Tejal Rao On the Many Worlds of American Food
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
THE INTREPID WRITER AND CRITIC TELLS THE COMPLEX, BEAUTIFUL, TRUE STORY OF FOOD IN TODAY'S AMERICA
INTERVIEW: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
ILLUSTRATION: ERIN DIEBBOLL
met with Tejal Rao over coffee in midtown Manhattan the day after a blizzard. The streets outside were lined with livid drifts of dirty snow and every so often, as we talked, a chunk of ice streaked past the window behind her and crashed onto the sidewalk. A far cry from the dreamy tour she once led readers on through the kitchens and dining rooms of Michel Guérard’s cuisine minceur–inspired culinary cure at Les Prés d’Eugénie in Southwestern France, or the sun-dappled sets of The Great American Baking Show (the subject of a memorable and thoughtful piece by Rao on the invisible diversity of regional American baking).
Rao’s span of culinary interests is wide and all-embracing. This is unsurprising for someone in her role: she’s a reporter for the New York Times and a columnist for the New York Times Magazine, before which she served as a food critic at Bloomberg. Prior to that she was a food critic at the Village Voice. She's won not one, but two, James Beard Awards for restaurant criticism. The unexpected element in Rao’s far-ranging tastes isn’t so much that they are far-ranging—it is, rather, how avidly they draw upon her patchwork quilt of personal influences.
To read Rao’s writing on food is to take a tour through the circuitous paths of her childhood. Born in London to Indian émigré parents, she grew up, variously, in London, Khartoum, Kuwait, Paris, and Atlanta, in between extended summer sojourns with grandparents in Nairobi and Pune. Rao’s work often brings elements of these early scenes together. A recent piece on haldi dhoodh, the neon-yellow mixture of turmeric and milk that every Indian grandmother considers the ultimate panacea, struck a chord both with health-minded readers of the Times as well as many Indian-Americans for whom the mention of haldi dhoodh came as a surprising sign of the inroads that Indian food and ingredients are making into the culinary mainstream.
Rao has a supernal view over the landscape of American cooking. She has a constant eye out for what’s happening in restaurants, on television, and in the larger culture, an attentiveness she pairs with a passion for the latent and the underexamined. As we talk, she pivots from memories of her Gujarati grandmother’s coffee klatches around plates of steamed khichi to a discussion of the fantastically over-the-top anime Yuri!!! on Ice, which she sheepishly admits is the root of a recent fixation on katsudon, an obsession she shares with the show’s title character. It is her willingness to weave together such disparate-seeming strands of contemporary cooking culture that makes Rao’s writing feel so vibrant, so responsive to the changing idea of what food looks like today and to the growing diversity of people who are cooking and eating it.
Rohan Kamicheril: Can you tell me a little bit about how—and where—you grew up?
Tejal Rao: My mother was born in Uganda, my father in India, my brother in Kenya, and I, in England. Moving around every year or so for my father’s job was just what we did. We didn’t talk about it, but my brother and I were expected to adapt quickly, to assimilate. When my family lived in the Middle East, I went to Arabic-language schools, though my parents don’t speak Arabic. And when we moved to France, I went to French public schools where no one spoke English, so it became necessary to learn French.
I don’t know if this is interesting, but I’m thinking about it a lot lately: that I learned these other languages that weren’t my own, and then studied German, Spanish, and Italian in school, but I never learned much Gujarati, which they speak on my mother’s side (or Konkani, which they speak on my father’s side). So that meant I could barely communicate with my great grandmother. Ba, I called her. She lived in England, where she’d landed in the early ’70s as a political refugee from Uganda, and she stayed there until she died eight years ago. I didn’t really mind moving around a lot, or adapting, but there’s no way to measure what I lost by not being able to have long rambling conversations in Gujarati with my Ba.
" ... there’s no way to measure what I lost by not being able to have long rambling conversations in Gujarati with my Ba."
RK: Are your parents good cooks? Did they influence your decision to get into food and food writing?
TR: Both of my parents love to cook and love to have dinner parties at home. When I was a kid I thought it was so glamorous—you know, when you’re falling asleep and you can hear the adults having a party? I loved that.
RK: It’s a very reassuring sound.
TR: Some of the first things I learned how to cook were really simple things my parents taught me when I was a kid, like pasta with lemon cream sauce, chicken thighs sautéed with chilies and garlic and finished in the oven, baked potatoes. I remember my brother and I following a tarragon chicken salad recipe that came on a free recipe card from Sainsbury’s. I didn’t learn much about cooking Indian food until after I left home, and started to really miss specific Gujarati dishes my grandmother and mother made, which I found out were impossible to find in restaurants.
RK: Are your parents’ styles of cooking very different?
