History Teacher Shreya Sunderram on Identity, Belonging, and the Oversimplification of South Asian Food
This story is part of our At the Table series, created by Kayla Hoang. She has curated this collection of interviews and recipes from BIPOC cooks who have something to say about how their specific cultures are represented (or not) within the wider world of food media.
Shreya Sunderram, a history teacher in New York City, wants to draw attention to the way non-Western food is framed in the United States. Her parents are from different states in South India — Tamil Nadu and Karnataka — and Shreya was born and raised in Central New Jersey. With some of her family, including both of her grandmothers, still living in India, Shreya is acutely aware of the duality of how Indian food is represented in India and in the United States. Today, she’s sharing her perspective as an Indian American, discussing how all spaces (including food) are political, and explaining how food is her family’s love language.
Thank you for talking with me today, Shreya. I know you have a lot to share and I’m so excited to share it with our readers. To start, I’d love to hear more about your teaching career.
I teach high school history in lower Manhattan. I’m in Chinatown and I think what’s really nice about where I teach is that there is a large South Asian population. Something that we are able to connect around is food, whether that’s our frustrations with people characterizing Indian or South Asian food as just being curry or sharing our favorite foods or talking about food being a unifier.
We’ll do icebreakers or things in class where kids name their favorite foods. In the past, students have felt pressured to say things like pizza or mac and cheese, but that’s never been accurate for me. So when I start off the icebreaker, I’m very honest and say, “Well, my favorite food is this South Indian dish called rasam. It’s a tomato broth and I have it whenever I feel sick or need comfort and that’s my favorite food.” Once I mentioned that dish, suddenly all the Bangladeshi kids were naming dishes that weren’t pizza or mac and cheese, but rather foods significant to their culture, and my Ghanaian students were explaining West African dishes others hadn’t heard of.
I think food is a really interesting cultural touchstone in the U.S. that can help people with hyphenated identities create a sense of belonging when they feel isolated. My mom has a story about how when I was a kindergartener: I brought Indian food for lunch and someone made fun of me and told me it was yucky or something like that and I was like, “Well this is my mac and cheese and I’m gonna eat it!” A teacher told my mom I was very defensive about my food, but I think that speaks to how being a hyphenated American creates a certain relationship with food and with identity.
I really love that you are able to make your students feel comfortable enough to share foods that are culturally significant to them. On the topic of being a hyphenated American, could you reflect on the representation of your family’s food in India versus the U.S.?
I think what’s interesting here is that this is a series about representation and I understand both ends of that depending on what side of the world I’m in. My family comes from an upper caste background, so my food is not marginalized. I think it’s important to be cognizant of how the perspective shifts when you place the food on the other side of the world where suddenly people are not familiar with who you are.
That’s a really great point and one that’ll be important for readers to keep in mind throughout our conversation. Let’s talk more about the food. I know you can’t speak for the entirety of India, but how would you best describe the South Indian food that you grew up with?
I think what’s important to note is that in the U.S., Indian food gets homogenized into naan and paneer or chicken tikka masala. That’s what people think of when they think of Indian food. But in India itself, there’s no such thing as “Indian food.” India is an extremely regional place and so the food varies depending on the region that you’re in, the village that you’re in, your community, and your family.
I hesitate to provide a definition of what South Indian food is in general because it varies so much. If you’re in Kerala it may be very fish-based, or if you’re in Tamil Nadu there are more lentils, but then if you’re in Chennai there may be more fish again, and if you’re in Karnataka the food may be sweeter with more jaggery. Different places and different communities have different definitions of what they consider to be South Indian food.
At least in the food that I know, there are some pretty consistent themes, such as heavy use of spices and a variety of spices. We use a lot of mustard seeds and cumin. There’s the use of spice mixes — rasam powder, for example. It’s a blend of coriander and red chili powder and other spices that are ground to create a bright red powder that you then put into different foods, such as rasam (most obviously) or sambar or gojju. The food is very lentil-based and gravy-based. Cream is less prevalent in South Indian cooking, but I don’t want to oversimplify the cuisine because that’s the tendency of the Western world.
Can you elaborate more on that?
