A Conversation Between Nik Sharma and Priya Krishna
Two prominent voices in the modern food space consider their reception.
November 9, 2018 ● 6 min read
By Priya Krishna | Photos courtesy of Edlyn D'Souza and Nik Sharma; art by Cassandra Landry
It's an exciting and complicated time to be an Indian-American cookbook author.
On the one hand, the appetite for Indian flavors generally seems to be high — on the other, people are still using the word “curry” as a blanket term for every dish. I’ve got a cookbook, Indian-ish, coming out next spring that’s all about the food my wildly talented, software engineer mother made for me growing up — seventy percent Indian, thirty percent something else, totally accessible, one-of-a-kind dishes like roti pizza and feta cooked like saag paneer.
I sat down with a fellow Indian-American author, Nik Sharma, who has just released his cookbook, Season, a celebration of flavor and his story as a gay, Indian immigrant living in America. We talked about what excited us about the cookbook process, what frustrated us, and where we hope the conversation on Indian food in America is headed.
Priya Krishna: Do you see Season as an Indian cookbook?
Nik Sharma: Yes and no. I have always said that Season is a book about what it is to be an immigrant cook in this country from my perspective. I wasn't born here. I lived in India and then came here. I also made it a point to leave out certain things that other Indian cookbooks have already done — like curries.
PK: The word “curry” in general drives me up the wall in terms of how much people misuse it. I banned the word “curry” from my cookbook.
NS: I did the same thing. I mention it once, but there is no recipe for “curry.” A lot of people have written so much about curry — I didn’t feel like I was adding anything new. Like, what am I doing here?
PK: Also, the word “curry” has been used in such a loose way by non-Indians to describe literally anything with a sauce, and so a part of me was like, I don't want to play into people’s assumptions about Indian food as meat and vegetables stewed in a gravy.
NS: It is a difficult thing as an Indian to walk that line. The problem is that some Indians use the word when they write cookbooks even though they don’t want to. We are in this weird trap where curry is what people are familiar with. I grew up in India and people there still say “curry.” That becomes a complicated battle. I purposefully made the conscious effort to use the word “stew” if a dish felt like a stew.
PK: How did you negotiate between wanting to stay true to the food as you make it, and wanting the dishes to feel super accessible, like people would actually go home and cook them? Did you feel like you had to make any compromises?
NS: Not really. I have been doing recipe writing for so long. I am not trying to create an amalgam of anything. I am looking for flavor and how to bring it to home cooks.
PK: When I was writing my book, I felt like at some points I felt too self-conscious. I was worried that if I called for more than 4 or 5 spices people wouldn’t want to cook a dish. There were a few recipes where I make the case for using a certain number of spices, and others where my mom and I felt like it was worth cutting 2-3 spices if it makes someone more likely to cook a dish.
NS: Interesting. I did not have that experience.
PK: I’m always frustrated by how much people try to put food writers in a box. Like — because we are Indian we can only cook strictly Indian food. But in your book, you have a recipe for pizza and babinka. In mine, I have a recipe for dump cake and strawberries covered in booze.
NS: That's the thing, right? I feel like what happens when Indian writers write about India is that they make blanket statements. They say, “This is India,” and the public looks to them as authorities and say they, “Okay, that is what it must be.” I tried to be conscious when writing about India to make sure I specified that not all Indians are cooking this way. What I am writing about is very regionally specific.
PK: Regionality in Indian cooking is something that I wish existed more in Indian restaurants and in writing about Indian food. People assume that because I am writing this cookbook I am an authority on all things Indian, but there are a million things I don’t know about Indian food and I still find myself having to explain that to people.
NS: And no book on a single region will ever even cover that entire region. There are so many subtle differences. It’s cool to see books like Vibrant India by Chitra Agrawal come out — she is talking about a specific type of South Indian food from her perspective.
PK: What have been some of the more poignant reactions to your book from non-Indians?
NS: From the non-Indian community, it was really cool to see them go out and buy curry leaves for the chicken and jaggery to make the cookies. These are things I didn’t expect people to be aggressive about going out to get, but it turned out that those are the recipes that have been really popular with people. They are cooking them again and again.
PK: Does it ever annoy you how Amazon puts our cookbooks in the Asian category and not American? That essentially no matter what book we will write, we will be placed in that category?
NS: I was looking on Amazon at the Indian cookbook bestsellers, and the first one on the list is one by an Indian lady [Author note: the amazing Urvashi Pitre!] who has written a cookbook on ketogenic diets. But they call it an Indian cookbook just because she is Indian! The system is racist in its own way.
PK: You have talked a lot about how when you started your blog, there were so many negative comments from people about the color of your hands. Have people finally become less racist?
NS: It was such an unusual thing to be criticized on — something that I could not change. I expected that people maybe wouldn’t like a recipe, but to be judged on the color of my skin — that was very uncomfortable. But it also helped me develop a tougher skin. Now, I don’t get any of those. Now that my work is being recognized and winning awards, that has shut those voices down.
PK: Because we are Indian, cooking food with spices, there is a lot of implicit racism — magazines that only run Indian recipes with curry powder, or editors assuming you are an expert on all of India.
NS: It is a very difficult line. You want the exposure, you know you have a unique story to tell, and you want to talk about food, but also you don’t always want to talk about race and identity politics. I hate to have to justify why I am doing something.
PK: Yes — others don’t have to explain themselves.
NS: At the same time, there is still a real lack of representation. The power balance is skewed in one direction. We have to share our stories so people like us feel confident — so others know there are voices out there writing about these things.
PK: What I hope my book will accomplish aside from just telling my story — is to be a step in the direction of normalizing Indian flavors within American cuisine. What all did you want to accomplish with your book?
NS: One of the things was showing other brown kids who are gay, or who are just brown, that they have a place in food media. The second thing was just to talk about flavor — it doesn’t matter where an ingredient comes from. Obviously, more spices are grown in India and other warm parts of the world but I wanted to remove that lens.
PK: Did anyone ever tell you that your book wasn’t Indian enough?
NS: Surprisingly, no. I thought I would get that. People were more just proud that a book like this exists, and I wasn’t rehashing the same stories. It made me happy that people felt like their culture was being appreciated in a different way.
PK: This is also just how Indians cook. Indians aren’t cooking food that is strictly Indian. They are experimenting with other flavors. Books like yours and mine are representative of what I hope is the future of American cooking — this hybridized cuisine that speaks to the diversity of this country.
NS: I always tell people: food is not something that is sitting static in time. It evolves constantly. What we are writing about now is something that will be different 100 years from now. Things will have changed. Ingredients will have changed. To hold onto a dream of what should and shouldn’t be is foolish. It’s dangerous, actually.
PK: I totally agree. You can’t stop evolution.