All Episodes

February 12, 2020 67 mins

Host Michael Ruhlman speaks with Dr. Krishnendu Ray about authenticity, the term "ethnic food", the importance of flavors to our identity, and much more.

Learn more about your ad-choices at

See for privacy information.

Mark as Played

Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:17):
Welcome to a special bonus episode of From Scratch. I'm
your host Michael Rohlman. While we developed season two, we
wanted to release some unused material. During our reporting for
this show, we've gathered great interviews that we've had to
cut for time. Here we're sharing complete discussions with some
of our amazing guests, some chefs, some from outside the

professional kitchen. In this extended interview, I sat down with
Dr krishnand Ray Chris to his friends. A brilliant thinker
and writer about cooking and culture. He's currently Department share
of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University and
the author of The Migrants Table, Curried Cultures, Globalization, Food
and South Asia, and The Ethnic Restaurateur. We had a

wide ranging conversation about authenticity, cooking and its role in
social connection versus isolation, sensory identity, why there are food fats,
and the theory of what really drove Anthony Bourdain and
why he mattered to so many people. But first we
tried to get to the bottom of a tricky and
loaded word ethnic. What exactly does ethnic mean? Well, um,

ethnic restaurants. Yes, let's talk about that word ethnic. Good,
word bad? Word. You know, it's a it's an interesting word. Um,
it's I would say it comes into play by about
the nineteen fifties in American culture, especially in journalism, and
it's a way to think about cultural difference without falling

into the trap of race. So there's a sense that
there's white and then there's black, and then there are
ethnic people who are kind of somewhat in between. And
interesting thing is some white people are considered ethnic, some
lose their ethnicity. Give you an example, Italians were considered

ethnic and they have stopped appearing to be ethnic. The
National Restaurant Association has a study from the year two
thousand and it says, well, Italian food has become so
ubiquitous today that it's no longer ethnic, and so it
has become kind of normalized, naturalized. While it doesn't say

that yet about Chinese food. But if you say go
to smaller markets, media markets say not like New York
or not like the West Coast markets. So if you
go to New Orleans, people still classify Italian food as
ethnic and that's interesting. So so the story is about

what is this classification, what did it do, how did
it come into play about the nineteen fifties into the
sixties clearly, And I would say it is in fact
dying now in places like New York City and l A,
where most people say, who are interested in food food
is who are interested in various kinds of food culture

find ethnic to be too big a category and too
flatter category where you can put say, um, Bhutanese food
and Nepali food, and Vietnamese food, and say Chinese food altogether.
So most people have stopped kind of using that category now.
So yeah, in a sense, um, I would say in

the in the big cities now at the idea of
something some food being ethnic is slowly going out of fashion.
And so the analogies they think about the way the
word negro changed. Okay, it was a normal descriptive term.
Then at some point it became a term that was
kind of no longer the term that was going to

be used. So it's became black or became African American
in some contexts, or think about the way Native Americans, Indians,
indigenous people. Usually it is associated with some relationship of
power in any of these words you will see, Okay,
So ethnicity in some ways is is about ethnic food.

Is the food of the people who are not fully
foreign but not us whatever that US category is and
whatever that foreign category. So like French in between, so
that's the category, and usually it is the in between
who have migrated in into American society. So to give
your typical example, who like French food was never considered ethnic.

It was foreign, it was exotic, but it was high class,
upper class. So this is the second thing about ethnicity
is that ethnic food is supposed to be the food
of more sleep poor working class migrants, and so that
is one of the categories. One of the problems of
the categories now and why people are kind of beginning

kind of to stop using it. So you can't really
have really high price death and food. That's the presumption. Yes,
that's been the historical presumption. So if you if it's
very even now if most people, if you say high price,
people have a sense that it can be authentic. So
if you're charging more than ten twelve bucks for anything,

it can be authentic ath. So there's a kind of
a funny trap there, you know. So you can cook
very good food, and my argument is that kind of
sets up a limitation to what kind of ingredients you're
going to use what kind of skill you're going to bring,
because the price includes basically the three major thing, which

is rent, which is huge in any city, and then
the kind of ingredients you're gonna put into it, and
the kind of labor costs. Okay, that's why if you
trap ethnic food of food of the ethnics as cheap food,
it is very difficult to break out of those barriers
of good food. So that's what the book is about,

and my thinking has been about this category called ethnic
food and ethnic restaurant or so if you want to
do high end food, you're you're five or in a sense,
no one is going to call it ethnics. So by
the way, at that level you can you can use
you have to use all the categories, like you can

say fusion used to be. But fusion is one of
those things that insiders think it is kind of a
shameful category. And though I would say a lot of
people are doing fusion food. So you can pull Vietnamese
elements with French elements together, Okay, but you're not going
to call it fusion, but outsiders will think about it
as fusion. So yes, so in a sense, it becomes

very difficult to stay within this category of ethnic and
I think do very good food which is going to
be expensive, either at the level of skill or at
the level of the ingradient. What can you tell us
about the hierarchy of taste in America? Yeah, so I

use the hierarchy of taste as a phrase to think
about how American notions of what is good food and
what is expensive food has changed over time. And it's
it's a fascinating story. So if you say, first look
at I'll give you an example. So if you'll read

New York Times eighteen seventy two, there's a lot of
discussion about German food. And German food is this food
that is has kind of weird things like schnitzel, And
it says in the New York Times describe saying it's
in fact, it's just a feel cutlet with a weird

name called schnitzel, and it is all you can eat
real schnitzel for fifteen cents in eighteen seventy two. So today, if,
for instance, you don't think about German food when you
think about kind of ethnic food. So here are two
things that's going on. Remember I said before, ethnic is

a category that's invented in the in the nineteen fifties,
and nineteen was the word itself. Actually, yeah, so ethnic
ethnos from the Greek and which means people, any people,
so legitimately it can be used for any people. So
that's one way of using it. But it's more contemporary
contemporaryment to nineteen fifties, and food was never categorized as ethnic.