I find there’s this tendency to homogenize or oversimplify non-Western food. There was a column recently in the Washington Post that is an example of that. When I read the part about Indian food, it made me angry for so many reasons. In the column, he fully homogenized Indian food and was factually incorrect by saying it is based on one spice. India is such a regional place and I was like, “Which dish are you talking about?” To say you categorically don’t like Indian food doesn’t make sense to me because there are thousands of varieties of different foods that taste so distinct depending on where in the country you are.
I hear you. The oversimplification of cuisines is unfortunately something still seen far too often. Because the food is so regional, I’d imagine the way you cook is pretty specific to where your family is from. How did you learn how to cook the food that you know?
My mom has always, in my mind, been someone who has been able to do it all. She’s a doctor and works full-time, but would always make dinner, even after a full day of work. Food is her love language. I think that’s a pretty consistent sentiment in South Asian culture in general — this idea that food is super significant in the home.
I genuinely believe my mom is the best cook ever. She always says it’s because of the amount of love she puts into the food. And she knows she’s an incredible cook [laughs]. She has no qualms about telling everyone she’s as good as she is. When I was growing up, there was always an expectation that you needed to learn how to cook, not necessarily from a gender perspective, but from the perspective that food is a really important way to show you care about people and food is something important in our family. I was a little bit resistant about this idea because I’m very politically progressive and very feminist, so I was very much, “I don’t need to know how to cook yet. I have other things going on.” But when I went to college, I missed my mom’s cooking. The food there didn’t provide the same comfort, so I knew I had to learn how to cook.
And also, in New York and I think in the U.S. in general, if you go to an Indian restaurant, the food that is offered is very much North Indian food. My comfort foods are South Indian foods that are not necessarily as readily available, so I had to learn how to make them myself.
When I was growing up, whenever my mom was cooking, I wasn’t allowed to do anything other than cut vegetables for her. It’s only been very recently that she’s let me have a more significant role in the kitchen. She used to call me on her way back from work and say, “Please take out the green beans and cut them,” and I hate cutting green beans, oh my God [laughs]. But that’s the way my mom introduced me to cooking. You have to start with the prep work and understand all of the steps that have to happen before you throw everything in the pot and make it. That was my introduction.
When I got to college, I made terrible food for a really long time [laughs] because I didn’t really know how things were supposed to taste until I made them over and over. Finally I was like, “Oh, okay, this needs a little more of this and this needs less of this.” I started cooking for real my sophomore year of college. I would (and still do), call my mom up and she’d just rattle off recipes over the phone as I balanced the phone and tried to cook. My food still tastes nothing like hers. She’ll say I’m a good cook, but I don’t believe her because I know I’m not as good as she is and I don’t think I ever will be.
That feeling that you’ll never be as good of a cook as your mom is so relatable — one I think a lot of cooks know well. How did your mom learn how to cook?
My mom learned her recipes from my grandmothers. She grew up cooking alongside her mother and learning from her. When she married my dad, she continued to learn from his mom. Because she learned from and got these recipes from my grandmothers, she never refers to a recipe as her own. We give ownership of the dishes to whoever’s spice mixture we use, so either my maternal or paternal grandmother. My mom doesn’t make her own spice mixes, so we don’t necessarily have a recipe that we refer to as my mom’s, aside from this one recipe she makes at Thanksgiving. I’m sure my mom has her own twists or takes or shortcuts on these recipes, but we give credit to my grandmothers.
It’s so nice that your mom was able to learn from both her mother and mother-in-law. Those recipes she’s learned must be so special to you and your family.
They are and for a while we didn’t have them documented anywhere. The summer before I graduated from college, I went to India with my family. I realized that my grandmothers were getting older and never wrote any of their recipes down. Everything is always a phone call. Most of our family recipes are passed down orally. My mom has them all in her head, but even she will call up her mom and ask, “How do I make this again?” It’s just a lot of phone calls and a lot of telling people how to make things and I didn’t want our family recipes to be lost when they passed away.
My grandmothers and I have a language barrier. Because I grew up in the U.S., I didn’t properly learn my mother tongue. I can understand it, but I can’t speak it. My grandmothers both speak multiple languages and both my grandmothers speak far better English than I can speak my mother tongue. The summer that I went to India before I graduated from college I basically forced them to sit down with me and I asked them about their recipes, probably like 150 different recipes. We cobbled them together through various languages and the help of my mom translating. I followed my grandmothers around for days taking pictures of everything that they made and I put it all into a cookbook.
