The Poet-Explorer: An Interview with Ligaya Mishan
May 22, 2019
LIGAYA MISHAN FEEDS THE SOUL OF A HUNGRY CITY
INTERVIEW: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
ILLUSTRATION: SOMESH KUMAR
igaya Mishan belongs to a class of culinary explorers that is both new and timeless. She’s best known to New Yorkers for the "Hungry City" column that she has written for over seven years for the New York Times. In it she visits and reviews the smaller restaurants—many of them immigrant-run and -owned—that are often overlooked by many critics and food writers.
But in exploring a lesser-seen side of New York City dining, Mishan has also willfully tangled with questions more difficult to answer than whether or not the food at these establishments tastes good. Her reviews, which have become an essential resource for anyone looking to eat well and democratically in New York, give equal attention to alluring descriptions of food and to deeper, more probing observations about culture, race, assimilation, and other topics that mainstream food writing often takes great pains to avoid.
I talked with Mishan over cups of tea at her apartment. Like many food critics, she’s cautious about getting her photo taken and has to make a conscious effort to avoid becoming publicly recognizable. In conversation, her affect is alert and almost distractingly conscientious; it often feels like she’s doing a better job of listening to your conversation than you are. This attentiveness to detail animates her writing, too, bringing New York City’s great diversity and its many culinary treasures to life for her readers.
In recent years she’s written pieces that deal with the full range of questions that food can provoke. Her essay on Asian-American identity and cuisine evocatively describes the strange countercurrents that course through immigrant culture; attachment to tradition, the desire to break from it, and the way that food can embody both impulses. A recent exploration of the food of India’s Parsi community dwells lyrically on the culinary inventiveness and gallows humor with which the dwindling population of Indian Parsis insulates itself against its uncertain future. An examination of food in art—and as art—grapples with all the messy contradictions of using food as an aesthetic medium in a world in which food security is still not an assured reality for millions.
Ligaya Mishan scours the boroughs of New York City for good food and the stories that go with it, and continues to explode traditional notions of what a food writer ought to address in her work. In doing so, she alternately sates and provokes the mercurial hungers of her city, a place reckoning anew with what it means to eat well, widely, and with thought.
Rohan Kamicheril: You’ve been doing "Hungry City" for some time now. Do you feel like your thoughts about food and New York City have evolved as the column has progressed?
Ligaya Mishan: I took a slightly roundabout route to food writing. I didn't necessarily eat the most interesting food growing up. Spam was a large part of my life because I grew up in Hawaii—though I actually think it’s an underrated food product (laughs)—and we drank Tang, although we would squeeze calamansi juice into it because we had calamansi growing in our backyard.
RK: Sounds like quite the lifehack.
LM: (Laughs) A little bit! Anyway, my mother is from the Philippines and my father is from England, and they both grew up during the war. I think processed foods like powdered milk and Tang and Nesquik just played a larger role for them because of that. We definitely made saimin from a packet. It was a time and place where the fanciest thing you were exposed to might be a Brie at a party. So I didn't grow up with an enormous appreciation of food or its potential—either on the very high end or from going to tiny little places to eat, or even from experiencing great home cooking. I really came to food writing having never known what truly great food could be.
When I moved to New York and met my husband, that was really my first exposure to good home cooking—because he’s an amazing chef. We would explore the city, eating everything from the occasional high-end meal to trying everything new we could. When I first started writing restaurant reviews for the New Yorker, I didn’t have a particular brief. I was just going out and reviewing whatever seemed interesting and then coming in and writing it up.
"I really came to food writing having never known what truly great food could be."
It was only with the “25 and Under” column for the Times that I really got to discover the smaller, lesser-known restaurants in the city—the ones that are often lumped under the category of “Cheap Eats,” although that's a problematic way of looking at them. It completely changed the way I look at the city. I finally came to know the city, and to see that it was so much more than just Manhattan. I take the subway all over the city—I go to areas that the subway doesn't even go to, and I find that those are some of the most exciting parts of the city.
RK: The dining scene in New York has long been held up as a sort of example to the rest of the country, but you explore a side of it quite apart from the usual temples of gastronomy.
LM: There are two sides to New York. There are those high-end restaurants, sure. But there really is a large contingent of people who know that the whole world is in the city, and how lucky we are that we can get food from almost every country in the world here. And people are even more conscious of that now that immigration is at the top of their minds. We live in a more polarized time, in which class difference has become so extreme. It just doesn’t seem right that only the restaurants at the high end of the spectrum should be celebrated, although I do recognize that there are significant artistic achievements being made at that level.
RK: It seems to me that when you go into many more expensive restaurants, you're trying to enter into some kind of personal accord or conversation with the chef. There’s such an effort to create an experience that feels personal. It strikes me sometimes that this is a very convoluted way of doing something very simple—something that a small restaurant can accomplish rather handily merely by virtue of its size.
