philosophies, and other cultural binding agents to become an object of jealous focus that must be protected from Alison Roman–esque neocolonialists who dare use yogurt or fish sauce. If the Twitterverse is to be taken seriously, the common American mistake chai tea — two words that mean the same thing — holds the source code for all second-gen South Asian pain, offending even the many well settled among us. Offline, “boba liberalism,” to borrow a neat term for consumption-based Asian American identitarianism, plays out via a reservation at some new “It” restaurant or a purchase of the right book.
After the hyperregional Indian restaurant Dhamaka went up in Manhattan last year, a tone of reverence crept into the voices of South Asian foodies trying to snag a table, as if a meal might contribute not only to one’s social currency but to one’s self-development. Then there are the many food-centric memoirs and identity-focused cookbooks that promise Asian American readers self-knowledge, community, and a lifestyle glow-up of the most profound order, all in the space of a few hundred pages. “A beautiful, holy place, full of people from all over the world who have been displaced in a foreign country, each with a different history,” the artist Michelle Zauner called the Korean food chain H Mart in her blockbuster 2021 memoir, Crying in H Mart, a text that shows the undeniable poetry of the relationship between food and the self. Zauner, whose father is white and mother was Korean, speaks little Korean, she writes, yet feels an almost excruciating intimacy with certain dishes that remind her of her deceased mother. This quest to heal a loss — of a parent but also an ethnic identity — takes place in a literal grocery store.
In the digital sphere, Asian food culture is often performed in front of others in WhatsApp chains, Instagram posts, and Twitter rants. Sometimes it can seem as if make-believe countries have been drummed into existence for commercial purposes. One example has stuck with me, an error in an Instagram caption by a food influencer who originally hails from an Indian state that borders the one my parents are from. She’d posted a photo praising a delicacy named after a city in my family’s state. The item comes from there. But in her caption, she laid claim to the dish. She said it was her people who had invented it, though the evidence to the contrary was right there in the name. I wondered if this person actually believed the dish must belong to her simply because she’d anointed herself a purveyor of Indian delicacies to non-Indian consumers. What struck me was not only how convenient the error was for her purposes but also how convinced she must have been of it to make it, how susceptible to an altered, cleaner version of reality, one where India is a unitary thing, not divided by region, language, caste, and ethnicity. Food, as a medium, feels singularly effective as a means to sand the edges off a homeland, to turn that mythic place into a smooth commodity rather than an unknowable, dissonant land.
The appeals of food are also shortcomings as a foundation for identity. Food is a quick way to engage with a culture; it’s literally consumed! It poses simpler challenges, perhaps, than learning a lost language or filling great gaps in historical knowledge. The consumable nature of food allows it to be stolen by onlookers and outsiders, its meaning cheapened and diluted. Anyone, after all, can make a curry or a pork bun if they want to—or buy one.
Moreover, food’s deep associations with comfort and nostalgia offer a shortcut that is deceptive. If being a good Asian American progressive means participating in soothing food theater, there is less need to consider one’s heritage with a sense of ambivalence or question the harmful hierarchies within Asian diasporic communities. Food makes displacement the point of commonality. And it’s a misleading one — we all experienced it, so we all must face the same challenges.
At some time after that moment in Jersey, I realized that the search for the self through cuisine is often a source of anxiety with questionable results. No matter how hard I tried, I could not replicate the dishes my parents made in our home every night when I was growing up. I couldn’t figure out how to manage my grocery lists so those dishes would ever be anything but a novelty item to be made when I had huge swathes of time and energy. I realized that I couldn’t be somewhere else. I could only be where I was. And I began to relax, to let go of a need to stay rooted in some contrived way. I was born in America, and I was going to start making food in a different way from the people who brought me here.
It so happens that my energy has turned elsewhere. Lately, I have been revisiting myths from my childhood that hold some promise of wisdom. One feels particularly insistent: the story of Eklavya, a talented low-caste boy who is casually exploited by the heroes of the Mahabharata. Eklavya perseveres to become an excellent archer, but Dronacharya, the royal teacher, demands that he saw off his thumb so Prince Arjuna can maintain his superiority. In this difficult, gemlike parable, I see a map to understand the nature of the Indian caste system, still ruthlessly at work today, and of power dynamics worldwide. I feel at turns awed by the narrative sophistication and distressed by the view it offers — of society but also of my place in it. Like so many of the best stories, this one leaves a rich and bitter aftertaste that all but resists an audience. One must work hard to appreciate it.