That cookbook is super meaningful to me because it’s a piece of my grandmothers and their energy and their love. Their food and their ability to cook is one of the things they are most proud of. I’m very happy that I was able to document that and have it all in one place. My mom will now call me and be like, “Can you pull out that one recipe?” and I think it’s really sweet.
When we asked my grandmothers for measurements, they were like, “We don’t do that. We don’t measure.” I was like, “Yeah, but I’m trying to make a recipe book of these things.” So they gave me numbers and now every time I cook, I end up scratching things out because they don’t make any sense [laughs]. I’ll go in with a pen and edit the recipes, but it’s also kind of nice to have this living recipe book that I can change and play with and have as an ever-evolving artifact of my family.
That cookbook is such a beautiful way to honor your grandmothers and I’m sure it meant a lot to them as well. In regards to the food itself, are there any specific dishes that immediately come to mind when you think of your family or of South Indian cuisine?
Again, I’m hesitant to speak for South India because food in India is so regional and caste-based. It’s important to acknowledge that when you talk about certain foods, especially in India, they often only belong to certain communities and not necessarily to South India as a whole. Part of my own ignorance from growing up in the U.S. is that I don’t know what food is more universal across South India versus within my home. I only know the food that I grew up with and not what the majority of people have grown up with.
With that being said, I always think about rasam because that’s my comfort food. Rasam is a tomato broth with tamarind and jaggery. It has ghee and mustard seeds and cumin seeds and most importantly, rasam powder. Rasam powder is made differently by different families. They all have their own mix of spices. I use my Patti’s (my mom’s mom) rasam powder. In addition to that, the rasam also has some sort of dal that you add to it. It’s kind of like a brothy soup that you serve over rice and usually have a side vegetable with. There are different varieties of rasam. I really like garlic rasam, pepper rasam, and pineapple rasam.
Then there is sambar. I really like onion sambar, but there are different types. Sambar is a thick, spicy lentil gravy. And there are tons of different vegetable dishes. You can make every vegetable under the sun — for example, bitter gourd. There’s bitter gourd sambar and even bitter gourd gojju.
What are (in your opinion) the best, most delicious aspects of your cuisine that you want people to know about?
Tadka is something I really love. When you make tadka, you bloom spices in some sort of fat. The way I was taught is that you melt butter in a pot, add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and curry leaves, and then you wait for the seeds to sputter and the butter to start to brown, then you turn the heat off. I think tadka is the most amazing-smelling thing in the entire world. It’s so unique and so incredible and I don’t know other cuisines that use that. For rasam, you actually start the process by making tadka and then top it with more tadka at the end, so it’s really a full-circle kind of dish. Making tadka just feels very meditative and intentional and it’s my favorite smell, besides the smell of cooking onions [laughs].Tadka is just really magical.
The spice powders are something I think people take for granted. They think it’s really simple, but the process of grinding and blending the spices so sambar powder tastes different from rasam powder and so on is really cool and impressive to me. And these blends are a piece of history as well because the recipes are passed down through families. I really love that.
I think the food seems so simple when you eat it, but then when you’re cooking it, you realize, like, there are 8,000 steps to this. There are so many spices, so many things involved. At the end, something like rasam may seem like just tomato broth, but there are so many things that went into the creation of this one thing to create this complexity of flavors.
And I love the way that you can take one dish, like rasam, and use that as the foundation for so many different variations. For example, you can put pineapples in it. Or you can use a quicker, shortened method to make goddu rasam, which is basically rasam without dal in it and without all the usual steps. That’s actually the version I make for myself most of the time. My mom used to make that for me on days when she was tired and I’d tell her it was the best thing she’s ever made and she’d get annoyed because she’d be like, “This is my lazy dish that I don’t put effort into. How is this the best thing I’ve made you?” [laughing]
I also think that fresh cilantro on the top of each dish is amazing and I no longer take it for granted. My mom used to put it on top of everything and I used to ask, “Why do we need so much cilantro on everything? I don’t get it.” I get it now. Curry leaves are another one. They really impact how the food tastes. I can’t find curry leaves unless I go grocery shopping in Jackson Heights. I didn’t realize how important certain components of the dish were until I left home and lost access to certain ingredients. It’s very intentionally thought out how you build the complex flavor that is so familiar in these dishes. When you remove one thing, like curry leaves or cilantro, you notice it and feel like something is missing. The dish feels so much more complete when you have all the pieces.
