I knew that Priya Krishna, author of Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics From a Modern American Family (I am predisposed to like any book with the word antics in the title), was smart and funny and focused, since I'd read her book. But I still wasn't prepared for the delightful, incisive, and revealing chat we had on this week's Special Sauce.
Perhaps the most obvious question to ask was what "Indian-ish" means. Krishna explains that the concept was inspired by her mother and the book's coauthor, Ritu Krishna, whose cooking Krishna describes as "rooted in Indian flavors, but [it] kind of pulls inspiration from all the foods she was encountering from her travels as a businessperson, to what she watched on PBS cooking shows, to just going out to restaurants."
The result was a balance between the practical and the creative. Krishna says her mother "had limitless ideas for how flavors went together. She had this amazing intuition, but she also didn't have time, so her recipes are this perfect marriage of 'I have all of these amazing ideas, but I've got 20 minutes to put dinner on the table, so what do I do?'" It was another editor, and not Krishna herself, who first recognized the potential for a cookbook on that theme- one that would, Krishna says, "dispel this notion that a lot of people have that Indian flavors and Indian food, that making that at home is hard or complicated."
Before she began her writing career, Krishna grew up the daughter of immigrants in Texas, who were intent on her having a classically "American" adolescence. "I feel like it's many immigrant parents' desire, by raising kids in the US, that they will lead different and hopefully better lives than they did. That's the reason why so many immigrants settle down in a new country. I think that my parents, even though they had these stringent rules, they fundamentally believed that and understood that, and they wanted us to go to prom and go to college, and to have a college experience. They turned a blind eye but knew that my sister and I went to parties, and they were okay with that because they were like, 'This is part of being an American kid.'"
We saved most of our discussion of Indian-ish for the second half of our interview, but to hear why Krishna calls the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shall We Dance? one of the most important movies of our time, and learn how she turned Cracklin' Oat Bran and baked sweet potato into dessert for a column she wrote on dining-hall hacks while at Dartmouth, you'll have to check out this week's- there's no other word for it- delightful episode of Special Sauce.
In part two of my far-ranging interview with Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan, we talked about his career in journalism and the ever-evolving world of food media.
Joe told me about his winding path to food journalism. After years of reporting local news, he eventually made his way to the Boston Globe. There, he became travel editor, but found himself yearning to write about food, instead. How did he manage to acquire one of the few coveted roles as staff food writer? He told his editor, “I’m going to leave… if anyone's listening and you're able to do this, make yourself indispensable and then threaten to leave."
At a certain point, it felt like his career at the Globe was stalling. So when the Washington Post came calling in 2006, Yonan listened. “I just said, ‘I really want to do it.’ I mean, it also was more resources, bigger staff. I thought naively at the time that the Post was in so much better shape than the Globe was.”
Little did he know, Joe was about to take on the monumental task of shepherding the Food section into the digital age, transferring thousands of recipes from the papers archive to the Post's online database. Since that was shortly after I launched Serious Eats, Joe and I would have long conversations about where food media was going. "You know, Ed,” he said, “I remember your advice having something to do with my mindset back then… I knew what you were up to with Serious Eats… I remember you told me about Twitter. I mean, you didn't tell me about it, but... I remember asking you. I was like, "You know, I don't know. Should I bother with this? Should I bother?" And you said, "You absolutely should bother."
Finally, we got around to talking about Serious Eater, which Joe had just finished reading on the train up from DC. "It's so much more dramatic than I had expected. I think for me what resonated was the passion and the drive to make something work in the face of all of these obstacles. I mean, just one obstacle after another. And just the commitment to keep going and making it work no matter what happened." After all, it’s not a story so dissimilar from his own.
I had a blast talking to Joe, and I think you’ll equally enjoy listening to this episode of Special Sauce.
It's always fun to have a longtime friend on Special Sauce because I always learn so much about the person sitting across from me, no matter how long I've known them. And that's just what happened when I sat down with Washington Post Food Editor Joe Yonan.
Yonan spent the first ten years of his career writing, reporting, and editing for suburban newspapers in the Boston area, during which time he learned a lot of valuable lessons about telling stories. "You know one of the things that reporting does," Yonan notes, "especially if you start out in a small place, is that you have to learn how to make a water-and-sewer board meeting interesting and relevant to people who have no interest in it."
Eventually, he got tired of hard news coverage, and so he did what many other people at the time did: He read What Color is Your Parachute?, the enormously popular self-help book. "You're supposed to sit in a quiet place and have a pen and a pad down and you're supposed to close your eyes and imagine yourself both working and happy, believe it or not," Yonan says, recalling one of the exercises in the book designed to help you find your calling. "And I got all set up to do it, I had the pen and paper and I closed my eyes and in five seconds I was like, 'Oh, it's food.' Food makes me happy, food has always made me happy."
I met Yonan when I went to Boston to promote my pizza book in 2005, and I took him on a Boston tour de pizza for the Globe's food section, and during our conversation he reminded me of a sage bit of wisdom I gave him way back then, which I'd completely forgotten. "I don't know how many places we went to," Yonan says, "I mean, it was ridiculous. I remember at one point we're on place eight or nine or something, and I am suffering physically...Do you remember what you said to me? I've repeated it hundreds of times since then. You said to me, 'Joe, the good ones learn to eat through the pain.'"
