Moving across continents makes everyday practices such as cooking and feeding much more self-conscious, Krishnendu Ray tells us. A renowned food studies scholar, Ray talks to us about his changed perception of cooking, parenting, and his Didu’s jaggery-sweetened moorki.
Looking through Krishnendu Ray’s Instagram feed is an absolute delight. In contrast to much else on social media, which mostly feels manufactured, this feels somehow organic and spontaneous: popping with photographs of what he’s cooked at home, people he admires and whose work he is inspired by, big meals with family and friends, and a variety of books that have him hooked—from The Arabesque Table by Reema Kassis to Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. A professor of Food Studies at New York University, Ray is a reputed academic, as well as an author of books such as The Ethnic Restaurateur, and The Migrant’s Table.
But while we are familiar at The Locavore with Ray’s professional life, we’re curious about his personal life: what fuels his deep interest in food and culture, how his roots have impacted his identity, and his everyday experiments with cooking. Tapping into people’s memories always reveals so much about who they are, where they’ve come from, and where they aspire to go. In short, Ray—warm, open, and eloquent—feels perfect for our Food Memories section.
Excerpts from an email interview with food studies scholar Krishnendu Ray:
What is your earliest memory around food?
Only my thakuma (paternal grandmother) knew how to collect snails (গেঁড়ি /ଗେଣ୍ଡା) and greens from around our pond in Balasore, coastal Odisha. She would clean and sauté them with ramp-like wild alliums as an accompaniment for panta bhaat (fermented rice porridge), with a pungent drizzle of mustard oil and quartered raw purple onions floating on the lightly fermented rice water. That was a special treat that only she could deliver.
More regularly, I remember being fed by hand by everyone, sequentially, starting with my paternal grandfather, Dadu, at nine in the morning before he headed off to his perch as a criminal lawyer in a small town, down to my youngest uncle, chottokaku, barely ten years older than me, after returning from school in the late afternoon. In between were 15 kakus, pishis, fictive kin, dadu and thakuma, through the day, as they set out to work, college, or school.
I was fed sitting on straw mats on the floor of a north-facing veranda in my grandfather’s house, named Padachaya. They made tiny balls of rice with dals, shuktos, jhols, jhals, ombols, and chochoris (which in English, is often reduced to curries, but one is bitter, another sour, one fiery with fresh ground mustard and green chilies, another mildly stewed with a whole five spice mix called panch phoron), which they put between my lips using their fingertips. The dishes were cooked by my mother, grandmother, and a young domestic worker named Nabeen from Chakradharpur. He became a terrific cook, and taught my mother how to cook along with my thakuma. Nabeen eventually left to open a restaurant, and I’m told he did very well.
I recall equally fondly my Odia Didu’s (maternal grandmother) salty home-made moori (puffed rice) and jaggery-sweetened moorki (popped rice) that she sent home with us to Siliguri, Cuttack, Jamshedpur, Benares, and as far as Delhi every year, soon after the rice harvest. As an Odia-Bengali bilingual family, we shared both forms of orality, taste and talk. I would acquire more languages and tastes—Bihari, Hindustani, and even English over the next two decades. With every move over a 100 km range, I acquired a new tongue, and a new palate.
You are a professor of Food Studies, which obviously means that you spend a lot of time thinking and talking about food. What would you say led to this deep interest in food?
My failure to acknowledge what had gone into feeding me for two decades was the trigger for most of my subsequent work. The labour of women and domestic workers for a young man coming from a lower-middle class family that had gone unrecognised. My father was a salesman, my mother a stay-at-home mom. I had done progressive politics as a college student and worked with trade unions, but failed to go home and cook, or even recognise it as an essential form of reproductive labour.
In college, I was surrounded by feminists, many women who were trying to get away from the kitchen. Inadvertently, I learned the wrong lesson. I never went home and cooked. I could have recognised that gap in my skill set if I had read Gandhi closely, since he insists on cooking, cleaning, and being able to take care of our own needs. Alas! That became visible to me only after I came to the United States for graduate school when I was both forced to cook to be able to survive, and made to recognise its importance.
I came to food as an inverted anthropologist; where the uninterrogated aspects of my embodied culture were made visible by crossing a boundary where what I had taken for granted could no longer sustain me.
As children, there’s always something that we dislike, the very sight of which makes us groan. Was there something that you disliked as a child, but grew to like?
Eggplant. I still dislike it to my mother’s great regret because she loves it. Avocados—I hated it for a decade because of its pulpy, tasteless fattiness, which after 20 years I have come to love immeasurably.
What was the first thing that you remember cooking and feeling proud about?
Omelets at the Scout camp! The other kids loved it, and that was a revelation—the capacity to give pleasure through hard work. Unfortunately, I was never required to do that again. In contrast, my son has cooked with me since he was a few years old. He now cooks almost everyday on his own when he is away for college. I like that he can be autonomous like that.
