When 27-year-old Hetal Vasavada was faced with a rice challenge on “MasterChef” Season 6, she knew exactly what to do. “Everyone’s panicking, like, ‘I don’t know what to make.’ But all I could think about was khichdi,” she says with a laugh.
Vasavada intimately knows the power of good khichdi. When she was a child, her grandmother would feed her heaping spoonfuls of the South Asian staple made from rice and lentils — with “a crap-ton of ghee,” of course. She and her family also attended khichdi parties, where other families proudly shared batches of their generational recipes with one another. And despite going through a period where she simply had enough of the hearty comfort food, she found herself seeking it out again when she left home for college, and throughout the years after. It ultimately became a career-defining tool for her, emerging as one of the best dishes in that round of ”MasterChef.”
Of course, the show’s pantry was not the haven of Indian spices found at her parents’. So Vasavada made do with what she had: green lentils instead of mung beans and roasted almonds instead of cashews to top the dish. “I mean, that is the essence of khichdi — it’s whatever you have on hand.” The dish impressed judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Christina Tosi, but everyone else seemed to be rather agitated.
“I got shitted on by both sides: by Indians, for not making everything ‘authentic’ ... I mean, I was just working with my constraints,” she says, of the comments she received online. “Then Americans were like, ‘You can’t be MasterChef because all you do is cook Indian food.’”
Vasadava has written a bestselling cookbook and her food blog @milkandcardamom, an amalgam of unique Indian fusion recipes, has a huge and dedicated following. But her experience is far too familiar to many among the diaspora, who often get told they’re neither American nor South Asian enough.
I can relate. As a child of Indian immigrants who delicately balanced assimilation with cultural preservation, I struggled with my Hindi. I understood it perfectly, but my American-accented and broken “Hinglish” responses inspired sympathy chuckles from more fluent speakers. I could dance, but not with the same instinct and flair as Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai or my friends who were born with The Gift. South Asian friends in high school and college took me to garbas, dressed up with me for Diwali parties, and threw colored powder at me during Holi — but I couldn’t ignore the uneasiness that begged the question, are you Indian enough to be here?
In my early 20s, I’ve been reflecting on that question more. And, like so many other quandaries, it led me to TikTok and Instagram.
I stumbled upon FoodTok and Foodstagram, which sit at the most delicious corner of the internet. The short videos of South Asian fusion recipes—chutney grilled cheeses, masala burgers, butter chicken wings, and so much more—inspired stomach rumbles. But they also evoked a sense of nostalgia for my own mother’s Indian fusion cooking: veggie quesadillas spiced with garam masala, paneer coated in Indonesian sambal oelek chili paste and soy sauce, and paninis stuffed with aloo masala (savory, spiced potatoes) and cheese.
For many who grew up in the South Asian diaspora, desi-fied food made up an entire culinary subculture. It was a fragrant, garlicky and ginger-y, melting pot of cultures served up at the dinner table. And from that movement, South Asian American, South Asian Canadian, and any other concatenation have actually become identities on their own, rather than haphazard products of the two cultures they represent.
Palak Patel is the foodie behind @thechutneylife, a blog she describes as a visual love letter to her identity. Her mother, who’s from the Indian state of Gujarat, cooked fusion food from whatever was in the pantry to satiate her kid’s cravings for “American” food, which often turned into a grand, muti-ethnic culinary affair. “My mom would make eggplant parm, for example, and there’d be mustard seeds, or cheddar cheese instead of mozzarella,” she tells me.
Patel fell in love with the blends of flavors as an adult—especially the savory, mouth-watering union of Indian and Mexican food. “I’d want to make my mom’s enchiladas, and I never got her recipe, but I knew they had some sort of Indian touches in it. I’d Google ‘Indian-style enchiladas,’ and I’d find absolutely nothing,” she says.
It was this void that led Patel to create The Chutney Life—that, and the need to convert her mother’s ambiguous pinches of this, and her handfuls of that to finite ounces and cups. “Her kitchen didn’t have measuring cups, so I’d take all of mine, then have her put the spices on a plate, to literally scoop it back up and measure it.” Though the process wasn’t easy, Patel’s tedious documentation of her mother’s recipes came to codify her cultural identity. For that, the food that defined her childhood, and by extension the subculture of brownness it represents, is permanently etched onto the fabric of the internet.
TikToker Shihan Chowdhury, who immigrated from Bangladesh to Maryland when he was five, also thrived at the intersection of South Asian and American food culture. “My dad would buy those plain cheese frozen pizzas, and he’d put desi toppings on it: literally masala chicken or caramelized onions,” he recounts. “Then, when it came out of the oven, he’d sprinkle green chili peppers over it.”
