Last year, I visited relative’s house in New Jersey. He and his wife grew up in Bangalore, and a recent kitchen renovation set the stage for the unveiling of a larger transformation that had been quietly underway for years. They detail the many moves that went into building their ideal pantry, spice routes drawn up with relatives back in India, tireless trips to local Indo-Pak grocery stores until the most preferred brands and items were identified through trial and error, studied the use of Instant Pot in military action such that fresh yogurt and ghee are always at hand, not to mention dal and rice. As I took in this simulation – a Bangalore kitchen, painstakingly recreated – I felt a little apprehensive. It seemed unlikely that I would ever meet someone who would be interested in shaping 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 unlikeliness as a loss.
If you’re a member of the Asian diaspora in America, the push around groceries may be a tension you recognize. On the one hand, there is a desire to maintain a connection with the land of the ancestors. On the other hand, a sense that too much weight is placed on food as a source of meaning and identity. There is an impulse to share and celebrate all the wonders of heritage cooking and to hedge when some wellness influencer mispronounces turmeric or khichdi.
The formula is written in our mythology. Consider the lunchbox moment, a narrative trope in which the Asian child realizes her Asianness, her difference, when she is bullied in the school cafeteria for the “exotic” meal her unsuspecting parents have prepared. Moving on to adulthood: Food becomes a form of revenge from the white bullies (who now probably fetishize the same dishes they once mocked, all that kimchee and pungent curry) as well with a thread for the parent and the missing country. In both scenarios, food is the key to a sense of self.
But why? Surely other minority groups do not have lunchbox moments of their own while Asian communities have different legacies. But Asian food has crowded 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 to 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 every second-gen pain in South Asia, offending even the well-settled number among us. Offline, “boba liberalism,” to borrow a neat term for consumption-based Asian American identity, plays out through a reservation at some new “It” restaurant or buying the right book.
After the hyper-regional Indian restaurant Dhamaka sprung up in Manhattan last year, there was an air of respect for the voices of South Asians trying to break a table, as if a meal could contribute not only to one’s social finances but also to your self development. Then there are the many food-centered memoirs and identity-centered cookbooks that promise Asian American readers self-knowledge, community, and a world-class lifestyle, all within easy reach. hundreds of pages. “A beautiful, holy place, full of people from all over the world displaced in a foreign land, each with a different history,” artist Michelle Zauner called the Korean grocery chain H Mart in her sweeping 2021 memoir, Crying at H Mart, a text that shows the undeniable poetry of the relationship between food and the self. Zauner, whose father is white and whose mother is Korean, speaks a little Korean, she writes, yet feels an almost haunting intimacy with certain dishes that remind her of her deceased mother. This attempt to heal a loss – of a parent but also of an ethnic identity – takes place in a literal grocery store.
In the digital realm, Asian food culture is often performed in front of others in WhatsApp chains, Instagram posts, and Twitter rants. Sometimes it can seem as if believing 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 originally from an Indian state that borders the one my parents are from. She had posted a picture praising a delicacy named after a city in my family’s state. The item comes from there. But in her caption, she claimed the dish. She said that her people had invented it, although the evidence to the contrary was correct in the name. I wondered if this person actually believed that the dish had to belong to her just because she had anointed herself the 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 making it, how open to change, a cleaner version of reality, one place India is a unitary thing, not divided by region, language, caste, and ethnicity. Food, as a medium, feels extremely effective as a way to sand the edges of a homeland, to turn that legendary place into a smooth commodity rather than a dissonant, unrecognizable country.
Food appeals also lack as a foundation for identity. Food is a quick way to engage with culture; it is literally eaten! It presents simpler challenges, perhaps, than learning a lost language or filling large gaps in historical knowledge. The consumable nature of food allows it to be stolen by onlookers and outsiders, with its meaning cheapened and diluted. After all, anyone 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 deceptive shortcut. If being a good progressive Asian American means participating in soothing food theater, there is less need to consider one’s heritage with a sense of ambivalence or to question the harmful hierarchies within Asian diasporic communities. Food is displaced the commonality point. And it’s misleading — we’ve all experienced it, so we all have to face the same challenges.
Sometime after that moment in Jersey, I realized that the search for self through food is often a source of anxiety with dubious results. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t 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 never be anything but a brand new item to make when I had a lot of time and energy. I realized I couldn’t be anywhere else. Just where I could be. And I began to relax, to let go of the need to keep roots in some ingenious way. I was born in America, and I was going to start making food in a different way to the people who brought me here.
It just so happens that my energy has turned elsewhere. Lately, I’ve been revisiting myths from my childhood that hold some promise of wisdom. One feels particularly daring: the story of Eklavya, a gifted low-caste boy who is mercilessly exploited by the heroes of the Mahabharata. Eklavya perseveres to become an excellent archer, but Dronacharya, the royal teacher, insists that he see off his thumb so that Prince Arjuna can maintain his excellence. In this difficult parable, I see a map to understand the nature of the Indian caste system, which still works mercilessly today, and of power dynamics around the world. I feel at the same time amazed by the sophistication of the narrative and distressed by the perspective it offers—about society but also about my place in it. Like so many of the best stories, this one leaves a rich and bitter aftertaste that almost resists an audience. You have to work hard to appreciate it.