Saturday, 9 June 2018

Home and Away: when a male chef longs for Thanksgiving

I was engrossed in an episode of Ugly Delicious, an eight-part Netflix series produced by, and starring Momofuku founder David Chang when the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide appeared on my phone. Not only were my plans to critique the maverick persona of male celebrity chefs for an upcoming conference paper thrown askew, but I also felt sad for so many food explorers and writers, of any gender. This sadness wasn’t a mere homage to Bourdain’s culinary career; it came from a place of studying food media and the performance of masculine adventure for several years, and realising that the lettuce always seemed crisper on the more mobile plate.

What I mean is that as a woman, I long to explore cities and cultures with the same lack of reservation as the likes of Bourdain, Chang, and Rick Stein. Perhaps I also want to aid the decentring of whiteness in multicultural scholarship (and in food and travel writing) in the process. Yet, re-watching Chang’s episode on ‘Home Cooking’ for the purposes of my paper was an exercise in exploratory ambivalence. His chosen narrative is one of dissociating himself from Korean food at the beginning of his career, going on to bend all the rules through a globe-spanning noodle bar, and then declaring towards middle age that he wanted simpler, more home-style food in his restaurants. This could be read as an over-romanticisation of roots, and as essentialising the feminine (he declares at one point that his grandmother and mother only knew to express their love through food).  Moreover, research on chefs of colour seems to indicate that they are more likely to use tropes of family and ethnicity in their business and self-presentation. Chang, however, treads a fine balance between home and away in this series as a whole by being equally comfortable cooking shrimp toast in his mother’s kitchen before Thanksgiving dinner, and tasting tortellini in a Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, Italy.

Also notable about this series is its exposition of male sociality around food. There is no death of the meat and building a barbecue in the backyard narrative, as well as forays to exotic places to sample strange creatures. However, what is distinctive is that the friendship between Chang and food critic Peter Meehan also has a cozy domestic dimension. Meehan joins him for the preparation of the above-mentioned Thanksgiving meal, and Chang declares that he is practically family. While it is common to see men cooking alongside each other in food television (such as in the Australian-based Surfing the Menu, which I examined in my book), this is rarely done in a home space. Let's hope this is the beginning many different kinds of culinary convivialities which are less invested in gendered performativity, both on and off the screen.

Will this series also encourage other male chefs, white or not, to make more than a passing reference to their nonnas? Will they be happily seen in their home kitchen teaching their daughters as well as their sons how to fold a dumpling? Will they valorise aspects of the culinary past, but also see the unfair division or domestic labour that was unwelcome for many women? Will they value the emotional labour of their partners who come to terms with their long working hours and prolonged absences? Will they recognise that wanting to be more grounded at times doesn’t make them less of a man, and might even be good for their well-being?

And for the women who want to cook, explore, and write about food, perhaps we need not emulate the model of relentless road tripping. We could also acknowledge the recipes and rituals passed down to use from our mostly female relatives, but help redefine foodwork as everyone’s work, and leisure. Media personalities like Nigella Lawson have done some pioneering re-jigging of cooking as self-pleasure in this regard. However, we have a while to go before this becomes a widespread domestic reality, especially for women who are not born with middle class capital.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Letting Go as a Migrant: Thinking about Dina Nayeri's 'Refuge'

I decided to pick up this book after reading writer Dina Nayeri's much-acclaimed long-form essay for The Guardian titled, 'The ungrateful refugee: we have no debt to repay'. The reason for its commendation has as much to do with Nayeri's personal life trajectory (and its twists and turns), as it does with our recent recognition of benevolent forms of solidarity as fraught and harmful.

It wasn't, however, my research interest in refugee advocacy that kept me going with the essay, and with her eminently readable work of fiction. At the risk of sounding like yet another reader aspiring to see her particular trials mirrored in a character, I have to say that certain stories of seeking asylum and settling in also resonate with student-migrants like myself.

In Nayeri's case, I can empathise with the pressure to excel academically, deny pleasure, make endless lists, be in fear of losing one's new passport, feel guilt about one's embarrassment over aspects of the culture of origin, and just generally experience a state of constant striving (even while thriving). Or perhaps I can more than empathise as I have fallen prey to all of the above, and it is only this summer that my mind and body are re-discovering what it means to really relax. To many who are not first- or second-generation migrants, this looks a little frantic and unnecessary. In the Australian context, it could even be seen as tall-poppyish and not easy-going enough. For those in the midst of it, however, no other state could be more natural.