It is one of the great tragedies of Indian parenting that as middle class people, we do not teach our children to do anything physically to become independent (compared to, and in contrast to symbolically with language and numbers). That is, of course, a function of a culture with cheap and easy access to poor people’s work. It makes us callous and disdainful towards them, and their labour. That fosters the real great divide in Indian culture that needs to be bridged.
You are the author of The Migrant’s Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali American Households. How do you think moving homes, across continents, has shaped your idea of food and nourishment?
The first thing that moving across continents does is that it makes an everyday practice—such as cooking and feeding—much more self-conscious. I cooked for friends in graduate school; we lived in a shared apartment. An Arab American friend Khaldoun from Jordan, a Jewish American friend Steven from New York, another Tamilian Indian friend Ravi, Elizabeth from Austria, and a number of others over time. So, learning to cook became an exercise in explicating similarities and differences between various forms of everyday culture.
Moving across continents has deepened my appreciation of continuities in my culture—that is roots, and changes in it. I use the doublet, roots and routes, to signify movement and tethering. Human beings have always moved—they, in fact, became Homo sapiens by moving through and out of Africa into the rest of the world, including India. The process is the same, just the rate of change has sped up with newer technologies of transportation. On the other hand, change is slowed down by newer technologies of communication that allow us to communicate, remember, recall, and reconstruct dishes from far away, right here.
Your relationship with your son seems to be closely tied to food in a lot of ways, from what we’ve observed on your social media pages. Did becoming a father change your relationship with food and cooking?
Being a father transformed my relationship to food and cooking. It taught me how to care for another, something that middle-class Indian men are never trained to do. I have cooked, cleaned, and fed my son since he was an infant. It has transformed my appreciation of the complex relationship between labour and love, that in our social system is carried by women and domestic workers.
There is quite a difference between being taken care of, taking care of oneself, and taking care of another. I learned those lessons slowly. One of which is to abandon the false pursuit of perfection, and another was the sharing of responsibilities and pleasures of the labour of love, not as a caricature of a self-sacrificing parent (as Indian ideology is replete with), but as a self-sustaining one.
Parenting is what has taught me how to take care of another, and of the future world for that another, as one takes care of one-self as the provider. That can only be done with the help of others, and social infrastructure such as playgrounds, sidewalks, kitchens, clean water supply, clean air, schools, and a healthcare system. Raising Rudra needed love and hard work from myself, my community, and the cities and states I lived in. I could not have kept my job and cooked and cleaned for my son without schools and access to pediatricians. It takes a village to raise a child. I appreciate that much more now.
This is a question we love asking, especially to people who enjoy cooking. What is the most labour-intensive dish you have prepared?
Fascinating question! Almost all my cooking is done within 40 minutes or so on most days because I have to cook, feed, and clean up while also finding time to prepare for my lectures, do research, and publish books and articles. I have done that kind of labour-intensive cooking only on weekends, or on vacation with friends, such as when we made manti (Central Asian dumplings) with a yogurt dish. The folding and pressing and cooking was endless.
The most labour-intensive dish I have made is probably from The Kār-nāme (The Manual) compiled by Hāji Mohammad Ali Baqdādi, a cook by profession, hence the moniker Bāvarči, around 1521CE. The manuscript survives at the Central Library of the University of Tehran in Iran. It has 103 pages, and is written in black naskh script with titles in red (Hassibi & Sayadabdi 2018: 11).
We had to make a kebab with chicken, but without modern-day food processors. We had to pound, and pound, and pound the meat, the spices, and other aromatics into a pulp. That was excruciating! It was accompanied by a rice pilaf with a chewy mastic on it. That was very flavourful, but it was like eating an aromatic rice dish with pieces of chewing gum in it! It underlined the importance of mouth-freshening smells to the Indo-Persian gustatory aesthetic.
Another one might be the braised short-rib with creamy potatoes. You have to sear each side for five minutes each, add potatoes cut side down and cut onions, a whole bulb of cut garlic, chillies, cumin, fennel, and coriander seeds. After which it has to be roasted for another 40 minutes. Then, you make a sauce of chicken broth, lemon, vinegar, and the fatty bits and pieces stuck to the bottom of the Dutch oven. Finish and serve with fresh sprigs of thyme. That takes a few hours.
Tell us about three things in your kitchen that mean something to you, objects you’ll always hold close because of a memory, or sentiment.
A terracotta bowl that my son made on a wheel with his hands, which I use as a salt container. I need to feel the salt between my fingers for texture and volume. A tiny Indian pressure cooker that my sister-in-law gifted us which became essential for chounk, and frying in small amounts of oil.
A stunning red Le Creuset enameled cast iron braiser gifted by our very close friends that is beautiful, durable, and makes the tabletop explode with colour. And, a sturdy pair of locking, spring-loaded, steel tongs that I do not understand how people manage to cook without. It is essential for large cuts of meat, fish, and vegetables. The sentiment here is efficiency and necessity, hence beauty!