So like the example I'm giving you, German food would
have been considered foreign and it's slightly considered weird but cheap.
It's all those categories that has that we subsequently come
to see as kind of ethnic. So German food is
rich really discussed as this a kind of analog to

what we would after nineteen fifties called ethnic food. It's exciting.
There's a slight element of slumming. Uh, there's a slight
element of disdain, but excitement, okay. And there's a lot
of discussion about German for instance, beer halls. The Anglos
in New York City are very kind of suspicious of

the Germans because the German beer halls up and down Bowery.
They find that children are there, women are there because
the Germans drink with the family. Very different from say
the Irish or the Anglo pub culture tavern culture, which
was a much more masculine culture. Okay, so that there's
a sense of this weird people with a bit of

weird culture. Some of it is exciting, but most of
it we should not do. I think a lot of
that changes in American history post Civil Rights movement, where
basically I think two things happens that radically changes our
point of view. One, what the Civil Rights movement does
is basically de legitimizes disdain and disgust towards other people's culture. Okay,

there is there. It goes underground, and it's coming back
up in some different ways. It comes back up at
different points of time. But what it does is polite
people in polite society never classify anyone's culture as inferior
or disgusting, especially the food as disgusting. That's a radical
change in American culture, and in fact that's not true

about say India, the other the other culture I come from.
I spent my first half of my life in India,
second half of my life in the US. In India,
the upper class and the middle class can look at
poor people's food and look at lower cast food and
look at what a call scheduled casts and tribes and
expressly express disgust about their food. Okay, that used to

be the case in American culture. That became de legitimized.
And the second thing that changed was what what sociologists
have come to call cultural omnivorousness, that in a sense
today say, if you listen to music, you're expected to
listen to a range of music from say European classical, jazz,
hip hop, pop, etcetera. And in fact, as your education

goes up and then and your income goes up, you
become more omnivorous. You really you listen to all kinds
of music, and you never say any music is inferior. Okay.
That did not used to be the case before the
nineteen fifties, basically, where people would explicitly talk about the
inferiority of jazz as kind of a degraded European classical music. Okay,

and so so. Kind of these two things the change
in the politics of culture, which is the civil rights movement,
and the other is um this change in what I
call the birth of mass consumer society, where today, in
a sense, you are supposed to be consuming all kinds
of music and consuming all kinds of food to be

considered a legitimate, say consumer or even specifically a connoisseur,
so kind of those things. So what I look at
is how different cuisines have Some cuisines have climbed the
social ladder, Italian being a terrific example, right. Italian is
a very good example because in fact, Italian is one

of those cuisines in American history that falls from the top,
flattens out, and then climbs back. Is climbing back up
right Now. What I mean by is this, say, with
Thomas Jefferson, who in some ways brings in macaroni and cheese, Okay,
and there's a sense that it is this is an
Italian thing. It's part of the travel through the Mediterranean

and bringing in macaroni, which is kind of a generic
name for any past at that point of time. And
in this case he was specifically identified as Parmessian cheese.
They often they would be registered in restaurants as slightly
frenchified Parmesan as a slightly frenchified mac and cheese. So
that was considered very high high culture. In case said

let's say around eighteen hundred, approximately what is fascinating. Is this.
This is what happens is from about eighteen eighty onwards,
you have millions of poor Italians, mostly Southern Italians, coming
in and what you see is this astonishing disdain towards
Italian culinary culture. From eighteen eighty to about the nineteen forties,

it is seen as the food of slightly inferior people
who eat all the spicy food. By the way, nutritionists
and and kind of all kinds of reformers, progressive reformers
look at Italians and say, well, they have a terribly
inferior food culture. They eat all this pasta, they eat

all this garlic, very garlicky. By the way, it's described
as with all these spices and inferior foods, like all
these weird greens that you get nothing out of. This
is partly remember and nutritional knowledge is also changing at
this point of time hasn't caught up. And most importantly
that is what makes them thirsty for all this alcohol

wine and so too. We have to cure them of
their food, to cure them of their alcoholic tendencies. We
have to cure them of their food, and we have
to change them into basically a kind of a white sauce,
bland food people. Okay, thankfully they failed to do that.
And over the next say two generations, as Italians move

up from a working class population to a middle class
professional they become politicians, they enter the movie business, for instance,
their very important players in the movie business, um, and
they become culturally visible, and you begin to see the
slow shift. Nutritional knowledge begins to catch up with the
Mediterranean diet, arguing that in fact, the Mediterranean diet maybe

in fact terrific for people, and by about the nineteen
seventies you begin to see a reevaluation of Italian food.
So my argument is that poor people's food are often
seen as inferior by people. It has nothing to do
with the food. It has to do with the attitude
towards class and race. That's what the whole hierarchy of

case argument is. So I look at the German case,
I look at the Italian case, or if you look
at the Japanese case, I was going to ask you
about Japanese cases kind of if you look at around, say,
there's a beautiful study of Japanese in Hawaii, which is
where we have in Hawaii and on the West coast,
we have the first Japanese coming in as immigrants and
relatively poor immigrants, and around. If you talk to Japanese

and there's a beautiful study but by a sociologist in Hawaii,
the Japanese are saying, yes, we know our food is inferior.
The children learn in school that they should be drinking
more dairy and we should be eating more protein to
make us big and strong like white people. And uh,
but you see, I have a bad habit. I'm of
that generation. So my children's habits are going to become

more American and my habit is going to stay Japanese,
and their health is going to improve. This is about
people are talking about. And of course Japan becomes an
enemy in the Second World War, just as the Germans,
by the way, and the German example is a fascinating
example where for instance, I'm just going to go back

quickly to the German case, which is fascinating, where Germans
are in fact kind of looked at as the enemy.
And at that point of time, by the way, the
second most important language taught, the second language taught in
most American schools was German, and on the cusp of
the Second World War, German was to the nineteen thirties

and forties in the US what Spanish is to the
US today. Okay, the most dominant language, by the way.
Long before the Ben Franklin was worried that, in fact
he was going to be swamped by the Germans because
he was in Pennsylvania. Remember, and who we come to
identify as the Pennsylvania Dutch, who are really the Deutsch? Okay,

and so German kind of this antipathy toward the Germans
is going to turn into this kind of massive pressure
on the kind of naming of foods. That's when the
naming will change from things like frank further to hot
dog too a way to americanize these names, and Germans
are going to be in some ways written out of

the American script. But my argument is, in fact most
American food is Germanic food. Think about laggers, and think
about the cheese, things about hamburger. I think, in fact
it is in some ways German. Case is a very
interesting case where what used to be in some ways
of foreign ethnic marker in this case in quotation marks

uh in some ways is made invisible by in fact
most of us, by the way, most Americans the largest
so called ethnic category of Americans are German Americans. There
are fifty million German Americans today. Okay, yes, exactly. And
so the German case is an interesting case where it
is both suppressed but also it becomes ubiquitous. Most American

food in the sense is Germanic food, with some differences,
and I'll talk about it. The Japanese case. Similarly, there's
a repression of taste for Japanese things that works towards
the sense that Japanese food is kind of inferior for
inferior people. That begins to flip only in the nineteen
eighties once Japan emerges as a major economic power. And remember,

