When I was growing up, food was a source of pride and shame alike, a battle between the two that was intertwined with my dual identity: Pakistani American.
In middle school in Memphis in the 2000s, my excitement as I watched my mother pack leftovers of saag and rice for my lunch became anxiety as I rushed to conceal them from my peers. While some of my favorite foods were my mother’s mutton biryani, aloo methi parathas and ras malai, I absorbed the otherness that came with White people’s judgment and a stigma around South Asian cuisine, and I let the shame override my pride in my culture’s food.
In many ways, little has changed, and I still often find myself feeling “othered” about my food, especially when I look at Western food media. Despite the media’s attempts to reconcile grievances about stereotypes of foreign food, cooking from the wide-ranging South Asian diaspora is still too often presented as neither diversified nor accepted, but gentrified and singular – and desirable only when anointed by (White) Americans.
Cookbook author and columnist Alison Roman built a following by taking such international ingredients as turmeric, cardamom and harissa and fitting them into a whitewashed aesthetic. Other American media rebranded haldi doodh into “golden milk” after turmeric lattes started popping up at coffee shops and on Instagram. A New York Times article about Thai fruit drew outrage for trafficking in colonial and Orientalist tropes. And at Bon Appétit, with almost 6 million subscribers and over 1 billion total views on its popular YouTube channel, in the wake of editor Adam Rapport’s resignation, employees and contributors took to social media to call out the tokenizing and other mistreatment of employees of color, among other issues.
Although the magazine has South Asian representation in editor Sohla El-Waylly and contributor Priya Krishna, recipes such as a gluten-free coconut turmeric pie and sweet-and-sour dal bhat still perpetuate the gentrification of South Asian staples. El-Waylly and Krishna are among those who recently left the magazine’s popular Test Kitchen video series after unsuccessful contract negotiations and alleged racial discrimination.
Legacy food media obviously still has a long way to go toward addressing racial inequities. In the meantime, I have found hope in up-and-coming food personalities on social media, which seems to be a safer space for South Asian cooks to freely explore their range of skills and share their diasporic experiences.
Hamza Gulzar, a 20-year-old aspiring pastry chef based in Chantilly, Va., started using Twitter and Instagram during quarantine to promote his cooking skills and share his recipes. Social media gives Gulzar, who, like me, is Pakistani American, the platform to bounce recipe ideas off his followers.
When he watches videos from Bon Appétit and YouTube’s popular “Binging with Babish,” he notices the lack of diversity and a push for Eurocentric recipes. And that motivates him to “give more value and strength to Desi cuisine and Desi flavors” through his food, including Oreo ice cream samosas, chai souffles and mango cake.
First-generation Americans and immigrants, Gulzar said, “can create really interesting and different ideas solely because of our experience that nobody else shares.”
Fatima Shareef, a 25-year-old food personality based in Chicago, runs her brand, “Fatima’s Fabulous Kitchen,” on Instagram and TikTok. She started it in 2017 to share such concepts as kulfi kreme doughnuts, Kashmiri chai boba and chaat fries, along with traditional Indian recipes.
With 41,400 followers on TikTok, Shareef showcases recipes that resonate with the Desi diaspora demographic she says is looking for representation.
“Food culture is drastically changing,” Shareef said. “Social media changed everything. Food blogging was very different 10 years ago than what it is now, and 10 years from now it’s going to be very different. I think POC in general, we’re going through a renaissance for sure in terms of our diaspora culture.”
Halima Ahmad, a 29-year-old Indian American based in Atlanta, started her Instagram account “Bukhi Behans” (Hungry Sisters) with her sister. For this year’s Ramadan, they showcased a 30-day samosa challenge, creating a new type of samosa every day for the month. Her samosas included such flavor combinations as chicken and waffles, eggplant Parmesan, churros con chocolate ice cream, jalapeño poppers and knafeh.
Her challenge became a community conversation on Instagram and Twitter. All month, followers and random Instagram users shared her samosas on their stories and directly messaged Ahmad with their ideas and praise.
“I’m all about building a fun and inclusive food community that encourages other people to experiment with food – because if I can cook, anyone can,” Ahmad said. “I really feel that with the rise of POC sharing their food experiences on social media. It’s just a fun place for people to come, be inspired and bounce ideas off of each other.”
Mehreen Karim, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi American whose mother grew up in Malaysia, makes her own renditions of popular foods, such as za’atar pull-apart buns, Magnolia Bakery’s banana pudding ice cream and Malaysian sambal hot chicken on Instagram and her website.
Karim works in the sexual and preventive health industry and has applied the educational part of her job to her posts. Based in New York, she fuses her passion for photography and food into an educational guide.
“I love to teach in general, so anytime I try something that tastes really good, I automatically want someone else to taste how good it is, too,” Karim said. “If there’s a chance I tell someone how to do something on social media, and they end up doing it in their own homes, and they have that aha moment like, ‘Wow, this does taste good.’ That’s all I want.”
They are just a handful of the many personalities making a name on social media, where they’re able to express their heritage and ultimately add South Asian representation to the food industry without the need for traditional media.
Instagram and TikTok might be places where people of color can flourish, but they can’t replace the cultural impact of legacy food media.
Still, they’re a start. And as Karim has shown, one can lead to the other. While Bon Appétit is still searching for a new editor in chief (Sonia Chopra was recently named executive editor), the publication recently hired Karim to write about a recipe for Malaysian roti jala. With a squeeze bottle, a nonstick skillet and her camera, she gave the recovering magazine a sprinkle of her own South Asian diasporic tradition.