So what happened to Nayeri herself, her main character Niloo, and this reader to suddenly let go of our ceaseless climbing? In the case of the book's author, she gave up a lucrative career in finance, and a long-term marriage to a considerate Frenchman to dedicate herself to the writing life. Niloo had a similar run, and separated from her husband as she claimed that he was in love with a stranger, and not the essence of the Iranian child she once was. There are certainly less dramatic changes afoot in my life, but I have unequivocally found a sense of belonging in the here and now. Isn't this what most displaced people are really seeking?

As the silly season approaches, I want to dedicate this post to all my fellow migrants, refugees and overseas students who will be working long hours in retail jobs, hoping to escape the desolation of the city on Christmas Day, assuring themselves and loved ones that they will visit next year, and mostly just praying that their kids still believe in Santa. To you, I promise that your holiday is around the corner, and it will smell so sweet that you will no longer pine away for your grandfather's farm, or hanker after your neighbour's backyard barbecue.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Forthcoming Monograph

Readers of this blog, I finally have a forthcoming sole-authored monograph after almost a decade of starting this blog. It is titled, The Tastes and Politics of Inter-Cultural Food in Australia, and will be published by Rowman and Littlefield International in early 2018.

Use this link to pre-order the book.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Hunting...for Turkish Bread

Image: Author's own, taken in Bushwick (Brooklyn) in May 2016
It is a hot day in Sydney
and I am swimming in
literature and gentrification.

I read A Little Life
about twenty-something artists, slumming it in an apartment in Manhattan.

And picture novelist Hari Kunzru
in East London, not playing at authenticity
yet partial to nice raclette.

Then I recall summer conversations
with a Sydney undertone, discussing
renovations and rentals.

Debating first homes and investments
in the same breath as veganism
and climate change, over piccolos.

I go hunting for bread for a Marrickville
picnic, and decide it has to be Turkish
preferably not store-bought.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Men who Cook, and Women who Explore

I have usually gone out with men who are better cooks than me. This is not in any way a reflection on my culinary skills (which are competent, by the way). Rather, early in my self-formation as a feminist, I begun to conflate care work with practices such as cooking. Therefore, a partner with domestic inclinations has always been more desirable that someone who simply 'brings home the bread' (so to speak).

During the course of my research on gender and cooking shows, I have realised that the sort of 'domestic masculinity' epitomised by cool dads like Jamie Oliver and Curtis Stone is not identical to the house-bound drudgery that women have voluntarily and involuntarily undertaken through the course of history. Researchers such as Isabelle de Solier refer to these food-oriented activities jovially carried out by the 'new lads' of culinary television as 'productive leisure'. This is by no means a suggestion that men in middle class contexts in the Global North don't participate in less glamorous household tasks such as washing and cleaning. However, in the realm of food growing, procurement, and preparation, men (and some women) can now afford to be leisurely, innovative, and even artisanal. There is also, of course, a long tradition of associating men with meat (now manifested in the suburban bloke 'manning' the barbecue), while women are seen as more likely to want to make pretty desserts. And then there is the notion that men have the knowledge and skills, and can therefore cook if needed or in the case of a special event, while the daily task of feeding the family largely falls on women.

Add to this the vast numbers of men and women who have been brought up in families where, for a range of cultural or institutions reasons, the fathers never raised a spatula over a stove. I think you have probably guessed why I make such a fuss about men who cook, even though there are a myriad ways of showing care and practicing equality.

Coming back to television cooks and chefs though, they have also tended towards male explorers in exotic locations, while their female counterparts bake carrot cakes in cosy cottages, or instruct daytime audiences on what to do with leftovers and pantry items. This has undoubtedly begun to shift with the arrival of programs like MasterChef Australia, Food Safari, Poh and Co, and the almost culinary show that is Annabelle Crabb's Kitchen Cabinet.What I am unsure of, however, is whether the proficient female cooks and presenters on these programs are simply mimicking the male explorer (and harking back to our colonial baggage), or if there are re-inventing culinary and colonial exploration altogether. Perhaps this is a mere shift of format expected by modern narrowcast audiences, and male television cooks are joining new exploratory mode and moment too.

I will be looking closely at a season each of Italian Food Safari (presented by adventurous mum-next-door Maeve O'Maera) and Surfing the Menu (with cosmopolitan yet Aussie beach boy chefs Curtis and Bender) to figure this out!

Thursday, 30 June 2016

On Eating to Become More than Who You Are

My 'research' yesterday consisted of catching up on the latest episode of 'Poh and Co.' on SBS on Demand, continuing my viewing of an older Aussie foodie program called 'Surfing the Menu', distractedly watching 'MasterChef' while making dinner, and then switching to the ABC when I realised that Annabel Crabb was interviewing Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on 'Kitchen Cabinet'. What a leisurely research life! To add to your culinary envy, I will admit that I also went to a fabulous local exhibition on the weekend that consisted of photographs of people cooking in their kitchens in the Greek city of Kos, and in my neighbourhood of Marrickville.