I don't know whether you remember, that's the time Americans
talking about just in time production, how Japanese capitalism is
so much agile and more powerful when sushi came into
the market totally. And that is and by the way,
think about that where sushi, when Japanese food comes in
is mostly mid Town. Even now you go in Manhattan,

the high end Japanese restaurants are often in Midtown because
this is where the Japanese managers were now really highly valued,
would eat. Okay, and so sushi comes in and suddenly
we begin to flip. And of course by then also
nutritional knowledge begins to catch up with things like fish
and fermented food, and you begin to say Japanese food

is the best food in the world. And then we
we we see the data that they live one of
the longest in the world. So they must be doing
something right. So what I'm really interested in a hierarchy
of taste is this question of how do Americans how
and why do Americans change their mind about what is
good to eat and what is not good to eat,

and how that has changed in the American history. That's
of course fascinating and fascinates me because I think, um,
they don't use their common sense, they don't think for themselves.
They are told that eggs are bad, therefore eggs are bad.
They are fear of fat. Across the board, it's as
fact or bad. So I think that's I would say.
My work as a sociologist is like if you talk

to an economist, it's about supply and demand. So the
price is shaped by supply and demand. That is correct,
But that's an abstract model which is worked by taking
time out of the model. As a sociologist, My work
is how do people come to demand and why do
people come to demand some things at certain prices and
unwilling to pay that say, it is very difficult for

most Americans today to pay hundred bucks for Indian food,
even even kind of Danny Meyer figured that out about
Tabla Okay, that he was saying, any anytime there there
would be a recession tightening up purse Americans at that level.
We're willing to pay for French, We're willing to play
for Italian, but we're not willing to pay that kind
of a price for Indian food. And you can say

that about Thai, you can say that about Vietnamese, and
and we used to say that about Italian. And that's changing,
and that's kind of for me, that change over time
of demand is the most fascinating story about American cuisines.
When we come back, Chris Ray dies into the murky

waters of authenticity. What does it mean to make authentic food?
What is borrowing, what is appropriating? And what does it
mean for the future of cooking in America? As Chris notes,
food is the way we incorporate the external world into ourselves.
How does food affect our identity? M can't you say

that we um will now pay more money for authentic Um. Yes,
there are two kinds of authenticity, okay, Darthur, Yeah, I
think one kind of authenticity that we were willing to
pay for is in some ways to think of the
chef as the artist his signature. Okay, say a per
se or a French laundry okay, which is the idea

of the perfect professional okay, which almost think about it.
He is not supposed to The chef is not supposed
to have any ethnic mark on him. It's just technique,
an ingredient and skill pure wald of in some ways
the world of the perfect ingredient with the best skill

in the world. Okay. That's almost the opposite of the
other sense of authenticity, as any sorry authenticity. So the
first sense of authenticity is linked to the signature of
the artist. The way the way we look at say
a per se or say well say Renny reds Apiece
rights on restaurant is that is the chef. There is

this the chef signature, okay and um. And the other
side of it is if it is say an Indian
rust draw or see even a Mexican restaurant and Mexican
is a very interesting case. It's changing is the idea
that is this someone's grandmother's cooking. It belongs. So the
authenticity there is a test of belonging to a community. Okay,

so it's in a sense so in a sense of
the bottom end of the market. We tested by when
we say use authenticity, we say how is it? How
similar is it two when I went to Mexico and
ate this in Puebla, or I went to Ohaka and
ate this, is this similar? Is that difference? That's what
we're saying. When we're thinking about authenticity at the bottom

end of the market and the higher end of the market,
we are thinking about authenticity as the signature of the artist.
In this case the chef. I want to want to
almost hold back on that, but Jonathan and my producer
I just went to Oakland to talk to um a
chef there who first went high end French, did exactly

what you said, earn two much one stars, and then
went back to his roots. He felt well, probably he
felt guilty for abandoning where he came from and who
he was. And I'm just curious about what you think
about this model about what this guy did. Yeah, it's
it's it's fascinating. I think that's happening with Mexican food too.
These are kind of a welling up of interest from

the bottom. But it is still the cheap and authentic tackle, right,
And you can't almost charge that much for a taco
unless it's coming down, say from a very high end
Mexican chef who is a friend of Randy Retzipe. And
there's that network at the top. Would say, that's a
network of about five hundred thousand people. It's a very

small network. That's a small net. It's a very small network.
And in that network, there are some connections being made, okay,
where you're beginning to see that for instance, where aspects
of Mexican food and Peruvian food is entering that discussion,
Brazilian food is entering that discussion because of alex Atala,
because of Fanny recipes, work with some Mexican chef and

because of kind of this kind of I would almost
call it peer review. It's like professors peer review amongst
five hundred uh chefs and and evaluators and journalists and
restaurant critics. You can enter the world through that, and
I think this, Uh, the person you're talking about the
chef you're talking about che James, che chef James who

kind of as as a as a Michelin star chef.
It's a it's a signature of that you have really
arrived in that peer peer review evaluation. Once you do that,
then you allowed a little more freedom to mess around
and play with other categories of food. And especially if
you're not basically a French or an Italian very high

end chef, you will eventually there will be some pressure
in you to go back to your roots. You see
that with David Chang for instance. You know, he had
to first play in the French domain. Then he did
a very interesting thing which is very unusual and interesting.
He goes off to Japan, you know. And I personally
think Japan played a role in David Chang's generation what

French used to play interesting before that, and so and
I almost think that today in the in the kind
of the top of the field, French, Italian Japanese are
playing kind of the most defining role of what it
entails good food and Japanese especially in plate presentation, shapes
of plates, use of empty space, and absolutely absolute minimalism

that you have come to expect that a green bean
should taste exactly like green bean or asparagus, and we
should not mess and complicate it. Very different by the
way from Indian aesthetics. In Indian aesthetics in a sense,
if you have a piece of meat that tastes like meat,
that means it is not good. So it's a very
different It's like you have a sauce. It has there

the complexity comes through lots of flavors and layering of flavors.
And in in the Western world or cuisine world and
Japanese world at that aspect of its kind of a
simplification of it. So, so what we're seeing in the
world today, I think in the food world is things
are climbing up from the bottom a bit in interesting ways.