TR: They’re both really excited and curious when it comes to food. My mother cooked Indian food maybe once a week when I was growing up. She made some of the dishes I love best, like kadhi and rice. One of my earliest memories is just standing by while she stirs a kadhi pot, waiting for it to come to the boil; the smell of the raw green masala and the yogurt. And she made really simple Indian vegetable dishes, green beans cut up really tiny and cooked perfectly with cumin and popped mustard seeds and no other spices, and we’d have just that with chapatti, dal, and rice. My father wouldn’t cook Indian food, but he made breakfast feasts on the weekend, like pancakes and waffles, and what he’d call “party food” on Saturday nights, like paella or chicken kiev or fondue. Because it was expensive, we only went out to restaurants for special occasions.
RK: In your piece on the therapeutic value of haldi dhoodh, you mention a grandmother who lives in Nairobi—
TR: Yes. She’s actually my last living grandparent. She still lives in Nairobi. When I was growing up my dad’s parents lived in Pune, in India. And my mum’s parents lived in Nairobi and we alternated. My parents would ship us off every summer and we’d spend two and a half months with our grandparents.
RK: What were some of the dishes your mom made for you growing up?
TR: My mom would make mostly vegetarian Gujarati food.
RK: Which is amazing.
TR: It’s my favorite. I’m trying to learn a lot of those things now. Do you know Meera Sodha? She has this new book, Fresh India, that’s sort of Gujarati-inspired.
"One of the things I know for sure is that there isn’t one 'correct' way to do things. Not just with food, but especially with food."
RK: I saw that she had a recipe for thepla—
TR: So good!
RK: —which she calls “journey breads.”
TR: Which is something I didn’t even know about thepla!
RK: Coming from a family that approaches food in so many different ways, and having lived in so many different places—do you think that affects your thoughts on food?
TR: In a way. One of the things I know for sure is that there isn’t one “correct” way to do things. Not just with food, but especially with food. There are just so many different ways to do a thing.
Food writing can be really obsessed with the idea of authenticity, of one true version, of one true way, but that makes me so uncomfortable and I always wonder who gets to decide what that one way is. Dishes change as people change, as time passes. They change because someone has to improvise, to make do, because their resources change, because their influences broaden. And I think that expanding definitions can be really exciting.
RK: I’ve been enjoying the variety of your recent pieces in the Times. What really strikes me when I read your work is the remarkable gift you have for demonstrating a kind of cosmopolitanism that includes Indianness.
TR: Thank you for saying that. That’s very generous.
RK: I really think it’s true! It’s really very noteworthy for how you’ve very subtly retriangulated what it means to be a broadminded thinker and eater. For so long the standard angle of approach to minority cuisines in a lot of the media was very Anglo-centric. I think it’s really striking to have someone so interested in the whole gamut of what food has to offer but who contextualizes it with a very different background. Is that something that occurs to you as you work on these pieces?
TR: I don’t think I’ve actively tried to do that but it’s so good to hear you say that. I think there are a lot of people like me out there. That’s how they see the city or the world. Everyone’s more than one thing—or at least a lot of people of color identify with that. At the Times they’re not saying, “Do X number of stories about this” or "Write about X things in this one particular way." They're giving me quite a lot of freedom to follow my curiosity, and to use my voice. I wasn’t sure if writing about haldi dhoodh would actually be a good idea but it turned out that of all the recipe pieces I’d done that was the one that got the biggest response. So many people emailed me, or they wanted to tell me about their version or their mom’s version. It made me so happy.
RK: Also, a lot of the reference points you provide in your stories come from your own background. In the story about the growing trend of restaurants using charred ingredients, you mention your mother’s chapattis as an example, which is something you wouldn’t have seen in a mainstream food article 10 or 15 years ago. Does this mark some kind of shift in who’s doing the food writing in America these days and what they’re writing about?
TR: I don’t know if I can say whether or not it marks a shift, but it feels very natural to do and I feel really lucky to have the space to do it, when it makes sense to, and it's backed up with reporting. Of course when my mom saw it she was like, “I didn’t burn the chapattis!” [laughs]. Although she loves burnt stuff, she doesn’t like the word “burnt” because it implies that she did something wrong.
RK: Of course.
TR: And that’s happening a lot now that I’m writing about my own family. They’re correcting me! The research desk calls my grandmother to verify stuff with her. And the very first time it happened she called me, saying, “What do you want me to tell them?” [laughs]. I had to say, “No, no, no, it’s fine. It’s just part of the fact-checking process! It’s fine. You can tell them whatever!”
RK: She’s imagining that she’s complicit in this vast family conspiracy to dupe the fact-checking department at the Times—
TR: She thought I was in trouble!
