I Spent Months Talking to Cooks About What Better Representation in Food Actually Means. Here’s What I Learned.
Around this time last year, I reached out to Kitchn with an idea for a story focused on representation. At its core, it would be a story that would allow underrepresented BIPOC voices to share what they hoped to see in the coming year from food media, a space continuing to face an important reckoning centered around BIPOC inclusivity, representation, and inequity (among other crucial topics) and a call for true change from the food community. That idea grew into a series called At the Table, a 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.
At the Table was born from my longing to be represented in a way I felt I never was. I wanted to see the Bangladeshi food that I grew up eating and have such vivid memories of showcased in a larger way, beyond YouTube, personal blogs, or Facebook videos. I wanted to see the food that my grandmother used to convey her love to her family lifted up and celebrated. In an effort to find representation for myself, I also knew I wanted to make sure others were allowed the same opportunity.
I firmly and wholeheartedly believe that BIPOC cooks, the ones who are so often overlooked, should have the opportunity to share their recipes and stories their way — and that’s what I set out to do. Over the course of five months, I shared five different perspectives — Bangladeshi cuisine with my mom, Saida; Haitian cuisine with Chef Widza Gustin; South Asian cuisine with history teacher Shreya Sunderram; Ghanaian cuisine with Berry Bissap founder, Akua Kyerematen Nettey; and Uzbek cuisine with retired cardiologist and the League of Kitchens instructor Damira Inatullaeva — with each teaching us about their respective cultures through the cuisine and sharing a recipe important to them.
For me, being able to see my mom’s aloo chop recipe and read her words on Bangladeshi food and have it featured in such a well-loved space is so incredibly special. I think it really made the both of us feel seen in a way we haven’t before. My mom grew up eating aloo chop. She learned how to make it from my grandmother and then passed it down to me. It fills me with such joy seeing this recipe that our family loves so deeply out there for others to try and to love as much as we do.
It’s hard to articulate how it’s felt to be able to share these stories. To be trusted to share each person’s respective cuisine, and in turn their culture and memories, is truly an honor. It has been one of my greatest pleasures to learn about all the beautiful, delicious aspects of each culture through its people and its cuisine. I couldn’t be more grateful to each person who sat down with me for being so open and for welcoming us into their homes. I thank them for being so honest in sharing how they’ve been misrepresented or neglected in regards to their own representation. My highest hope is that these stories — these interviews and recipes — can set some sort of example for how we can represent BIPOC communities and cultures in a personal, truthful, non-performative way.
What I Learned Along the Way
Through sharing their food with us, each person I’ve talked to has brought something of immeasurable value to the table.
We learned about the Bangladeshi food that she grew up with and that is still a source of comfort and feeling of home for her, and she shared her recipe for aloo chop — one of our family’s absolute favorites and a recipe she learned from my grandmother. She taught us about the deeply flavored and spiced dishes her amma used to make for her, like chicken curry and aloo bhorta and vegetable or dim bhaji, and her favorite treats, like various mishti and pitha. She shared with us how even though the dishes are all delicious on their own, eating it together is what makes a meal so special, so quintessentially Bangladeshi, and how eating with your hands makes it that much better.
My mom also shared how she hasn’t felt represented in food media: “I don’t ever really see anything about Bangladeshi food anywhere and because of that people don’t usually know anything about it. It’s kind of like a mystery to them. When I meet people and tell them about myself and where I’m from, they usually ask ‘So what’s Bangladeshi food like? What’s it about?’ There’s just not a lot of information being shared so they don’t know. So many times I’m asked to compare it to food that they do know, but that’s hard because it can’t necessarily be compared.” Through her retelling of these all-too-often conversations, it was clear why having representation, in any (and every) space, is so important.
We learned about Haitian cuisine and she shared her kicked-up rendition of diri djon djon, a dish she watched her mother make when Widza was growing up. Widza recounted her summers in Haiti with her family, which were formative experiences that furthered her appreciation for her heritage. Throughout her story it became clear why Haitian flavors, techniques, and ingredients are at the forefront of everything she does. She shared how important food is to the Haitian community, the labor of love that goes into each dish, and the history that’s intertwined with the food.
Chef Widza expressed that she doesn’t feel there is a voice for the Haitian community in food media. She talked about how incorrect representation can be damaging to the community, especially when it comes to historically significant dishes, like soup joumou. In her words, “In all honesty, it really hurt to see soup joumou misrepresented. It sent the Haitian community into an uproar because soup joumou is something that represents us and has a lot of history. That was the first dish that we had on January 1, 1804, when we gained our independence. There was so much bloodshed and so many stories associated with that day and that dish that it was hurtful to see it done incorrectly. I want to make sure people understand the hurt that can come from not being represented correctly.” Through her story, Widza really helped us to further understand why seeking out BIPOC voices who want to represent their own cultures is so significant.