And you see it like say the New York Times,
if you read recently, there will be Nigerian food as
a recently in a case Nigerian food and that that
is legal mischance work about it. And then so people
are beginning to break out off because of the omnivorous
now because of the readers and eaters are eating widely,
so they have to in some ways almost follow them out.

I would say, follow them of the French Italian Japanese
ghetto now, and that's one thing that's going on. The
other thing that's going on, it's a bit again like
music at the upper end of it. What are the
top chefs intrigued by. If they intrigued by Peruvian produce
and there's a chef, they're a Peruvian chef who can

play with you, okay. If there's a Mexican chef who
can play with you, and so they begin to get
absorbed into the upper end of the circuit. And that
then comes down where you will have like say, uh,
you can be a French chef, but you might start
playing a bit with Mexican ingredients and Mexican techniques. You

can't do that, you can Okay, Well here's a great example,
and we're gonna bring up the big bugaboo, which is
cultural appropriation. You mentioned French laundry. Thomas Koller opened La
Calendauh in young Field, down the street from his French
laundry and Sean and he brought in um one of
the chefs who's from Wahaka. And that's okay, I suppose

I'd like to know your thoughts on cultural appropriation. I
mean We've got a high in um uh tile loatition
chef who went high in French and then could create
Hawking Bird Hawking Fair in Oakland. Then we have Thomas Keller,
American born traditional French style chef now doing Mexican food.

I think, um, this is part of a symptom of
this kind of churning in American culinary culture, which is
really exciting. You know, it's it's again has happened in
music before. Think about the role of African Americans in
American music, and think about that discussion around it. How
much of it is exemplifying, how much of it is borrowing,

and how much of it is stealing. Okay, so that
is that conversation that is heated up now. So I
personally think it's a good symptom of the transformation of
the American culinary scene where of people's food are entering
the discussion and a lot of people like me, like

I would say what what people would call Gorman's or
foodies of color are entering the discussion. That is why
the argumentation is heating up. So in a sense, for me,
the fight almost my I look at it in a
meta way that the fight over appropriation is a sign

that a lot of interesting non Anglo food is entering
the discussion, The non traditional elite food, including French food,
is entering the discussion, and a lot of people of
I would say, Gorman's of color are moving in and
in fact there's a bit of a shouting match going on.
So for me, it's a symptom of change in the
field and it is very exciting, and it is basically

what you point to absolutely correctly is this. It is
always a question of power. It's about this question of
power and cultural product. I didn't point that in this
and like you think about it, right, yeah, and and
think about the way like hip hop, I mean, which
is fascinating. It's a it's a beautiful analogy. Say, one

part of it comes out of Bronx, poor black boys
almost right from the one of the poorest parts of
the city. They're often Caribbean migrants. The fact that American
culture is going to throw this artifact into this mix
and that's going to be pulled in and so dominant
today that white boys in in in rich suburbia, the

only language they understand is the language of hip hop.
That's radical, that's very American that is very democratizing. But
with that will come now who's making most of the
money out of that hip hop culture, right, which is
about who owns it? And they will always be this
argument that when before it was commercialized, poor black folks

used to own it and run it. Now all kinds
of players, including by the way, black men, are playing
a very important role in the marketing of it. So
you will lose something and you will gain something. What
you gain is at the metal level. What you gain
is enriching of American culture, and what you lose is
there is going to be some who will win monetarily

and some who will lose monetarily, and a lot of
them initially are going to be people like in this case,
white chefs, because they have a network, and their network
lets them two things, allows them to borrow money at
rates at which it is not that easy for most people.

I mean, by the way, it's not that easy to
get money for opening a restaurant no matter who you are,
But if you're a white celebrity chef, it's easier for
you to raise the money you have the right network.
The second you have the right network, in terms of
what sociologists called cultural capital, meaning you know, every restaurant
reviewer in the country knows who you are. So whatever

you do, you're going to get attention for it. Okay,
that is unlikely to be the case if you are
coming from the bottom up. Okay, So that's the unfairness
that people feel and complain about. But in a sense,
but I think what people in fact lose sight of,
which is I'm really excited about is two things. That

this is a symptom of the strength of American culinary culture.
It's a democratic democratization. I think American food culture changes
every four years because new people come in bringing their food,
and that's a terrific thing. And it's a good thing
for American culture and a good thing for most of
the people of color who are now making a living

through these things. What is a good thing? So it's
a good what's good about it? What's good about it
is a food is more interesting the food and a
lot more ingredients, a lot more techniques. I mean, think
about think about I'm expecting what we will learn from
the Chinese, for instance, as Chinese move up in the
social ladder, is recognizing various kinds of texture that a

play an important role side, like when you have think
about when you have chopped jellyfish with a little sesame
oil in it and quickly star fried. It's a partly
the pleasure is that pleasure of that crunchy texture of it.
We will learn from the Chinese what we learned from
the Japanese, which is, for instance, naming omamy. Without Japanese food,

without research Japanese research on it, we a would have
never in fact gotten to the science of omami. Okay.
My sense is that horizon is going to be pushed further,
so more things are going to enter in terms of ingredients,
in terms of skill, or think about use of chilies
and use of avocados they have become. When I came

to the US, it was very this is okay. I
was in a university town. It was impossible to get
chilies and avocados, okay, in a small university town. Okay.
And I think about what it did in terms of
limiting my palette. And it took me a decade to
even like avocados because I was not used to it.

