I tune into The New Yorker’s cooking segment on their YouTube channel. Priya Krishna, the host, is walking viewers through her Mum-perfected recipes, while revealing the secret behind her favourite Indian food hack—chhonk. Cumin seeds sputter in hot oil as Krishna weaves in narratives of her heritage. Growing up in Texas as an Indian-American child of first-generation immigrants, she admits to not being proud of her culture. After an incident where she was told that her lunchbox smelled like rotten curry, she made her Mom pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all through her schooling. “It wasn’t until I became a food writer that the shame started to melt away,” says the 2021 Forbes Food & Drink 30 Under 30 list awardee.
Today, the 29-year-old seeks comfort in the fact that the food shaming served a larger purpose of getting her to embrace her brown-girl soul, and eventually landed her a cookbook deal. Krishna’s body of work—which has featured in prominent food magazines and YouTube channels—leads a new generation of global writers pushing for Indian food to take its rightful place in the mainstream. Her writing is rooted in her culture, and approachable in method, which is perhaps what makes her voice so uniquely relatable.
I catch up with the writer the day preceding Diwali, while she quarantines at her apartment in Brooklyn. Edited excerpts from the phone interview:
You grew up in an Indian household in Texas. How has the cultural amalgamation influenced your palate?
What was really amazing about living in Texas was that it is a melting pot of a lot of different immigrant communities. So, I was getting to experience Mexican, Vietnamese and Korean food, all while living in Dallas. While the food I had at home was rooted in Indian cooking, my Mom was always eager to try other cuisines and incorporate that into what she was cooking. We were always excited to discover ingredients that were new to us, you know. We were always experimenting with sriracha, chilli crisp, or dumplings.
Has your Mum’s style of cooking rubbed off on you?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, my Mom only learned to cook Indian food when she moved here. So, her cooking is very much a product of the U.S. And it’s both resourceful and creative. I would say I brought a lot of the same spirit to my own cooking, too.
You associate your dad’s version of dal with comfort food, and once Instagrammed about cooking it two weeks in a row. How do you think the recipe fares at any food joints in the U.S. as compared to your father’s kitchen?
Honestly, I don’t really eat a lot of dal when I go out. And I wonder if that’s intentional. Because dal is my comfort food, the food that I associate with my home. Once I’ve had too many restaurant meals or after I have been travelling for a long time, I come home and I make dal. I feel like my parents’ dal is a singular thing. I just haven’t tried that many versions of them.
Do you eat a lot of Indian food when you go to restaurants?
I try to eat in a really diverse way, you know. And I try to support as many Indian chefs as I possibly can. But I would say I don’t focus particularly on Indian food while going out to eat. I cook a lot of Indian food at home. And when I’m in Dallas, I feel like the best restaurant is my mother’s kitchen (laughs).
What in your view are some of best food cities in America with a vibrant and thriving culture?
One of my all-time favourites is San Antonio, Texas. I absolutely love how vibrant and diverse the food community there is. It is just a couple hours from the border with Mexico. So, you can get amazing, unapologetic Mexican food. I loved the carnitas (literally meaning “little pieces of meat”) at Carnitas Lonja. I also had the chance to go to Brownsville, also in Texas, which is a little town right on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Just experiencing all of these regional styles of tacos was awesome. I loved Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, which is known for their barbacoa.
Where do you head to chow down on some of the best street food in New York?
I feel like I eat at a lot of sit-down restaurants. Unfortunately in New York, a lot of restaurants have closed. A handful remain open for indoor dining or takeaways. I haven’t been to a restaurant since February, but when I did go out to eat, I loved visiting Haenyeo in Brooklyn for Korean fare, Superiority Burger in New York for vegetarian meals, and Uncle Boons (which sadly did not survive the pandemic) for Thai food. But I guess my favourite street food is the Tacos Morelos. They have a restaurant in Jackson Heights and they also have food trucks all around the city. I probably eat at that food truck more often than in any of the restaurants.
You seem to really like Mexican food.
I am from Texas (laughs).
Do you think traditional cuisines, especially from the East, are whitewashed to a certain degree in the West?
I think traditional or authentic has a lot to do with what you grow up with. When I think about how foods from the East have been codified in the West, a lot of it has been done by white writers. So, in that sense, yes. In a lot of ways it has (been whitewashed). But I’m also really proud to see the number of South Asian and East Asian American writers who are taking the pen and telling their own narratives in their own words. So, that’s really exciting to see.
When you travel, what kind of a foodie are you?
I usually spend several weeks asking friends that I trust for recommendations. I’ll make a list of great restaurants that I must go to. But you know, I’m not really here for the fine dining restaurants. I’m here to go where I can get the most delicious bite.
Is there a food destination that is high on your list?
I’ve always wanted to go to Istanbul in Turkey.
Can you think of a region specific cuisine that does not get talked of enough?
In America, I don’t think that most people are as educated as they should be about knowing the difference between regional Indian food. The sheer diversity of the cuisines—whether it is Rajasthani, Gujarati or Goan food—is pretty remarkable. I feel like I’m constantly learning and there’s still so much to learn. I’d love to see more regional Indian restaurants in the States.