Between the curry leaves and the butter and mustard seeds, I can just imagine how amazing tadka must smell. From what you’ve shared, it seems like such a cool technique that I know probably adds so much flavor and depth to the dishes. I’d love to loop back on a point you made earlier about the homogenization and oversimplification of non-Western food. Can you elaborate a little bit more and explain why you brought that up?
I think the thing is that most Indian restaurants in the U.S. are North Indian and so that’s just what people think about when they think about Indian food. I think that column [mentioned earlier] really got to me because it’s so representative of how so many Americans perceive non-Western or non-American food. There’s a tendency to minimize cultural value. So many times I’ve heard people say that Indian food is not sophisticated or cultured. Our definitions of sophistication are very grounded in Western and Eurocentric notions. The reductionist attitude that you can reduce Indian food to one spice and imply that it’s not complex is what frustrates me.
I’d like for people to change their perception that Indian food is just curry — which is a British term created to help them understand what Indian food is — and just recognize that India is made up of vast regions and diverse people. It’s made up of so many different types of food and food communities. Food is so important to our culture. I think what would be enough is if people were to say,“I’m going to have this type of food from India,” or, “I’m interested in learning more about food from East India or Southeast India or from this specific state.”
I’m excited to see more restaurants popping up that represent regional cooking and not just the typical stuff. I recently went to Dhamaka, which is a new restaurant that focuses on regional cooking and representing dishes that aren’t in the mainstream.
I’d like to see people being braver in their food choices. I think that when people think of Indian food, they think, “Oh, I’m just going to order chicken tikka masala or aloo gobi,” and they don’t think Indian food is more than just those two dishes. It’d be nice if there was a greater curiosity to try other things.
Recently someone told me about how they once got an upset stomach after eating Indian food and how they don’t eat Indian food anymore because they said it doesn’t agree with them. I told them that their upset stomach was more likely from the heavy cream added to the food. It doesn’t mean you’ve tried all the dishes [and can write it off] or even tried a good version of the dish you had. I think we tend to do that for any cuisine that isn’t American. If you have a bad burger, you don’t swear off burgers. You try a different burger from a different place. It usually takes more than one strike for us to categorically cancel out an American or Western dish, but we don’t do that with other cultures. We say things like, “Oh, I got bad Chinese takeout, so I guess I’m never going to have Chinese food again,” or “I had a bad Indian curry and I’m never going to have Indian food again.” I think greater than my desire to see more South Indian food is my desire for people to shift their mentality around non-Western cuisines in general.
That’s an incredibly important point and one I’d like to see people be more conscious of. Let’s talk more about representation. Representation in food has been widely discussed in the past year, with many criticizing the way BIPOC cuisines are represented across food media. From your experience as a home cook, how do you feel South Indian cuisine, or even Indian cuisine in general, has been portrayed in food media?
I don’t want to bring it up again, but that column really infuriated me because I do think the typical portrayal of Indian food in the U.S. is a smelly curry with a scent you can’t get out of your house, that will make you sick, and that’s super spicy or super strong-tasting to the point that it’s not delicate or complex, just over the top. That kind of portrayal is really frustrating to me.
A lot of the ways that Americans enjoy Indian food has been triggered by their own complaints or needs. For example, the use of heavy cream or amount of heavy cream added to dishes has to do with Western spice tolerance. I really blame an unwillingness to take risks when it comes to eating food so much that you seek to homogenize the cuisine. We do that with Mexican food and Indian food and Chinese food. You find the one dish that is acceptable to you and that’s the dish that you use to define an entire subcontinent.
I also think about how Pakistani and Bangladeshi people must feel. I try to make an effort to stop calling it Indian food when it’s actually South Asian. So many dishes have originated in what is now Bangladesh or Pakistan, but those communities aren’t given credit. If you look at who owns and operates a lot of “Indian” restaurants in NYC, it’s actually Bangladeshi families. Their cuisine and culture is reduced into something palatable or quick and easy to understand and process and instead of being given credit — it’s just written off as Indian food.