It's it's not in a sense my first exposure to it,
I said, what is this thing? This is bland, you know, uninteresting.
So I had to go back to avocado everybody else
was eating avocado, and then develop a palette for it.
I think what that kind of new ingredients, new techniques.
What they do is increase their apperture, basically what you
can play with. But also you didn't have chilice, which

you were expecting, probably used to, And so how was
that I was lacking something that was part of your heritage,
your cultural persona. You didn't have any of that. It
was that affect you. It was terrible. It was in
a sense meaning that it was a sense of an
absence that could not be fulfilled by anything else. So eventually,
for instance, I found halapineus. But halapineos have a very

different kind of a heat and a flavor than say,
in India, what we are used to is what would
be equivalent of seth high elise. Okay, And of course
that itself is an interesting story. Chili's of course a
new world. They go to the old world and they
are everywhere and think about Thai food without chilies, Indian
food without chilies. Right, it's crazy, and which is a
kind of partly what makes food exciting is this kind

of a cross fertilization of different ingredients from different parts
of the world and different kinds of techniques. And in
my case, I had to find analogs for it, you know.
And the analog was the closest analog was jalapenias. But
they never gave me that satisfaction. So I would come
all the way to New York City to go to
Patail Brothers so that I can buy my chilies, okay,

and then go back to sunny Binghampton where I was
doing my doctoral work, and then use it and kind
of cook with it. But the upside of that, that
absence and hunger was an attempt to find analogies, attempt
to work with it, and for me, that drove me
deeper and deeper into cooking. When I first came from
Indian in fact, I was a low middle class Indian kid,

being a male. I never I did not know anything
about cooking, you know. And so partly is this nostalgia
and partly this absence that I could not find this
food in the most of the cheap Indian kind of bunglades.
She run Indian joints that were in this town. There
were three of them, okay, it was none of the
food was no good at all. None of this food

was comparable to because cooking they were trying to please
an American powers. Yeah, and again it's again low skill,
you know, relatively poor ingredients because no one is willing
to pay more than and so basically these are mostly
cooked by people who don't otherwise cook, you know. And
so for me was that was not good enough. So
I had to kind of kind of work on that.

So this absence in some ways became the memory of
that absence. So red chili flakes didn't do it for it,
actually flakes do it. I mean, some things works well
about rac chuli flakes, like a chart or something, right,
but a lot of every day like my mom say, uh,
fish curry with the mustard sauce, you know, fresh round mustard,

a little bit of ginger, a little bit of garlic,
and a lot of green chilies, okay, and you just
basically almost like steam it, okay. And so that was
just impossible to get it anywhere. No one was doing
it in terms of an Indian restaurant. And second, not
not that any of the red chilies would not play
that role of replacing that that green slightly citrusy kind

of the green chili tastes more complex, more interesting, just unique, absolutely,
and what were you missing by not having those ingredients?
So part part of it was this kind of um um,
missing my food, missing the ability to make my food
and and linked with it. And therefore what were you

missed exactly? Really, what what I was missing was the
kind of a sensory memory of another place, you know,
sensory memory of my personhood. So in some ways, what's
really missing was a set of Because think about food,
right is, food is the way we incorporate the external

world into ourselves, which becomes us. That's what culture is
all about. There's no other object we absorbed like that.
So our sense of personhood anywhere in the world is
built on these habitual, everyday palettes, okay, and flavors and senses.
The way we think about all the senses we use

in eating of food, say in this case, h fish,
say trout with mustard, sauce with green chilies. Right is
the it's it's the it's the palette, it's deep inside us, okay,
it's inside us. The smell, the nose, especially retro nasal smell, okay,
and of course touch, I I still do when I

am eating Indian food, I still use my fingers directly
because forks feel like a cold, metallic barrier to that taste.
Okay and uh, while chopsticks are another kind of access
to it. Most probably very difficult to eat noodles without
either fork or chopstick. That's why I'm in. By the way,
in an Indian cuisine, there's hardly any noodles. Okay. And

but again, this kind of this whole what you can
almost call what an anthropologist David Sutton calls synesthesia. How
all your senses are pulling together and pulling together into
some sense of personhood. And that personhood, remember, is my
relationship to other substance and my relationship to other people.

And that's what food is about, Okay, food in in
good company, or say, think about a glass of wine.
I enjoy a glass of mine by myself, but enjoying
a bottle of wine with a couple of friends, it's
almost a totally different thing. It's a completely different thing.
And that's that's I think where a lot of Western
esthetic theory misses the point. A lot of wine tasting

connossurceship misses the point that we're trying to find the
right taste in the right taste wheel. Okay, if only
we can identify the aromatics, you know, and then then
of course the year and the vintage and the grape
we are on top of it. What often it misses
is that context, context of a substance that is changing
our mind by the way right through intoxication. That's why

it's particularly kind of particularly powerful. But in the company
of others, and so that is what food ah, what
was missing. What was my loss was in a sense
almost a loss of personhood embedded in a series of
relationship to other species and people. When we come back,

Dr Ray discusses isolation versus connection Richard Wrangham's book Catching Fire,
How Cooking made Us Human, excessive individualism, the real reason
for food fads, and the lessons of our friend Tony Borden.

It goes much further than the fact that food brings
us together. I mean, I've always liked that that as
you say, drinking glass of wine by it's a perfect example,
drinking glass wine by yourself, a great glass of wine.
It's a pleasure, but it's solitary, and there's after a
point it's yeah, it's a mark of an alcoholic, right,
it becomes dysfunctional after point. It's good. I enjoy white

by myself sometimes, but it's like that sociality, you know,
if you take sociality out of the food. I mean,
that's why my department Nutrition and Food Studies, I think
our insight is this, don't worry about the nutrients, unless,
of course you're sick in a particular way. You need
to pay attention to certain nutrients, exclude them, include them,
but otherwise, in general, eat everything in moderation, drink everything

in moderation in company of other people. So you talk
because you talk, you don't stuff your mouth, okay, And
so the depth of pleasure brings satiety sooner than you
say if you drink a gallon of soda. And that's
one of the big problems. We're drinking all our calories

and in in isolation, so we're never happy. You're trying
to fill that gap by stuff, okay. Instead of that,
use stuff to connect with other people and sociality. If
you can do that, that's probably the best advice one
can give us a nutritionist to a person, eat with others.
Great advice, perfect advice. Um, we drink a gallon of

soda by ourselves. We eat in our cars. We go
through the drive through and are isolated, and we're hungry
for that connection and keep eating more. Yeah, yeah, more isolation.
And we had never tried to We try to fill
it and cannot. It's kind of a funny way of
laws up with stuff. You know. I'm sure you're familiar
with the book Catching Fire, How Cooking Me this human?