We were asked to really reflect on how non-Western food is framed in the United States. Shreya also shared her recipe for pumpkin gojju with chow chow kootu, a meal her mother makes for her and that they learned from her grandmothers. Shreya’s roots in the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, as well as her work as a history teacher in the U.S., have made her very aware of the nuances that are often lost in regards to the representation of South Asian food. She shared with us how she feels Indian food, and many South Asian cuisines, are homogenized. Often neglected are many of the foods that make up so much of India’s distinct regional cuisine, like the food that Shreya grew up eating and learned from her mother and grandmothers. “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,” she said. “It’s made up of so many different types of food and food communities. Food is so important to our culture.”
Shreya also shared how food and the food space is just as political as any other. “I think we need to recognize how all spaces are political, and food is no different from that,” she said. “We should find ways that we can uplift the voices and people whose stories and whose food and histories have been marginalized or excluded.” She helped us to see how certain cuisines, and consequently the culture and its people, are represented (or misrepresented) and opened a conversation about how we can provide representation in a way that doesn’t erase the nuances that make these cuisines so special.
We learned about Ghana’s rich cuisine and culture, something Akua’s parents instilled as an important part of her life from a young age. Akua shared her recipe for abenkwan that she learned from her mother and helped us better understand Ghanaian cuisine by teaching us about a vast array of dishes and indigenous spices and ingredients she loves, such as palava sauce (also called kontomire stew), kelewele, nkrumankwan, zomi, calabash nutmeg, and pettie belle chiles. She also shared with us how she became enamored of food history, a topic that she still has a wild curiosity for, and noted how she can see the West African influence in many different cuisines.
Akua took care to highlight some of the people she admires that are really doing the work to represent the West African community, such as Zoe Adjonyoh, Fafa Gilbert, and Afia Amoako, but she also explained to us how she knows there could be and needs to be more voices representing the culture. She noted, “I feel like the best way for our food, especially Ghanaian food, to be represented the way it should be is by those who are of Ghanaian descent or by those who live there or are immigrants from there or by those who may not have the big name, but know the ins and outs and the history. […] We need our voices elevated more in these food publications or with cookbook deals. We need people to really work with us and help us to articulate and share these recipes with American or Western audiences…” Through Akua’s words we are able to better understand how historically rich and influential West African cuisine is, as well as understand how we can help uplift and make space for voices from the West African community.
We learned about the traditions and history that make Uzbek cuisine so special and Damira shared her recipe for barak that she learned from her mother. Damira — a retired cardiologist from Uzbekistan who now spends her time as an instructor with the League of Kitchens — took us through the ins and outs of Uzbek culture and cuisine. Having learned from her grandmothers, mother, and mother-in-law, Damira is well-versed in the art of Uzbek cuisine and shared the traditions and symbolism behind the food, as well as her own personal memories.
After talking to Damira, it was so clear that sharing her food is second nature. She told me, “I love Uzbekistan. I love Uzbek cuisine. I love the dishes of Uzbek cuisine and I know that they’re really delicious and really very good and when you know something good, you want to share and I want to share my knowledge about Uzbek cuisine, about Uzbek culture with the people of America because I love this country very much.” Damira shared so much wonderful insight during our time together, but perhaps the thing that sticks out the most to me and the one that really sums up At the Table were her words about cuisine and culture: “I really believe that when people learn something new, it makes them become more rich. They become more rich in knowledge and it will be very useful for life and every day we can learn something new. This is a very great opportunity to learn the culture of the people through the cuisine and through the dishes of the cuisine. Cuisine is not simply the food or the fuel for our body. There is more to learn.”
A Final Note
“For so many, especially in BIPOC communities, food is emblematic of their culture.” I shared that sentiment in my very first installment of this series and it’s been proven true through all of the At the Table interviews. Throughout the series, I’ve seen how memories, traditions, community, and family are very much intertwined in the food we eat. I’ve seen how cooking and food can bring generations together, like through the passing down of recipes from mother to child. And I’ve learned how we really can learn a great deal about BIPOC cultures through their food and that really truthful, wholesome representation is possible in food media. At the Table has been the most special thing to me. The stories that each person has shared have been so incredibly impactful and I hope they can continue to serve as a guide for better representation in the future.