LM: I do feel like restaurants at the opposite ends of this range are doing such different things. But it’s true that at whatever level you’re dining, you do want to have a sense of the personality of the chef. Sometimes I go into a restaurant and I'm just confused because I don't know what's being said. Certainly there is a clarity in a place that's not trying to do something complicated or new. But what I also find interesting are the ways in which immigrant cooks or the children of immigrants have had to adapt their cooking to what's available, which leads to this rather complicated issue of authenticity, which I think is just a chimera. There’s not just one version of a dish even “back home.” Time passes and things change and evolve.
"There’s not just one version of a dish even “back home.” Time passes and things change and evolve."
RK: And one has to consider who is really policing the issue, too. It feels like immigrant diners are often less concerned with questions of authenticity than the occasional sport diners who feel like they have to examine this food and judge it.
LM: Restaurants have to cater to the whole gamut—from people who go into a Thai restaurant and like it better if it's not too spicy, to the people who don't like it at all if it's not spicy, without even considering if a dish is supposed to be spicy. In almost every Thai restaurant in the city, if you’re not Thai you’ll get asked if you’re okay with spicy food. I don't take it as an insult. It’s a courtesy—they're in the business of hospitality. I've gone to Thai restaurants where everything is spicy, but each dish is spicy in a completely different way; the flavor changes, the way that the heat is delivered changes…So it's not a monolithic experience where it's just about the heat. But I've also gone to places where the food is just hot and you feel like they’ve just added heat to it because you said you wanted it spicy. But as a result, now there's no nuance to it.
RK: Seeking out minority culture in a city like New York is often tinted with a kind of bravado and machismo and what I really like about your column is that it’s very wide-ranging but it doesn’t celebrate its own intrepidity. Can you talk a little bit about how you navigate what is typically very macho territory in a way that is so attuned to nuance?
LM: There are a few things I make sure to watch out for. One is, it helps not to think of it as a trophy hunt. The second is to avoid making it sound like no one has eaten this food or been to this place before—what gets called out on the internet as “Columbus-ing.” I try so hard not to do that and still sometimes people knock me for it. I remember writing about a place in Chinatown and I said something about how it would be easier to stumble upon it than to find it, and somebody complained, Oh as if she just stumbled upon it. And I thought, you're right, I didn't but I also didn't say I was the one who stumbled upon it. But then I thought, maybe I really do need to be more careful. I think the complaint had more to do with the fact that I was not the first person to find this place—which was absolutely true. But whoever first posted about it online was not the first person to find it either. The first person was probably a friend of the family. Or they opened the restaurant and somebody just walked in—somebody who just happened to be passing by that very first day. Who can say who that first person was?
RK: It does bear mentioning, though, that your reviewing a restaurant for the Times does bring it to another level of cultural awareness.
LM: I hope that's true—and that it can bring them more business. Some people think it's wonderful when a place that was their secret gets discovered. They think it’ll be good for the restaurant. But others get annoyed because they feel like something’s been taken away from them and spoiled. And there are times when a place will close after I’ve written about them—often because their rent goes up. So there can be negative consequences. But usually the owners of the restaurants are very happy. And if they felt very strongly that it would bring them attention that they didn't want or need, then I didn't include them. There are so many dimensions to thinking about what will happen to these restaurants once they become more visible. I just hope that it makes people go! Sometimes these places are so far off the beaten track that people just read the column—they'll never actually go because it’s just too far.
"The pieces are often as much about New York and the people who are making the food here as they are about the food itself."
RK: It's a New York story but not necessarily a practical dining option?
LM: I have to write for those who don't live in New York, too. People who just want to know about the food here. I’m guided by curiosity rather than a sense of I-need-to-know-where-everything-is or wanting to declare something “the best taco in New York.” For me, it doesn't have to be the best. Sometimes I go to a place and there's one great dish but everything else is sort of mediocre. I still might want to write about it because there's an interesting story to it and that one dish is worthy. Or maybe it's the only restaurant that serves that kind of food in the city. So even if it doesn't knock me out I might think it’s something that people should know about.
RK: So you’re trying to set up a good conversation rather than a prize-giving ceremony.
RK: Could you tell me a little bit about the format of your "Hungry City" reviews? There’s often a lot of secrecy in food criticism in a city like New York. I’m thinking of all the cloak-and-dagger stuff of critics visiting restaurants incognito or in disguise. And for the really marquee restaurants there’s still a pretty firm line between featuring a restaurant and reviewing it. But your reviews often combine elements of the two kind of coverage—and they often go well beyond just the food. Can you tell me a little bit about how that approach is a little different?