And one of the great points that he makes is
that food socialized us. Um, you couldn't you couldn't be
an asshole. You wouldn't get any food. Yet you had
to work way to work together. And then once we
worked together, then we would share the food. Um. I
even talked to him about this. He said, yes, that
we weren't shoving pounds of roughage sort of throats. It
allowed us to develop the nuanced vocal anatomy required for

complex language, and we would do this around food. So
it's very it makes anthropomorphic sense, and we would do
well to heat what made us human in the first place.
And that's Richard Random's work is and and it's kind
of fantastic about how it changes our physiology. It changes
our brain chemistry, it changes that connectivity. And at the

end of it, just like think about food is a language,
Your food is a language. Can you speak a language
on your own? You can't. You have to talk to
someone else. And it is that sociality and that collaborative action.
I think in some ways part of a price we
are paying for is excessive individualism right now and then
just me consuming stuff which I think is right, which

I personally think is that's another problem of what is
often called nutritionism or all these fads. Let's talk about
that a little bit. I get kind of crazy about
these fads. Are is an attempt I think it's kind
of a desperate attempt to have a rule, okay, because
many of us now, especially in the large cities, often
do not have a kind of a social rule about

who to eat with what to eat when we can
eat anything, because the economy brings it was anything at
any time and with no one at all, So there
are no rules. There're no no no rules. And what
that creates that some sociologists call is a sense of
kind of a disorientation enemy. Okay, and how do you
then fix it? You fix it by making up rules, okay,

so that you're only going to have pomegranate. Okay, you've
heard that is good for you, so you eat only
that or a lot of that, and all these cleanses
you have, there's some amount of kind of work. If
you drink enough, if there's enough liquids in it, and
if you have enough rough edge in it, it will
do you some amount of good. But we don't need
to go through a cleanse for a diet to be.

In fact, cleansing a standard diet is very cleansing, okay.
And it's kind of driven by this hunger for rule
where we have basically this omnivorousness is eat anything at
any time. And it's all about an individual question. By
the way, it's a funny way where we have individually
a lot more rules now and social really know a

few rules. I think it is good to bring back
some social rules about which which Richard Random's workpoints to,
which allows us to do a little more collaborative work,
which is also we see by the way in our
political system, which is inability to collaborate because we have
become so hyper committed to our individual even it's an

ethical view or an aesthetic view that we are not
allowing usself to engage without us and develop a collaborative
view of ourselves. I think it is symptomatic of what
we have done in the domain of food is what
we are doing in the domain of politics too. You know,
you started out this conversation so optimistic, and so I thought, God,
he just loves humanity, and it's all good. And now

we get to America and it's politics, and it's food
and our cleanses and our Paleo diets and our Pascotine
diets or whatever they are. I don't know. I've never
liked the diets, but it's um. I've never heard it
said that. It's because we have of anything about anything
and everything to available to us at all times, and
so we need some rules. Otherwise it's sort of anarchy. Absolutely,

Who's to make those rules exactly? So you can make
it individually, like we're going about now, Let I have
a million rules, and when you invite me, I'll tell
you all the things I don't eat, all the things
I might eat, all the things that I'm sensitive to, Okay,
Or you could have a kind of a broader rule
like you have in kind of most religious communities, for instance,
which is this, I can have my rules at home.

But when you invite me, okay, what are you give
me to eat? I'll eat. But by the way that
you can also make it a religious rule. Buddha's rule
was that he said, you should be a vegetarian. Okay,
but if you are a guest and the host offers
you anything the host offers you, including meat, is absolutely
fine for you to eat. Because at that moment, sociality

trumps your individual kind of your individual ethical choices. We
have inverted that in the American society. Now all of
us have a huge number of individual rules, very few
rules of sociality, you know, and I think one can.
We probably will not be able to go back, obviously
from this moment of hyper individuality, but we have to

sacrifice a bit of our individuality for more sociality. How
do you account for the fact, then, given this vast
individuality is the sort of hyper individuality and the fact
that perhaps our most o our most gifted food journalists,
uh and perhaps one of the most his biographers said,

and I don't think he's wrong. One of the most
amer men in America. We knew only after he committed suicide.
Tony bourdain Um was beloved for eating everything. He was
beloved for taking all that culture in um. All the
people beloving him are those very isolated people. Is there

a contradiction there? Excellent question, and I think there might
be in some ways. Isolation here is on a different register, Okay.
And so for I saw it as, of course, after
the fact I've just met him, I met him like
three times. I think individually, very friendly guy, very nice guy.
And I think his hunger, his omnivorousness, was a bit

of a symptom of an attempt to reach out and connect, okay,
from that isolation. So for him, what we saw was
in some ways the other side of the attempt, the
compensation for it. In some ways, I'm just arguing it
as a socioloist or as a psychologist, okay, because of
course I don't know him individually, I don't know his psyche.
I see it as kind of a symptom of this, uh,

this hunger, this quest for new By the way, that's
the other side of it. I'll give you an example.
My parents. My parents are both about eighty years old,
to live in a small town in east coast of India.
They're more or less eat the same food every day
for the last seventy years at least, and I kind

of since I've been born about the last fifty years,
I know they probably eat about the same five six
seven things. To give us a daily menu, yeah, so
breakfast would be homemade chappati and Bengali it's called routie,
and maybe some sorted green vegetables with Bengally five spies.
Bengal five spies would have fendo Greek come in in

it a little very little, and uh, onion seed and
fennel in it, and kind of five kind of spices
sorted quickly and a cup of tea. Okay. Lunch would
be rice or handmade chappatti, again called routine. And uh,
my mother has is totally vegetarian now because she's a