RK: You’ve written really eloquently about both restaurants and about home cooking.
Are these tendencies moving together or apart, do you think?
TR: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because people are so interested in comfort food right now. It seems like people always reach for comfort food when things are difficult. Frankly, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of it, considering.
RK: Do you think that there’s an interesting way to do home-style food at a restaurant?
TR: But the thing is you don’t get home-cooked food at a restaurant.
RK: What do you think the difference is? Is it the setting? Or is it the profit motive that changes things?
TR: Well, there’s an exchange of money. When you go to someone’s house you’re not exchanging money for the experience. The food is just given to you, and that makes it really beautiful even if it isn’t perfect. At a restaurant, I think it’s really wonderful if they can make you forget that you’re at a restaurant but, ultimately, you’re still paying for the experience.
RK: Do you cook at home now?
TR: I do. At least a couple of days a week.
RK: What do you cook? Does it change depending on what you’re writing?
TR: I go through phases, and I actually wrote a column about that, about how I’ll make something over and over again until I’m sick of it and I never want to make it again! Right now I’m making moong dhal and rice, specifically Meera Sodha’s recipe. She makes a very simple tadka with cumin, but it’s so good. But one of my favorite things to do is look in the pantry and make something out of whatever I have. I always feel really proud of myself if I manage to make something out of what I have in the pantry! It usually ends up being a noodle thing, or spaghetti, or something with anchovies, or chillies, or cheese.
There’s this anime I really like called Yuri!!! on Ice that came out last year. It looks like a sports anime, which just means that the characters are going to a lot of competitions, but actually, secretly, it’s this really beautiful queer romantic comedy. It’s so good! And the main character is obsessed with katsudon. And so after watching it I really wanted to make katsudon. So I did that for a while. Sometimes, instead of using pork chops I’d just make it with eggs for breakfast.
RK: You address regionalism in American food in your writing, too. I really liked your piece on the lack of variety in the bakes in the second season of The Great American Baking Show. You posted an irate note on Twitter that you'd received from one reader.
TR: Oh, I got quite a few irate notes about that.
RK: That reader was in the UK, but it does seem like, as food in the US increasingly embraces new immigrant influences, there’s a simultaneous resistance developing to that. Do you feel some apprehension when you’re introducing a topic that may be new to readers?
"Part of what I love about my work is telling those stories ... that complicate the notion of what American food is, or complicate what it means to be American."
TR: What I was trying to say about the show—at least the first couple of episodes of the show—I don’t think was a new idea. Some people pointed out that the cast was diverse, but that wasn’t exactly my point. I think the America presented in the show was limited by Christmas-themed bakes. It could have been more exciting, more accurate, if the challenges had a broader range, including things like king cake or churros, election cake, or egg tarts. It could have been this opportunity to show off little-known regional sweets, or a way in to a bit of history.
RK: The British version engaged with those questions much more.
TR: I know that there are limits because it’s just a baking show, but the British version was just amazing television.
RK: Do you think that there’s a way for immigrant cuisines to meaningfully enter the mainstream rather than just being relegated to becoming chip flavors in the supermarket?
TR: I think it’s happening all the time. Part of what I love about my work is telling those stories. Stories that complicate the notion of what American food is, or complicate what it means to be American. One of the things I find really difficult is hyphenating cuisines. There’s so many different ways to show those different combinations. But in food in general it tends to happen very naturally.
RK: So there’s hope?
TR: I think so. What do you think?
RK: I have mixed feelings about it. I think it’s always great when niche ingredients make it into the marketplace of ideas but I think there’s also a tendency to compartmentalize ingredients and preparations. So people know what garam masala is, which is great, but when it becomes something that you can move around and deploy at will, then you lose all sense of where it originally comes from.
TR: And that’s what happens when something becomes mainstream …
RK: Right. And I don’t feel that way when I see someone put Sichuan peppercorns in ice cream. Usually I’m like, “This is delicious!” But if they use curry leaves without doing a tadka with it, I just get furious! I’m screaming in my head, “You have to put that in hot oil for its full flavor to come out!” I guess I’ll just say I feel a tension between wanting to use other cultures’ ingredients indiscriminately and then being incensed when other people use my culture’s ingredients indiscriminately.
RK: I suppose there are a lot of competing agendas at play. But overall, though, I think it’s a good thing. What do you think?
TR: I always get excited when I see second-generation Indian food over here. When I lived in Atlanta I remember my brother and I used to make a sort of saag paneer, but we’d make it with collard greens and we’d make it with pork in the collard greens, and that doesn’t really make any sense, but it made so much sense for us, at that time and in that place. And when I make it now, it makes me think of a certain place.
RK: When you first moved to the US, what was it like experiencing American food for the first time?