Author's own image at the entrance of 'The Community Kouzina Project' exhibition,
part of Open Marrickville
The photographer, Eleni Christou (who also happens to be an anthropologist and a resident of Marrickville) told me that she was interested in seeing whether her neighbours only cooked the food of their own cultures, and was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. She also recounted tales of visiting the Vietnamese stores on Illawarra Road, and hearing Greek women talk over okra. This was all very heartening for me as well, given that my recently-contract book project, 'Bonding Over Food: Becoming Ethically Convivial in Australia' is interested in mapping the potential of food to facilitate genuine inter-cultural encounters. 

At the same time, I wonder if 'we are what we eat' is a convenient yet ultimately meaningless shorthand for the acceptance of multiple cultures (and their values). Perhaps those who venture into exotic food territory, in terms of both their eating and cooking practices, do not become open to inter-cultural understanding just by virtue of trying a new spice. However, food can open doors if we want, and are in the right social conditions for those becomings to take place. These transactions may begin in a commercial realm, such as in a farmers' market, and then become habitual. Habit can then lead to conviviality, which is everyday rather than reliant on one-off tokenistic events such as 'Harmony Day'. 

I have never consciously eaten to become more than who I am, but my culinary adventurism has certainly paralleled my interest in cosmopolitanism. It helps that I have class privilege, and live in Sydney's inner west. It is perhaps at this intersection of mobility and habit that we start to eat to become more than who we are.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Avocado Toast as the Fabric of Life: Musings on Comfort, Discomfort and Food Television

After watching a rather emotionally intense film on a long-haul flight, I decide to switch to an episode of Simply Nigella. It reminds me of the comfort provided by turning on MasterChef at the end of a tiring day of teaching and meetings. The only caveat is that this is not the simplistic comfort of nostalgia for lost homes and cultures, even though it may have some link to a real or imagined past. In my case, it combines leisure, domesticity and research, and who could resist such televisual versatility?

The said episode begins with Nigella Lawson reveling in the pleasure of both consuming and making food, and stating how comforting it is to begin her day with avocado on toast and the daily newspaper. She even goes so far as to call it the ‘fabric of her life’. Only the domestic goddess herself could get away with a ‘recipe’ for avocado toast on prime-time network television (that happens to also make its way to in-flight entertainment)! She does, however, add dill to her version, and garnishes the darn thing with such pretty-looking radishes that one has newfound respect for that humble root vegetable.

 Smashed avocado on toast also happens to be the much-maligned food staple of the Australian hipster – it can be found on most inner city brunch menus, and has even been appropriated by Maccas stores in suburbia. Despite frequenting these cafes for flat whites and wifi, I rarely eat avocado on toast outside the realm of my own kitchen. In fact, for someone who once ate muesli bars for breakfast, I now derive great pleasure in picking just-ripe avocados from the local grocery store, making sure I have just enough time to smash some on a piece of toast every other morning, and add lemon juice and pepper. It becomes the fabric for a day which may or may not go my way, but at least I kicked it off with a bite of comfort.

I can’t recall precisely when this food choice became comfortable. It may have been when an ex insisted on having avocado rather than store-bought guacamole on his toast. However, I don’t associate my attachment to avocado toast with an individual or an event – it has become something I have made into my own ritual. Nor is it a simple case of wanting the cultural capital accrued to having avocado on toast for breakfast in contemporary, middle class Australia. Perhaps this is not dissimilar to people who make and consume certain foods, or watch food television to derive sensory pleasure rather than acquire/demonstrate skills or cultural know-how. It may not be possible to entirely dissociate this from the formation of middle class taste cultures, but affective attachments to food and food media cannot be solely explained by the desire to appear more upwardly mobile.

Further in the episode, Nigella reveals that she has just returned from a long-awaited trip to Thailand, where she saw many unfamiliar vegetables. She then shows us snapshots of said produce, highlighting her interest in ‘green and pink’ things. We also see a picture of her with frizzy hair at the beach, and are thereby let into her world like an intimate friend dropping by for a snack and a chat. The snack in question is her take on stir-fry – she makes Thai glass noodles with prawns in a dark sauce consisting strong spices such as whole cinnamon and aniseed. In the moment of tossing together the noodles and sauce in the wok, she explains that this is not so much a case of using unfamiliar foods, but using familiar ones in unfamiliar combinations. So, while the avocado on toast in the previous segment was a straightforward case of comfortable food, the Thai noodles embody the comfortingly unfamiliar.