kind of a believer, deeply believer in religion, and none
of her children are that religious. So she compensates by
in fact fasting, okay, And so you remembered in this case,
her prayer is a bit like buying insurance, okay, and
she does it. And so she has given up basically
all meat and fish, but she would cook fish because

of you, because of me. You're responsible for your mother's exactly,
And of course that's a very By the way, Indian
Hindu way of responding to adversity is to sacrifice stuff.
I mean, Gandhi was kind of a terrific example of that.
So she would cook, say fish or meat, goat meat.
In India, we are Bengalis and um and only seven

percent of Bengalis a vegetarian. And by the way, that's
another thing. Most Indians are also not vegetarian, though many
Hindus are vegetarian. In all, about thirty of Indians a vegetarian.
So we are one of those groups. We are Hindus
and we are non vegetarian. But in India, non vegetarian
mostly means you're eating fish and you're eating goat meat
most problem. Okay, So Mom would cook fish or or

meat curry mostly fish, a small piece of fish okay,
in a sauce and a side of green either with rice.
Such a party for lunch, and then it will be
very similar at dinner, okay, and meat or chicken. By
the way, chicken used to be When I was growing,
I was gonna as chicken used to be the very
expensive meat. And because of the new form of brawler chickens,

chickens are becoming now the most cheapest form of meat.
And in fact now chicken would be a little more often,
but still they would eat chicken about maximum months a week. Okay,
they would eat My dad would eat a piece of
fish maybe once a day. He's a vegetarian for one day.
And solidarity with my mom. My mom eats just vegetables

and dolls. In India, the most important source of protein
is going to be the legos okay, and so it's
a complex carbohydrate. Cord will be rice or or or
a wheat in most cases. And and then small piece
of animal protein almost as a flavoring agent. Okay, and
the new real proteins you're getting right, basically from the doll.

And she would make a doll, would be say with
ok at that pink doll. Okay, And then she would
put a little chalk which is the Indian style where
you eat a bit of fat and put a little
bit of comin and dried red chilies very high heat
and it smokes, and then you top it off. We
put it on top of the boiled dog, which is

called the chunk of the technique of adding flavor on top. Right,
it's a great technice, fantastic technique it's a very quick
fixing fact in terms of a technique. So she would
do that, so there will be a doll. So she
would cook maybe six, seven, eight kinds of doll through
the week. Okay, But for an outsider, you look at
doll's well that doll. For an insider, it's like, well,

yesterday's doll is a little different from today's doll. Okay.
So if broadly maybe five to seven things she's cooking, uh,
at any point of time, and so they eat the
same things over and over again, they see the small
internal variations, almost like a connoisseur of wine, between this
vintage and that vintage, and the grap this varietal and

that varietle Okay, we know it in the Western world
with wine because that is part of this elite culture okay,
what used to be elite culture now also middle class.
We don't know that about doll because it's not part
of most people's heritage in the US today. And that's
what I mean by this, that's another part of the structure.
By the way, I will spend a lot of time
trying to learn wine, but not so much about doll

because in my social world, most people don't know about
the So my reputation does not depend upon that. My
reputation is taked on whether I know enough about wine.
For instance, I want to talk about doll. Yeah, that's
a great subject um. The the the technique of flavoring
of fat with spices and adding it to the top

of the doll, seizing from the top or what do
you call it? Chalk spell it? Okay, So it's a
it's a transliteration. So c h A U K. That's
the Hindi world. But remember Indian. Every Indian is going
to use different linguistic language group like in being Ali.
You know it'll be it's a slight variation of a
drunk chunk. And so but if say, if you go

to I have no idea, what's the word in Tamil
for instance, other world, and I've heard the term tempering tempering, Yes,
tempering is a good translation. Absolutely, So that's the translation.
So use a fat and use a kind of flavorful
aromatics like spices and girls ginger and garlic and any
of the dry spices. An exact human put it on
top of it. I find it also kind of a

very efficient use of the fat, you know. So it's
a flavored fat that is spreading from the top. Yeah,
it's kind of it's beautiful, it's really it's beautiful and
uh and dal should be more by more people. So
it's good for you and it's good for the world. Yeah. Absolutely.
But coming back to the point, which is my parents
eat about the same food, okay, over and over again,

and they sometimes it will go out and eat Chinese food,
but that their senses other people's food is for other people, okay,
and our this is our food, and this is perfect
for us. Okay. It's almost the opposite of this omnivorousness okay,
but it comes with a sense of grounded nous in
a community. And the paradox, of course, in any of

this is anytime you have a sense of community, you're
going to have a sense of boundary about it. Not
anyone can come in and go out, So that the
upside of the individualism, that's part of your coming back
to the optimism, is that people are allowed to come
in and exit out of this lightly formed community that
we have in most American cases, Okay, in India, it's

much tougher to break into this community. Okay, you go there,
you visit, you spend a couple of years, you are
never absorbed into it. You're still seen as this foreign, big,
tall white guy. Okay, and I'll probably cook you try
to cook your chicken every day. You know. It's like
when I take my students, when I take my friends.
In fact, my parents respond to it their idea of

an outsider. So I think this is the other side
of it, which is you like you see in Europe
to by the way, which is traditionally constituted communities over
a long period of time. They don't change their food
habits that quickly, okay. But their food habits are also
not individualized. They're collected. So if you're a vegetarian Bengali Indian,

and you will stay that in most cases, okay. And
or if you're a fish eating Bengali, you will stay
that and not have for instance, beef for instance. Right.
And so it's a much more traditional culture. The upside
of traditional culture is this it allows you the rules
from outside, so you become a person by following the rules.

In individualized culture, you become a person in some ways
by having your individual rules. And that's, by the way.
That's a sociologist Emil dark him one of the founders
of sociology. The paradox he was looking at was this,
why do people affluent people in develop society is commit
more suicide than poor people in poor societies who obviously

suffer a lot more. What was his response? His response
was this, so the social glue, but we lose that,
we lose that social glue development without with with kind
of economic development, with urbanization, with mobility, the very thing
that is part of the American dream, both upward mobility
and lateral spatial geographical mobility, is also what creates isolation.