I’m a government and politics teacher, so everything to me is connected to identity and immigration. I think South Asian folk in general are homogenized in the U.S. and it’s reflected in food. I think it’s important to recognize the larger systemic levels of homogenization and lack of recognition people face.
Moving forward, how would you like to see South Indian cuisine, Indian cuisine, and even various cuisines throughout South Asia represented?
I think there are definitely people already doing it. I’m super excited about Sohla El-Waylly and Priya Krishna and Padma Lakshmi and people like them who are already doing the work. Padma Lakshmi’s response to that column was really awesome. I’d love to see the food industry and food media and restaurants find the people who are making an effort to change the landscape and uplift them and help them keep doing the work they’re doing.
I think we need to recognize how all spaces are political, and food is no different from that. We should find ways that we can uplift the voices and people whose stories and whose food and histories have been marginalized or excluded.
I’d like to see audiences pay more attention to and be more interested in the food that they’re eating and think more critically. There are so many opportunities to find people selling regional food and it’s important to learn from them about the food and ingredients and families behind the food.
And I think eating different foods is so fun and so great, so I think we should be pushing people’s palates a bit more and pushing people to be more adventurous and more curious when it comes to the food they’re willing to eat and engage with.
I couldn’t agree more! I believe that food represents such a great deal of our respective cultures. For me, it’s really been my connection to both my Bangladeshi and Vietnamese sides. Has food affected your connection to your own ethnicity and culture?
Because I grew up in the U.S. and have that language barrier with my grandmothers, food has been our form of communication and love. Our conversations are oftentimes just, “Good morning! What did you eat for breakfast? What did you eat for lunch? What did you eat for dinner?” or, “What are you planning on making for dinner? Do you need help with that recipe? Let’s talk about how you’re going to make this,” or we just send photos of our food back and forth. Food is our way of telling people we love them. If my mom only has five minutes to call me in a day, her primary question is about what I ate. The first thing she says is, “What’d you eat for lunch? What are you going to eat for dinner? Make sure you eat dinner.” Food is at the core of my relationship with my family.
The way that food can speak for us and make people understand our feelings is something I’ve always loved and clearly something that your family knows really well. You’ve shared so many really vital points today that speak to the representation of not only your own community, but also for BIPOC communities on a larger scale. Before we go, tell me about the recipe you’re sharing today.
The way that we eat our food is that you never eat just one dish alone. You eat, like, five dishes. Everything is about pairing dishes and thinking through the meal intentionally and about what dishes pair well together. Usually, this meal that I’m sharing would include rasam, sambar, the pumpkin gojju and chow chow kootu, rice, and then yogurt at the end. I pulled the gojju and kootu out of the set to share today. The way you eat it is that you mix the chow chow kootu, which is a thicker lentil-based gravy, with rice and then dip it into the gojju, which is a sweet gravy. Eating them together creates this sweet and savory combination that I really love.
I don’t know when we figured out how much I like this meal, but I feel like it’s so typical of immigrant moms to make something repeatedly for you once they figure out how much you like something. Any time I go home to my parents’ house, this meal will just be there waiting for me and we have it for dinner. This is the dish that I associate with home. Whenever I go home, I’ll go and take a shower and go back downstairs for dinner and eat this dish and I get this immediate hit of relaxation. It’s like, “Okay, it’s time to rest,” [laughs]. That’s how I know it’s time to heal or chill out or whatever.
And what does sharing this recipe with me and with readers mean to you?
I think food and recipes are meant to be shared. I think that it’s sad when food is restricted or recipes are hidden or communities don’t have free access to food. Like I said, food is very political, in India especially. I feel like the best way to resist the politicization of something or the exclusion of something is to make it more accessible and more available. I think that if food is good, everyone should eat it. I just want more people to be able to experience that — especially when it’s something that signifies so much love, like these recipes and foods that were passed from my grandmothers to my mom and me.
Gojju and kootu is a classic combination for the fall. It’s the perfect sweet and savory combo.
Get the recipe: Pumpkin Gojju with Chow Chow Kootu