It would be easy, again, to offhandedly dismiss the ‘comfortingly unfamiliar’ as white middle class interest in exotic food catered to their palates, and served on a platter in inner city restaurants (Ghassan Hage’s moniker for this phenomenon is ‘cosmo-multiculturalism’). I am not sure that Thai noodles are the recipe for anti-racism or more inter-cultural interaction. At the same time, what we understand as Thai cuisine is too popular in Sydney to be unremarkable. According to a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Pad Thai is the city’s most popular take-away item. In fact, Pad Thai might be to Sydney what pizza is to New York, and Chicken Tikka Masala in to London. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was craving Thai flavours and came across a blog post by as Australian traveller suggesting that only one restaurant on the island came close to matching the Thai food available in Sydney.

Sometimes a desire for the unfamiliar can become the fabric of life. When and where is a matter ripe for research, and food television.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

From Student Laksa to Pho with Free-range Chicken

A few days ago, I cooked laksa for some friends at my new apartment in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner west. This was the 8th time I had moved house since arriving in Australia as an international student in 2003. For reasons both economic and emotional, it was probably also the most worry-free of all my previous changes of residence. I recall the more troublesome of these as being uprootings that took a while to turn into everyday rituals around a home and a neigbourhood.

The first time I tasted laska at a stall in Chinatown in Adelaide, I was hooked. As someone of Indian heritage who could not digest chili, this was a soup that packed a range of tangy and deep flavours without the need to up the ante on heat. My forays into the foods of south-east Asia at the time had less to do with trying to be a cosmopolitan foodie, and were more about the migration history of inner city Adelaide, the composition of its international student body in the early 2000s, and my enrolment in courses where I socialised with ‘internationals’ from ethnicities other than my own.

I recall saving money from my causal hospitality jobs to go out for lunch with my friend Kasumi about once a week, right after our comparative politics class. We would pass notes to decide where we were going to eat, and what. I looked forward to these outings, which later became a more regular phenomenon as life became easier. If it wasn’t a catch up with a friend at Penang Hawker’s Corner in Renaissance Arcade just before I took my next tutorial as a PhD student, it would be a pit stop at K-Noodle on Pulteney Street so I could write in my office until sundown. These foodscapes of Asian food in Adelaide became so familiar and nourishing as to entirely replace my original diasporic craving for Indian roti. But I still wasn’t doing the adventurous cosmopolitan thing. Perhaps I wasn’t in the correct tax bracket to be a connoisseur of the world.

Researching these affective food geographies now, as a more sure-footed scholar, I realise that laksa is an inherently hybrid Pernakan (or amalgamation of Chinese and Malay elements) dish. In its Adelaide context, it is also the perfect food metaphor for migrant journeying that occurs outside of the traditional paradigms of ‘host’ and ‘home’ nation. As Adelaide-based cultural studies academic Jean Duruz writes, ‘While I am not an “authentic” member of the Singaporean/Malaysian community in Adelaide, this dish is, though differently, “embedded” here in my own culinary history. “Do you remember your first taste of laksa?”, Adelaide people ritually ask’ (2011: 62).

In Sydney though, I think the question might be, “Do you remember your first taste of pho?”, with most pronouncing the name of this ubiquitous Vietnamese broth phonetically. So while I cook laksa for my friends at home, I realise that I tend to gravitate towards pho when eating out in Marrickville. This is largely because it once had a large Vietnamese migrant community, and now has both hole-in-wall places as well as fancier establishments selling somewhat traditional pho (including, as I discovered recently with a friend, pho with free-range chicken).

It is perhaps this newly-acquired enchantment with Vietnamese flavours, and coffee that led me to plan one of the few non-work, non-family trips of my adult life. While on a city tour of Ho Chi Minh City that took us to an air-conditioned establishment selling pho, with fresh basil and bean sprouts on the side to boot, I was surprised to discover that my fellow Australian tour mates from Canberra had never tried it before. I was reminded of a young Anglo-Australian friend in Adelaide who was similarly well-travelled, but not acquainted with the Adelaidean love affair with laksa.

On a street food tour in Hanoi, Vietnam
While I am thus tempted to jump to a conclusion about white, middle class travellers who are culinary adventurers looking for difference, I will refrain from doing so. Referring to seminal work on culinary tourism by Lucy M Long and Lisa Heldke, Molz comes to the conclusion that those of non-white backgrounds can also engage in practices of culinary tourism, both in their cities of residence, and overseas. However, she also cautions us to consider food practices within a ‘power-geometry’, and ask the following questions: ‘Whose foods and foodways are able to travel and under what conditions? Whose food encounters count as cosmopolitan, and whose culinary practices are denied such status?’ (2007: 82).

