Reclaiming Indian Food from the White Gaze

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Once we’d been at home for three months, I finally gave in — not to sourdough, but to starting a quarantine cookbook. At first, it seemed like a fun and lighthearted activity, a way to connect with friends over what we were making. But it turned out to be more emotional than I expected. As an Indian woman working to love my culture in a world that has stolen it from me, food gets very personal.

I was never taught how to cook as a child. My parents don’t cook very often; their specialty is chili cheese toast, and I don’t know any passed-down family recipes. Instead, I learned the basics from Chitra Agrawal’s Vibrant India when I was 21. But even though I was brought up on Indian food, I learned about it through the white gaze.

For many people of color, food can be a source of pride and shame. Growing up, I was mocked for how Indian food affected white people’s digestion. Whenever I went to a British friend’s house for playdates, her mom proudly told me when they ordered Indian food (always curry) and how she was so relieved that this particular restaurant didn’t give her stomach problems. She wanted a pat on the back for bravely ordering ethnic food, but by othering my culture and expecting my validation, she made me uncomfortable.

Slowly, I started absorbing the stigma that others attached to my culture. In fifth grade, my mom submitted a chicken tikka masala recipe to our class cookbook even though we are vegetarians, because it’s always been easier to give the people what they want than to try to educate them. In 10th grade, eating bhindi stained my braces green. In college, my favorite snack was papad, but when my friends started to sniff the air after I made it, I learned to be self-conscious about its smell. As an adult, even my own home could make me feel judged: Whenever I made tadka in my Brooklyn kitchen, the mustard seeds tempering in ghee set off the smoke detector.

But the same recipes I was teased for eventually became chic, gentrified, and endorsed by Goop. Their popularity in the hands of white tastemakers made me realize that people didn’t want to see a brown face behind brown food. I met people who were hesitant to try my homemade nimbu pani, but would happily pay $6 for South Indian filter coffee made by a white woman at Smorgasburg. It’s never been an equal playing field: Brown chefs are expected to cook their own food, but white chefs can cook whatever they want.

I’ve also seen the effects of colonialism in how people explain my own culture back to me, with no awareness of the power dynamics. This happens a lot at restaurants. At an Indian restaurant in Manhattan, a white server felt compelled to explain kulcha to me; farther downtown at a tea house, my Pakistani friend and I received a lecture from a white woman who proudly told us how she was bringing Indian tea to the West. Although she was well educated, she didn’t acknowledge that we were South Asian ourselves and wasn’t humble or self-aware about claiming expertise of our culture in front of us.

For years, I’ve been working to address culinary imperialism and reclaim my love of Indian food from the white gaze. But while I have been enjoying teaching myself traditional recipes, I often get stuck when I can’t find any options online written by brown people. It’s become so trendy to remove Indian food from its cultural context — the New York Times’ masoor dal recipe includes sweet potatoes, which would alarm any auntie — that it’s hard to know what’s authentic as someone who’s still learning.

It doesn’t help that in the West, people view Indian food through the lens of takeout, which shortchanges the craft behind it. Many recipes are extremely intricate, with over 10 ingredients and hours of prep and stove time. Even a simple meal requires a quick sequence of actions, serious focus, and lots of multitasking (cue the smoke detector). And yet that effort is often erased by what is familiar: My roommates are cautious about tasting new recipes that I make, and instead keep ordering their usual garlic naan and vindaloo. For all of the parts of my culture that people love, it’s sad to see how much fear still exists.

It’s also jarring to see how the language around Indian food has changed over time, with new recipes branded as ayurvedic, vegan, and cleansing in order to seem more approachable. Ghee, which I grew up thinking was an indulgence, is now a superfood. Khichdi, one of my childhood comfort foods, has been co-opted as kitchari, the latest detox cleanse.