Those little green chili peppers were found in nearly every dish Chowdhury ate growing up—so his TikTok handle, @chilipeppercooks, is an ode to the small-but-mighty flavor bomb we all know well. Today, they’re featured in many of his desi-esque recipes, like masala potato chips, cheesy beef samosas, and tandoori chicken melts.
But, what is authenticity really? Being transparent about how our upbringing shaped the way we eat, speak and live feels about as authentic as you can get.
Chowdhury grew up watching his mother and grandmother cook to provide both sustenance and affection. But it was when he watched Chef’s Table on Netflix, an Emmy-nominated show that marries chefs’ culinary innovation with their personal stories, that his perception of cooking fundamentally changed. “It was then that I realized, it’s not about making really good food and eating it. It’s an art form,” he says. And this art isn’t an imitation of life; instead, it’s instead a reflection of how we live it—in a beautiful (and sometimes cacophonous) harmonizing of two cultures.
“Having a western upbringing, we already grew up eating so many different types of food,” Chaheti Bansal, the creator behind @rootedinspice, tells me. “We’re able to go to an Asian or Hispanic grocery store and get ingredients. The accessibility we have is unlike any other generation before us.” And while it’s all pretty revolutionary, haters never fail to do what they do best. For Vasavada, Bansal, and most creators, some of the comments on their videos shun their culinary choices and attack them for being inauthentic.
But, what is authenticity really? Being transparent about how our upbringing shaped the way we eat, speak and live feels about as authentic as you can get. “First of all, Asian cuisine is so regional and diverse. Just because my mom makes, let’s say, dal in a way that’s authentic to our family, your family might make dal in a completely different way — and that’s authentic to you,” Bansal says.
Bansal’s mother is from Jaipur, which has an arid culture leading to lentils and legumes dominating diets, while her father comes from Kolkata, home to India’s oldest port and where fish is a staple. But it was her mother’s experimentation in the kitchen, blending these regional flavors, that made Indian food Bansal’s favorite cuisine growing up. What emerged for her was a distinct micro-cuisine, if you could call it that — one that’s unique and authentic to her family.
For TikToker Bilal Bhatti of @goldengully, the evolution of a recipe is both crucial and inevitable. “It’s hard to say whether my current recipes are 100% ‘authentic,’” he notes. “Maybe my great-grandmother swapped an ingredient in a recipe given to her grandmother, but then my great-great-great-great grandmother might say, ‘Nah, this ain’t authentic.’”
Bhatti describes a kind of oral tradition that celebrates each generation bringing something new to the table — and emphasizes the act of passing down recipes rather than the final product. The latter is something he does through his TikTok series “Mama.” In it, his mother, who immigrated from Pakistan to Canada, walks us through making regional dishes like pakora curry, paya, and a fried fish dish popular in Karachi, where she’s from. For those in the diaspora watching, these clips take us home: the sizzle of white onion in hot oil, the gentle crunch of cilantro being chopped, and the soft-spoken instructions in Urdu, her native tongue.
Though dishes may look different between families and generations, our generation is still able to wield the same spirit as our food-loving ancestors. “Growing up, anytime something good happened, you’d see my mom making seero in the morning,” Vasavada reminisces. “There’s that love of wanting to celebrate accomplishments, then sharing it with others.” For her and her peers, each bite is a vignette of the food, kitchens and people who raised them. To share our food with others is to share a piece of ourselves.
This art isn’t an imitation of life; instead, it’s a reflection of how we live it — in a beautiful (and sometimes cacophonous) harmonizing of two cultures.
If food is a love language, these creators have helped me speak it into existence as I explore my brownness with new confidence. These days, I find myself asking my mother to save some garam masala for me when she makes it in batches; planning trips to South Asian grocery stores in New York City’s Murray Hill neighborhood; blending herbs and spices together to remake my mother’s green chutney recipe, passed down from her own mother; and proudly sending pictures of my concoctions on my family WhatsApp. The positive reinforcement from my aunties and uncles in the U.S. and abroad just hits differently.
The South Asian diaspora isn’t a monolith, and neither is the food we create. For that, I have embraced the -esque, the -ish, the ambiguity, the gray space its aromas fill. Cooking this food — a peculiar yet nostalgic amalgam of spices, ingredients and memories — is like peering into a mirror. Looking back at me is a blend of two cultures, neither totally Indian nor American. But it’s 100% authentic.