How often have you visited India, and what are some of your fondest memories in the country?
I have relatives based in Delhi and a few hours outside of Delhi. Usually when I’m there, I’m going from family to family. But when I was able to go last year after a long, long time, I got to experience the capital as a tourist. I spent a whole day in Chandni Chowk wandering down the gullies, having dahi bhalla, golgappa and parathas. I went to Karim’s, which I’d never been to before. My stomach was like a bottomless pit (laughs). That was such a wonderful day.
Your book, Indian-ish, is an homage to modern Indian cooking, and is peppered with family recipes alongside suggestions to substitute ingredients readily available in America. Which are some of your favourite dishes?
I love kadhi. That’s one of my all-time favourites. Then there is the saag feta, which I probably had to make a hundred times last year when I was on book tour. It is so delicious that I never got sick of that dish. A wonderful fall dish that I can think of right now is my Mom’s kaddu. It has lots of lime and brown sugar.
Community feasts are an integral part of the holiday season. However, with the virus still looming, and with most restaurants having shuttered or adapting to outdoor dining, the celebrations this year look rather solitary. How does the future of the restaurant industry look to you?
I think the next year is going to be incredibly hard. It will require the customers to value labour, and it will require the government to understand that restaurants are one of the biggest employers in the country. In order for the restaurant industry to become more sustainable, I’d like to see the government invest in the restaurant industry itself and for restauranteurs to invest in their staff.
The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have resulted in an explosion of ‘at home’ food experimentation and culture. What has that journey been like for you? Is there anything that you have enjoyed learning to cook or recreate?
I absolutely love desserts, but I’m not into making them. Although, I will say the one dessert that I taught myself to make and am really proud of is kaju ki barfi. It’s my all-time favourite variety of mithai. I spent the first part of the lockdown with my family, and one day we decided to make the sweet. It’s a bit technical, but it’s rather easy since there aren’t that many ingredients. We found silver foil that my Mom had brought from India in the 1980s to go on top of the barfi. That was cool. And then we went to drop it off at all my uncles’ houses.
You’ve earned bylines in some of the most prominent publications including The New York Times and The New Yorker. What advice would you give to budding food writers?
I would say that persistence is important and it goes a long way. Many a times I was able to get assignments just by following up. It’s also about quality over quantity. I had a tendency to fire up as many pitches or applications as possible. But I feel the best strategy for me was to focus on a few places or a few ideas that I was really passionate about. I would go all in and be a bit more thoughtful about those rather than send a blitz of emails.
Your exit from Bon Appétit brought to light some of the underlying issues of racism and wide wage gap. As a journalist of colour, what reformations would you like to see in food criticism and writing?
I would like to see more people of colour in leadership positions who have decision making powers. Because I think, until we see more diversity and equity at the top, we’re not going to see a trickle-down effect.
What is next on the work front for you?
I will continue to contribute to a bunch of different publications from TASTE to the New York Times. I am also working on a cookbook with chef David Chang. There are a few other projects and I’m excited about what’s ahead.
Here’s a familiar Indian takeout staple—saag paneer—but with the ingenious substitution of large cubes of feta for paneer (a bit of inspiration from our 1998 family trip to Athens and near continuous consumption of Greek salads, which in Greece are just… salads). The first time I tasted it, it was like when I discovered you can do the nine times table with your fingers in third grade, which is to say, I just about lost it. Not only is my Mom’s spinach gravy infinitely more complex than that of most versions of saag paneer (I have been known to steal sauce swipes out of the pan when my Mom isn’t looking), but I also love the way the feta gets all soft and pseudo-baked, soaking in all the spices and melting a little into the gravy. And then you hit the pan with the oiled-up cumin and red chilli powder, which add a whole other level of richness. I would go as far as to say that I now want all future saag paneer I eat to be with feta. And I bet you will, too.
1. In a large pan over medium heat, warm, 1/4 cup of the ghee (or oil). Once the ghee has melted (or the oil begins to shimmer), add the coriander and cardamom and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, until the seeds start to brown. Add the onion and cook until it is translucent, 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in the ginger and garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add the spinach and cook until it is just wilted, 4 to 5 minutes.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and add the lime juice, green chilli, and salt. Let cool for 5 minutes. Transfer to a blender and blend into a chunky paste. Return the spinach mixture to the same pan and set it over low heat. Stir in 1/2 cup water, then gently fold in the feta, being careful not to break up the cubes. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes more to soften the feta slightly and allow it to soak up come of the spinach sauce.
3. While the feta cooks, in a small pan or butter warmer over medium-high heat, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons ghee (or oil) for 1 minute. Add the cumin seeds. As soon as (emphasis on as soon as—you don’t want your cumin to burn!) the cumin seeds start to sputter and brown, about 1 minute max, remove the pan from the heat. Immediately add the asafetida (if using) and red chilli powder.
4. Pour all of the ghee (or oil) mixture into the spinach and feta once that is done cooking.
Adapted from Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family © 2019 by Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna. Photography © 2019 by Mackenzie Kelley. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.