This kind of language belongs to modern wellness culture, which has also made me distance myself from Indian traditions. I would love to learn yoga or meditation, but don’t feel like I have access to them anymore: It’s too painful to learn about my culture from people who can’t pronounce “namaste” (nuh-mus-teh) or “mantra” (mun-tra). “Namaste” is a word that no longer even belongs to us: I cringe when I hear it used in all sorts of inappropriate situations, like as a catchphrase to “namastay in bed.” Its loss echoes the one I felt my first year in New York, when I attended a Diwali puja (prayer service) only to feel sick to my stomach when I realized that I was the only brown person in the room. It’s traumatic to see your culture taken from you.

Still, I’m working to not let my baggage stop me. Three years ago, I went to Patel Brothers, the iconic store in Jackson Heights, to start my spice collection and happily buy katoris that remind me of home. As I learned to cook, I sent my parents photos of pongal, puchka, and pakoras on WhatsApp, hoping that one day I could cook for them. I joined a dinner club, which became my testing ground for new recipes (I was the only person of color), and shared leftovers with my South Asian coworkers for the real verdict. Over Thanksgiving, I observed my aunt’s chai-making process to figure out why my chai tasted like a mouthful of ginger (crushing instead of grating was the trick). I even started improvising with spices, adding chaat masala to popcorn, cucumber, and scrambled eggs.

After going through this journey to reclaim my culture, every decision for my quarantine cookbook feels critical: Each is a chance to change the narrative, even if it’s just for myself. For weeks, I’ve been compiling global recipes from my community, finding ways to bring out personal stories and enjoying the opportunity to learn more about my friends. All of them submitted one or two recipes, mostly ones that are meaningful to them and have been passed down in their families. As the cookbook’s curator, I knew that my recipe would say something about me, and felt a familiar existential crisis coming. If I chose Indian food, I would feel a responsibility to dispel myths, provide regional nuances, and compensate for whitewashed food descriptions (I refuse to call a dosa a sourdough crepe). But if I chose a recipe from a different culture, I would feel like a sellout.

This dilemma reflected a larger one: Representing my culture always feels somewhat performative. In many ways, I’m happy to educate. It’s incredibly important to learn about food from people who come from its culture. But the pantomime required to cheerfully explain the basics and provide emotional reassurance so that other people can get over their fears and assumptions is exhausting.

For this reason, I’ve never felt fully comfortable going to Indian restaurants with non-South Asians. I know that, in some way, I will be responsible for translating the menu, affirming people’s choices, advising on spice levels, teaching them how to eat with their hands, and commenting on whether the food is authentic — a temporary tour guide. But it feels strange to be considered an authority when I don’t always recognize what’s on the menu. There are dozens of regional cuisines within India, but in the U.S., only a handful of North Indian dishes are mainstream, and many of us didn’t grow up eating them. People are always shocked when I tell them that I don’t eat curry, but they don’t understand that there’s so much more to Indian food that I’ve never felt like I was missing out.

This emotional labor is why, without realizing it, I left writing my own cookbook recipe to the last minute. I was delaying the carefully calculated decisions of how to translate ingredients, whether to pick a familiar or niche recipe, and how much to educate. Ultimately I picked chana masala, partly because it’s one of my favorite easy dishes and partly because I wanted it to serve as a wake-up call for people who don’t know the cultural roots of The Stew.

For the introduction, I wrote about how my dad calls me luchi, the Bengali word for a puffy round flatbread. It’s similar to a puri, which is served with chana masala to make one of my favorite dishes, chole bhature. I explained how, when I was young, I would get excited to order it at restaurants and poke the puri so it would deflate. Now, it’s really special to realize that I can make the chana myself. In writing about this, I found a way to speak about Indian food in a way that felt genuine to me.

Now I’m back in India, and it feels like a dream to not have to carry around the armor. I finally feel like I can learn without judgment, and have already warned various aunties that I’m coming over to cook after quarantine ends. I’m working to sink my feet into the spaces my ancestors created, to unconditionally love where I come from and give myself permission to explore it. It’s always going to be a process, but I want to decolonize my mind and take my power back.

Nayantara Dutta is a writer, strategist, and third culture kid. You can find her @nayantaradutta.

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