So in some stays Tony Bourdain's kind of a tragic
case of a beautiful person is is that in a sense,
his kind of suicidal tendencies now post factor looking back
at it is linked to probably the isolation and the
larger symptom of a culture, and may have nothing specifically
to do about his omnivorousness of food other than maybe

an attempt to kind of connect, and there was this
hunger in him. I think he was very successful precisely
because go to places and like no one else, connect
with people, and for him, food was the way to
connect with people. And so with this desperate search for
sociality and connection in a highly individualized world, and especially

in the celebrity world, where you can no longer hear
yourself think anymore. Right, You're so surrounded by sidekicks and
people who are making a living out of you, and
they're they're doing it by affirming whatever you want to say.
It's not real. Relationships always check you and limit you,
you know, and pendering relationships kind of you're surrounded. The
more power and more money you have in the social world,

you're surrounded by more pandering relationships, including what is good
to eat and your judgments about things. So I see
them as almost like an exemplar of what is beautiful
about American culture and the price we pay for some
of that beauty. I was listening to Mother Jeoffrey recently

and she said, well, Americans have to go to war
against you to love your food. That's the very interesting
kind of a point. What what it means is this?
She never elaborated on it, and I think, what what
did it like? Vietnamese food or the Japanese food or
Korean food. The foods that Americans have been fascinated about

are the are the foods of the people where American
especially soldiers have been have been placed and have engaged
with that culture, and then have come back home and
brought that culture. By the way, one of the most
understudied I think the radical place of adaptation of new
taste is the menu of the military. Okay, that changes

sooner than any of the other fads like pasta's um
um and Thai food and Vietnamese food. On the first
time we saw in some ways was in the American
military mess, which is people going out coming back with
the memory of this food. In Italian food, the Second
World War played very important role, okay. And so this

engagement with difference in this intimate one, which is basically
your two appetites right when you're at war. You're a man,
young man, Okay, your two appetites drives you from kind
of going mad. Basically one is food, the other sex.
And those two things are absolutely crucial to when you
place men in foreign context. So like that's why, by

the way, Americans came to like Thai food. The US
never went to war directly with Thailand, but the Vietnam
War led to R and R in Thailand because the
Thai Thai government was a pro American government. So American
soldiers would go to Bangkok, and that's where they discovered
kind of Thai food and Thai women, Okay, and they
come back to the US and they bring that hunger back, okay.

And that is what in some ways say Thai immigrants
where in some ways kind of cooking Thai food to
feed the American palette and the Vietnamese. In this case,
the Vietnamese is a group tie as a group carry
their um, the skills and the ingredients back and and
in some ways use the Chinatown networks to get the

produce that are missing, okay, so galan or you know
our our lemon grass. And there's a very interesting network,
Chinatown network, which is an old Chinese network okay, where
they had to produce their own ingredients, various kinds of
greens and better melon, et cetera, which goes back, say
from Chinatown here to Florida, the more tropical growing parts

of Florida where all kinds of ethnic farmers who can
be Korean and Chinese are growing these ingredients for the
Chinatown market. And the Chinatown market then becomes the mechanism
which brings together the aspirations of Americans who are coming
back and want to taste this, and the livelihoods and
memories and lives of immigrant groups that are feeding them,

in this case the Vietnamese or Thaie, and the change
a little exchanging now. I mean, think about say, in
New York City, I wouldn't find most of the Asian
or Land American ingredients that I want without Korean green grocers, okay.
And so the few thousand Korean green grocers are basically
the lynch pin of the New York City urban system

of providing me ingredients that are unusual and two small
in quantities for a large grocery store. You work on.
Grocery store is kind of a good example about it, right,
lessons from it. So they occupy this niche, okay, where
I get my green chilies. I go to your food exactly,
and I could in these places, right, And so they

usually are these groups of people who are slight outsiders
and who have have the finger on this kind of
range of demand that is not large enough for a
large grocery store with a very high rent to pay for, okay,
so much smaller. You'll always often find these Korean green
grocers in these small not high rise buildings, but small buildings,

old buildings where their rents a little more kind of
kind of manageable, and they are so these so the
answer that question, these cross ethnic networks. Okay, people who
are not at the heart of the American food system
are used by incoming group like me, for instance, where
I want my thie Chile, you know where I want

my say, what is that? The shalots for instance, Okay,
fresh ginger ginger root. When I first came to you
as ginger, you can only find this kind of powder,
ginger powder baking, you know, never fresh ginger root. And
so these I got it through the Korean green grocers
who are also supplying okay, other networks, the Chinese networks

they're part of, link to the Chinese network, linked to
the Mexican network, and who are also growing these produced
They know how to grow these produce and they know
the context of it and how they can be used.
So there's almost like this alternative ethnic network of produces,
wholesalers and retailers that supplied the American city and allowed

new immigrant groups to in some ways make an analogous
version of the food that they feed themselves with their
memories with and feed Americans with bottom line for me
and all. This is the fundamental fact that food brings
us together. Our ape ancestors ate in solitude, masticating raw

vegetation for hours every day. Once we began cooking our food,
we ate together, having shared in the work of hunting
and gathering food and the work of cooking. It changed us.
As Dctor Ray noted, Anthony Bourdain used food to connect
himself and all of us to the world and its people.
Raise advice on the way to eat is solid. Eat

whatever you want, drink whatever you want, in moderation, but
always with other people. Thank you, Dr Chris Ray. Check
out his most recent book, The Ethnic Restaurateur for Moron
Curries from India to Southeast Asia. Have a look at
the chapter called Curry in my new book, also called
From Scratch. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in

two weeks with another bonus interview while we put together
Season two of From Scratch with me your host, Michael Ruhlman,
Advertise With Us

Popular Podcasts

Dateline NBC
Stuff You Should Know

Stuff You Should Know

If you've ever wanted to know about champagne, satanism, the Stonewall Uprising, chaos theory, LSD, El Nino, true crime and Rosa Parks, then look no further. Josh and Chuck have you covered.

The Nikki Glaser Podcast

The Nikki Glaser Podcast

Every week comedian and infamous roaster Nikki Glaser provides a fun, fast-paced, and brutally honest look into current pop-culture and her own personal life.

Music, radio and podcasts, all free. Listen online or download the iHeart App.


© 2024 iHeartMedia, Inc.