So, how can those of us with one or another kind of privilege be engaged in culinary practices that acknowledge similarities and differences, are mobilized locally as well as globally, and stretch to allow cultural openness? The answer may lie in opening conversations with those serving us pho, as well as those eating laksa on a budget.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

In the Country of Crabb and Kebab

Unless you were living under a proverbial rock called commercial television in Australia these past few months, you are probably aware of the hullabaloo surrounding an episode of ABC's Kitchen Cabinet where journalist Annabel Crabb interviewed former immigration minister Scott Morrison. While this infamous televised encounter is no longer on iView, be assured that 'ScoMosas' (or Morrison's version of Sri Lankan samosas) has not only entered popular media lexicon in Australia, but has even inspired the ire of critical race theorists and independent media commentators.

Despite having a girl crush on Crabb's nifty desserts, 50s frocks, and penchant for witty political columns, I have to agree that the scorn is mostly well-deserved. While some are wary of the extreme lifestylisation of journalism, especially on a public broadcaster, this can remain ethical and balanced in the right hands. With the ScoMo episode, however, Crabb failed to scrutinise the former minister's repugnant decision to turn back Sri Lanka asylum seeker boats, especially in the context of the food he was cooking and serving her on the show. It was almost as though leftie intellectuals and Sri Lankan-Australians would be appeased by the kind gesture of ScoMo preparing curry and samosas, and stretching their imaginations to recognise these exotic culinary items as standing in for real brown people. Look hither, SBS executives and food writers - 'Making the Other' is a notch better than 'Eating the Other', especially when Annabel Crabb approves.

I won't be surprised if an ironic ScoMosa turns up in hipsterville Australia in the next month or so. For the rest of the nation though, Crabb's lack of scrutiny is not out of step with the understanding of the role of 'ethnic food' in establishing a multicultural society. In their work on food multiculturalism in Australia, Rick Flowers and Elaine Swan argue, 'There is a long history in Australia of concerted efforts to construct food as a medium through which people learn about other cultures and as a sign, when they eat diverse cultural foods, that their cities and regions are more tolerant of difference' (2012). These signs work at the level of official multiculturalism policy and pedagogy, as well as in everyday banal intercultural encounters. Given this, my quip is that we ought to see much more of the latter to disturb our middle class assumptions about multicultural food narratives as always, already triumphalist and engaged.
A Vietnamese-owned grocery store in Marrickville, NSW which is a site of many banal intercultural encounters
In the prelude to the summer holidays, SBS screened a three-part series called Kebab Kings that epitomises the various dimensions of what these everyday intercultural encounters over food can be. While the documentary was marketed as 'a bite of multicultural Australia', the twitter conversation is indicative of a wide-ranging audience that tuned in for the drunken conversations, and not just the incidental social commentary. The series also inspired its own kebab shop-specific hashtag, #kebabble, which continues to draw feedback on the show, and the featured shop-owners whose ethnicity and religion are a point of interest, yet not fetishised.

One of my favourite 'scenes' is when a Muslim worker at the Collingwood store describes the music of the Quran to his British customer. The latter is unfazed and compares his to genres he is familiar with. This real encounter did not give me the sort of warm fuzzy feelings typical of the 'aid an African child to feel good' genre, or the tearjerking invoked by wretched stories of war and conflict in 'other' places. I am not suggesting that these stories don't need to be told, but rather that they are not the only way of representing and encountering people who happen to hail from non-white cultures. With all its flaws, gathering around a kitchen table, whether in a television studio, a suburban house, or a kebab shop, gives us a pathway that we can reflexively employ to share stories. We must, however, try and do so with the understanding that there are narratives and feelings we can readily relate to, others we may habituate to, and still others that we will never fully comprehend or experience. Anyone up for dissing a ScoMosa at OzTurk this Saturday?

Sunday, 12 July 2015


Today I sucked on a mango seedling
and asked my mother for instructions on
how I did it as a child

I wondered how I had forgotten or
perhaps my mind thought my body had
deliberately mislaid that information

That piece of affective memory which
cannot really be relegated to the margins
of a childhood lived in another land

Today I was rained on in the market
by a monsoon cloud turning grey
and I laughed and remembered

The joy of dancing with wet hair and
then running indoors to dry it under a fan
whizzing past a white ceiling

That rush of air now comes back with
a flash that was stored and has been
restored at least for the journey back