TR: Until I left France, American food was completely foreign to me. I had tasted Oreos at a retro diner-themed restaurant inside Euro Disney, but that was it.And when we moved here I suddenly had access to processed foods and stuff that I’d never seen before—all these candies, Fruit Gushers, Fruit by the Foot … I used to babysit for my neighbors and I remember as soon as the parents left and the kids were in bed I would open the pantry and look through it. There was all this amazing processed food that I’d never had before and I’d taste everything! It was beautiful. That was one of my formative American food experiences.
RK: Do you think that there’s a growing awareness of regionalism in Indian food?
TR: I think so. When you look at Times reviews from the ’90s, you see only the beginning of the distinctions between North Indian and South Indian food. But people know what dosas are now, and people have more of a vocabulary and a flavor reference than they used to. But, honestly, even I feel like I don’t know that much about Indian food. It’s such a huge topic—it’s a life’s worth of work.
RK: Well, and writing an Indian cookbook is a fraught exercise because publishers expect you to be encyclopedic, which results in these massive books that no one can actually cook from, with 7 recipes for garam masala.
"...it’s unfair because you’re expected to be the voice and the expert, and that’s not really possible."
TR: And also there’s often not enough context for those recipes. But it’s unfair because you’re expected to be the voice and the expert, and that’s not really possible. What we really need is a hundred books—
RK: On smaller themes. I definitely agree with that. But on a related note, since there actually have been people who’ve trod this path before you: who are some influential predecessors, in terms of Indian food writers you admire? I ask especially because, though it took some searching on Google Images, I finally realized that the photo in your Twitter profile is a young Madhur Jaffrey from Shakespearewallah.
TR: I am a little bit obsessed with Madhur Jaffrey. As an actor and an author, she is so elegant and precise. When we moved to France we were in a pretty rural place so we didn’t have access to any new English books. The only English books I had that I hadn’t already read cover to cover in the house were my parents’ cookbooks, so I tore through Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking. I read it over and over. Her voice is so familiar to me now. Vikram Doctor's food column for the Economic Times is great, it has so much range, and I always learn something new from his podcast; the last episode I heard was about the history of chickens in India! Tarla Dalal's books have been a really valuable resource for me, as well. Five Morsels of Love, which Archana Pidathala wrote about her family, and the food of Andhra, is new, but when I read it earlier this year it felt like such a gift.
RK: Were there other food writers, generally, who influenced your approach to food or cooking?
TR: One of the first cookbooks I loved to cook from was the Baking with Julia cookbook, co-written with Dorie Greenspan. It was based on a TV show, but I didn’t know that, and it was full of all these dreamy sweet things I’d never heard of: gingerbread baby cakes, lemon chiffons … And then later on, the Momofuku cookbook that Peter Meehan and David Chang did together. There’s a lot of—fusion’s really the wrong word because a lot of it is more complicated than that. But the way that he draws from a lot of different places to make really delicious food makes perfect sense. I loved that book—it was really important to me to see that that was possible; I was a little annoyed at the time with all of these oversimplified narratives about immigrants, and the children of immigrants, not just in food but films, fiction, etc. that I didn’t think reflected the experiences of so many people I knew. And here was a three-dimensional, complicated, messy story told in food. It was so exciting to me. I didn’t find my way to Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor until recently and a bunch of times just put the book down and thought, dang, I didn’t even know food writing could do that! She was so brilliant. I keep going back to Laurie Colwin and Nora Ephron lately, too, both such generous, funny writers who allowed for mistakes and imperfections.
RK: On a final note, what do you think of how the word “fusion” has developed in American dining. It can seem so outdated in some ways—
TR: I know! I hate even using the word [laughs].
"I hate to use the word 'fusion' because I think the connotation of that word is any hyphenated cuisine, safely translated by a white man."
RK: But it’s also very of-the-moment! It seems like new influences in American cuisine are really being embraced. How would you characterize the difference between the fusion of the early ’90s and what we’re seeing now?
TR: I had this conversation with Anita Lo when I reported on her closing Annisa, a restaurant she’s owned in the West Village for 17 years. In her early days, people identified her food as fusion, as Chinese, or as Chinese-American, and Anita, who grew up in Michigan, said, “No, I make American food!” And of course she’s right, her food is exactly what American food is. It’s many things at once, multicultural, synthesizing many influences. It’s American. I hate to use the word “fusion” because I think the connotation of that word is any hyphenated cuisine, safely translated by a white man. It’s just a word, but I think it can become a way of pointing to foreignness, of keeping some space between what’s already considered American, and what’s not yet considered American. A lot of the best chefs in the country have outgrown the word anyway. Let’s see what happens if we put it away for a while.
This interview has been condensed and edited.