For anyone interested in writing about food, becoming any kind of journalist, or just coming to terms with who you really are, or even about learning how to eat twelve slices of pizza in a three-hour period, this episode of Special Sauce with Joe Yonan is required listening.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/05/special-sauce-joe-yonan-1-1.html
In part two of my conversation with Xi'an Famous Foods cofounder Jason Wang, he and I talked mostly about the struggles and challenges involved in first getting the business off the ground, and then expanding.
The restaurant's original location, in a subterranean food court in Flushing, Queens, had a napkin problem. Money there was so tight, Wang said, "We had to cut back on things.... Back in the days, I'll be honest with you, we didn't give out napkins. We didn't have a napkin dispenser.... People were like,'Oh, you guys are so cheap, you don't give napkins out.' Fights started out because of napkins in Flushing."
Wang knew it was important that both Chinese and non-Chinese customers enjoy the food. "It's important for our food to continue to appeal to Chinese eaters that are in the US directly from China....They know what the food is supposed to taste like. If we have their, sort of, following, that speaks to the authenticity of the food. If we have other folks that are in New York City, we're lucky to have a lot of guests who are more adventurous. They're willing to try different things, try something new every night."
The keys to the restaurant's success? "Our food is very approachable. It's very reasonably priced. People can try without feeling like it's a big risk. It looks, smells good, people talk about it, so they'll come. Now, when they do come, there's a positive feedback effect that goes on. The Chinese people will see the American eaters, and the American users will see the Chinese people there. They'll look at each other, and the Chinese people will be like, wow, Americans like this stuff? That must mean it's high-quality, it's well packaged, because that's what the perception, the stereotype of Western products is.... Then the Americans will see the Chinese people, they'll be like, there's, like, a Chinese grandma that's just sitting there eating. She doesn't speak any English.... Yeah, it's legit."
As Jason and his dad, who cofounded Xi'an Famous Foods with him, began to expand the company—which now has 15 locations across New York City—they took seriously the challenge of preserving the qualities that had made it successful in the first place. "For our part, as we expanded—there's always the whole stereotype of that C-word, 'chain.' When you become a chain, it becomes very washed down, you start losing the soul of the food. My day-to-day job is, these days, really is to maintain that soul.... It's something I'm obsessed about. I think that's what we do on our part. My father's equally obsessive."
But Wang isn't all business, and he brings lots of smile-inducing surprises to this episode—including where he was headed to lunch when we finished talking, and which outspoken rapper/singer he wants at his last-supper table. You'll learn all that and more when you tune in.
One of the many reasons I love doing Special Sauce is I get to interview people who shed light on various parts of the food culture I know very little about. People like Jason Wang. Wang and his father, David Shi, are the co-propietors of Xi'an Famous Foods, the fast-casual Chinese food concept that introduced New Yorkers to dishes like as lamb burgers, liang pi "cold skin" noodles, and the legendary lamb face salad that's unfortunately no longer on the menu.
Wang emigrated with his family from the city of Xi'an, China, when he was eight, and life was not easy for the Wang family. "My father's work life in the U.S. is kind of what you would imagine it to be [for] someone who is a middle-aged immigrant from China who doesn't speak any English," Wang says. "There's only a few things that he could really do in this country, and one of those would be working in a restaurant."
Wang's father would be away for weeks or even months at a time working at restaurants all along the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, the family lived in Queens, NY, in the basement of someone else's home. His dad "would take a bus somewhere, and someone would pick him up from the restaurant [he was employed by], and he would basically live in the boss's house with the other workers," Wang says. "So in middle school and high school, I wouldn't see him for at least one or two weeks [at a time]."
Wang's family really wanted him to get a college education, and his mom and dad ended up saving up enough, when combined with some scholarship money, to send him to Washington University in St. Louis. While he was away at school, his father finally was able to leave his itinerant restaurant work behind. Shi had saved up enough money to open a bubble tea franchise in one of the subterranean food courts that dot the Chinese-American enclave of Flushing, Queens. And that's where X'ian Famous Foods was born in 2005.
Besides selling bubble tea, Wang says his father also "sold some food on the side from our hometown, namely our cold skin noodles, our liangpi, the burgers, and a little bit of the noodles. It was just a side thing." And, after a brief stint at Target after graduation, Wang joined his father.
During our conversation, Wang offers up a concise description fo the defining elements of the food he and his father make and sell. "Traditionally," Wang says, "every region of China has a few words to sum up their food. Like, Sichuan is 'mala,' so it's spicy and tingly. That's their profile. Our profile is xiāng là and suān. So 'suān' means sour. 'Xiāng là' means fragrantly spicy. So that's kind of how our food is. If you've had our food before, you see a lot of use of the black vinegar, a lot of use of, of course, the red chilies."
Wang's story, his father's story, and the story of Xi'an Famous Food's beginnings, had me riveted. When you listen, I think you'll be mesmerized as well.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/05/special-sauce-jason-wang-on-the-origins-of-xian-famous-foods.html