LM: Part of it, of course, is that I'm dealing with lesser-known restaurants, who usually don't have a PR firm trying to get them press. So, first of all, I don't really see a point in being negative, beyond steering diners away from particular dishes that I don't think are strong. The pieces are often as much about New York and the people who are making the food here as they are about the food itself. At the end of the day how much can you really say about how delicious something is? I'm not interested in food writing that endlessly waxes lyrical about just the ingredients without any sense of context.
Also, as a writer it’s exhausting from a craft perspective to constantly find new ways to describe food. If I had to do that for the entire length of the review, I think it would kill me. Very early on in my career I had an editor who said, don't worry about the food. I thought, well, you're crazy. I have to write about the food! And of course I did. And I still write about it. But that advice guided me away from just writing about the food. Some of the people I talk to just have so much to say. I think of each review as a picture of a corner of New York that maybe readers just haven't discovered yet
RK: You mentioned the limitations of describing food. Do you have a cheat sheet where you keep track of the ways in which you’ve described certain foods in the past, so you don’t repeat yourself?
LM: [Laughs] I wish I had a cheat sheet! Sometimes, if I’m working on a phrase, I’ll Google it along with my name. And so often it turns out that I have used it and then I just feel horrible! I live in fear that I'll include a phrase in a piece that I’ve used before—because I do have words or ways of describing things that I just naturally gravitate toward. I'm even conscious of repetitions within a single review. And sometimes those are almost impossible to avoid, like with a word like “restaurant.” There's this term, the “elegant variation,” and it’s something you’re never supposed to do; have restaurant followed by eatery, followed by establishment. No. It's just a restaurant. It's always a restaurant and all those fancy variations don't help. So I try to avoid the elegant variation, but also, no, I don’t have a cheat sheet. I just have desperation [laughs]!
RK: Speaking about elegance, I really enjoy the tension—if that’s the right word—between the lyricism of so much of your writing, and the fact that it often addresses very complicated, and sometimes even unsavory topics.
LM: I guess there are two things at play in many of those pieces. There's the attempt at some kind of poetry, and then there's the reporting. And those two have to work together. I also feel like the tone of the review has to match the restaurant. You can't be overly poetic—and sometimes I do think I go too far. Some people just don’t like my style, they think it’s over the top—not that I read the comments anymore [laughs]. But I do that because I really love words and I love to come up with images. That’s the fun of it. But every now and then, or even within the same review, I'll try to have very simple lines so that I'm not over-complicating a story.
RK: How did that play out in the piece you wrote on food in art? It’s such a lushly written piece but it deals with some rather grim issues, like decay, and food waste, and the fact that starvation is such a huge issue globally.
LM: I guess the goal is never to aestheticize so much that you aestheticize out of whatever the issue is.
RK: Even if you’re talking about aesthetics.
"Just try to be true. It’s not easy, but I think that's the best test."
LM: I guess so. I remember speaking to some young writers, and they were talking about a novel they'd read in which they felt like the author was self-orientalizing in the way he portrayed a family in his book and how they were constantly cooking. They decided that this one line where a character “pops a falafel in their mouth” was just too much. And I said, well, that's just not a true statement. Nobody pops a whole falafel in their mouth! So I said, if you're thinking about how you can avoid that, just try to be true. It’s not easy, but I think that's the best test. When I write something, even if it sounds good, I try to make sure it’s an honest representation of whatever I'm talking about. I can't just make it up. Of course when you’re desperate and on deadline that’s when it becomes tempting to just come out with words that make something sound pretty.
RK: And that sort of ties in with what we were talking about earlier—about that approach that presents adventurous dining as this excessive, daredevil activity, where you just stuff everything in your face—and the more outrageous the food the better.
LM: I actually think that that kind of writing is being phased out. And even when you look back at someone like Anthony Bourdain—people originally thought that he was kind of gonzo, but he really wasn’t. He always respected the places he went to. He never just ate something for the shock value. Even if he had to eat something like practically raw intestines in the middle of a jungle, he was doing it out of politeness. He was going to try it because it was something that somebody else loved to eat. He might not like it, but he acted out of respect. And he didn't mock something even if he didn't like it. And he never questioned why someone somewhere might consider it a delicacy. And then of course there was Jonathan Gold, too. I think that we've moved into a time where there’s more consideration given to these issues.
Also, I think all these changes were seeing—at the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle—are all about this question: how do we find balance? Should there be a hierarchy in how we look at different cuisines? And even if you look at Pete Wells, he's not just reviewing high-end places. Sometimes we have questions about what’s his kind of place and what’s my kind of place.
RK: The lines are getting more blurred?
LM: Exactly. The way I think about it is, the places I cover don’t have to be the very best. If it’s the best Thai restaurant in town, Pete should probably cover it. It will reach more people if he does it and gives it stars. But stars have weight and not every restaurant is ready for that kind of attention.
RK: In line with that, do you see your work as purely documentary in nature, or do you find yourself actually advocating for a certain kind of culinary idea or model in the city—or even in the country?
LM: It would be great to change people's minds. My hope is that I can make people think about things that they’re not really used to thinking about. Almost every week I write about a restaurant that is opened either by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. I hope that in celebrating the stories of these people I'm also putting a human face on the issue of immigration and speaking to the strength of New York as a home for immigrants.
I don't know if I’m going to change somebody's mind who has a completely negative take on the issue, but I hope that the message comes through for people who might have earlier taken a neutral position on it. It’s the stealth approach. I want to show people: this is the world we live in, and maybe you just didn't realize it. It's an exercise in consciousness-raising, and also a way of acknowledging that the way in which we talk about this kind of food has a real impact. It's really important to me that the faces of the people involved appear in the reviews. I always ask the photographer to take a portrait of the owners and the chef. The more that these faces are seen and that these stories are told, the more it’s understood that these people are all a part of us—they're all Americans and all a part of American life. So if there's any kind of advocacy in what I do, it’s in this normalization, of saying, this is who we are.
RK: I like that idea of adjusting popular perspectives, but you’ve also talked about how sometimes divergences in cultural taste come about not because of slight differences but because of completely different taste paradigms. You cite the popularity of textures and tastes in other parts of the world—gristle, slime to name just two—that are completely alien to most American diners. Do you have hope that those are getting incorporated into the American palate?
LM: I hope that they don’t enter the mainstream just as a challenge. I don't want people trying them just to see if they can do it—in a Fear Factor kind of way. Some of those textures I don't necessarily even like myself, but I respect them. Okra is a great example of something that’s under-loved in this country, and it would be great if more people came to eat it and like it, and not see its sliminess as something to be combated.
RK: Right. There are so many recipes out there that tell you, this is how you decrease the sliminess of okra. But then you have traditional recipes that actually show you how to increase the sliminess!
LM: Exactly. Because it’s something you can use. I hope that as people eat more of these unfamiliar things, they can have respect even for those things that they don’t like. I mean, there are perfectly normal things within American food that I can't stand.
RK: There’s so much more discussion these days of the cultural implications of cooking and of eating. How do you feel like the food and food media industries are tackling these issues? Do you feel like there’s any kind of emerging consensus on how these questions ought to be handled?
LM: I feel like I’m on the same page with all the food writers I know. Everybody is very aware of the discussion—beginning with just not using the word “ethnic.” What does that even mean? It usually just means non-Western. It’s the same with the word “authentic,” which is not helpful either. But I'm interested in looking at these labels and seeing why people use them. I have these discussions with the food writers I know all the time. And I do think that there has been a sea change, where people are no longer interested in reading reviews that only tackle how delicious the food is.
Pete's reviews, for instance, look a lot at class difference, which is a whole other area of discussion that doesn't play as much a role in my reviews because I’m only looking at one certain range of restaurants. But for these restaurants that are so astronomically expensive, the question at a certain point is, is it worth it? No matter how good it is. What makes it worth it and who goes there? Who belongs in this world and who does it exclude? I thought that that piece by Korsha Wilson about the Four Seasons and how the experience of a white critic is different from the experience of a critic of color was so important. I think that these are really important things that we should all be thinking about.
RK: Since this is a relatively new tack for food writing in this country, do you think that audiences are coming around to this way of talking and thinking about food, too?
LM: I hope so. I was really interested in the response to Soleil Ho’s essays because she kind of threw down the gauntlet with them. She said, this is what I'm going to do, and this is how I'm going to approach it. I think that there are readers who are resistant and others who embrace it. We’re in a polarized climate right now, and some people just think, why do politics have to come into it? Ruth Reichl edited The Best American Food Writinglast year and it included my piece on Asian American cuisine. And some people were angry that politics played such a large role in that piece. But I think of food as just another lens. It’s a lens that you can use to look at anything. Would you not bring politics into talking about art or music? I think that there will always be resistance and there will also be celebration and we just have to muddle through this all together.
RK: Which goes back to how we started the interview. You talked about how your entry into food writing was a little serendipitous and yet there is clearly something about food that really animates and—I use the word advisedly—provokes you. Can you say a little bit about what it is about food that so engages you?
LM: Maybe it’s because I'm coming to it almost from the outside. Like I said, I didn't grow up with amazing home cooking, and I'm actually not a cook myself. Maybe it’s because of that that I always feel like a student. I feel humbled every time I go into this world. Whatever the person is cooking, even if I don't fully love it, it's better than what I could do [laughs]. So I'm always aware that I’m in a position of learning—and I think that's the best position to be in. I'm always aware of what I don't know, which makes it interesting. With every assignment my life is improved or enhanced in some way.