Two years ago, Zahir Janmohamed and Soleil Ho met at a dinner party. While swapping stories about life as Americans of colour and work, what emerged was the podcast Racist Sandwich . Hosted by them individually or together, the podcast presents conversations about the nuances and issues surrounding race and gender in the United States through a universally understood medium – food.
The hosts invite writers, chefs, comedians, photographers and others to share unique experiences and outlooks that represent stories and lives which are mostly overlooked. “The mainstream American food media is pretty obvious about who their audience is: folks in the white middle- and upper class” said Ho. “In the podcast, the kinds of guests we bring in are people who have a strong connection to food as it relates to their creative work and identity. We aim for an intersectional political lens on our show, for telling stories that span the range of races, classes, and genders.”
Food as heritage
Both Janmohamed and Ho are American citizens. Janmohamed was born in California to Indian parents from the diaspora in Tanzania, and Ho to Vietnamese parents in New York. For both, racial differences were a recurring phenomenon in their lives from early on, with discrimination often being linked to food.
“When I was younger I realised that kids from non-white families often get teased about the kinds of lunches they would bring to school,” said Janmohamed. “Of course, my mom wouldn’t put a label on my lunch [that said] ‘Indian food’ but in the midst of other lunches, it seemed to stand out. If you point a microphone and ask someone to talk about their experiences of discrimination or alienation in America today, it may be a slow, even painful process, but if you ask – what did you eat, or cook today, what restaurant did you go to? What did you see, how did you feel? Then it becomes a whole lot simpler.”
In an episode titled Namaste, Motherfucker, Janmohamed was in discussion with Naben Ruthnum, a Canadian writer of Indian origin who authored the book Curry – Writing, reading and race. They talked about the word curry as an inauthentic term that has been used to brand an entire culture under a singular, distorted definition.
“My relationship to curry was my first real daily experience of being other, other than the way I looked,” said Ruthnum, in the episode. “It was also the part of my culture, or my parents’ culture that I learned to enjoy. But, I also used it jokingly to get ahead of the mockery, as a signifier of being different than the white people around me. I would use it to make jokes about eating curry, to cut their jokes about eating curry.”
The episode illuminates an experience particular to South Asians in the West, raising the question – how does it feel to be reduced to a dish? The podcast chronicles experiences to offer a narrative that is often humorous but always real.
“Soleil once told me that women chefs are more often than not pushed into pastry,” said Janmohamed. “It is this kind of baffling stuff that we want to talk about.”
An inclusive conversation
Though it began in May 2016 with a focus on Portland – a city on the West Coast of the USA, known for its liberalness in popular imagination – the podcast has now expanded its reach, and criticism to all parts of the country.
In an episode called Stop Asking Me About Kebobs with Yasmin Khan, a British chef of Iranian-Pakistani origin, the podcast discusses stereotyping and biased, hyped media depictions of countries like Iran. In another, Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about being American but writing for a non-white audience. In interviewing Ruby Tandoh – an ex-contestant on the Great British bake-off, chef and writer – the podcast examines being a queer, young woman in a white man’s industry and the frequent imperialism imposed on foods from non-European origins.
In the episode titled Do What You Wanna, Ho speaks to Tandoh about the representation of ethnic foods in the mainstream Western media, referring to a study published by the website Intersectional Analyst in which writer Lorraine Chuen asks: “Who gets to be the authority on ethnic foods?”.
“I think when people do these kinds of studies, they aren’t saying that no one can cook Chinese food,” said Tandoh in the episode. “I think it’s more about that these things are a two-way street, rather than (the white upper middle class) commandeering any culture you want.”
“There’s definitely a muddling of terms and definitions that happens mainly when people from outside of the culture write about or cook the food,” said Ho. “Like calling a soup with quinoa ‘pho’ or calling a biryani a ‘curry’. Not everyone can or should be an expert: you have to know the rules to break them.”
In an episode titled Lose Hate Not Weight, the podcast discusses fat-phobia in restaurants, and interviews Virgie Tovar — one of America’s leading experts on body image and fat-discrimination. In the episode, Tovar explains how restaurants are created for a small to medium-sized population, not keeping in mind people that are larger. “It’s something I think about a lot when I’m going out – whether spaces will be able to accommodate me, whether I’ll be able to feel comfortable there, if its somewhere I haven’t been before, I usually feel pretty anxious.” she said. “It’s difficult for me to relax.”
“Lose Hate Not Weight is one of my favorites,” said Janmohamed about the episode. “It was not an experience I was complete aware of, and it really moved me to know about it in such detail.”
Telling difficult stories
Racist Sandwich pays homage to the complexity of race, gender, food and identity in America, bringing a new outlook and nuance to the fore with each episode. While the podcast is based in America, the issues it discusses and its appeal is universal. As a review on Apple iTunes points out, it is “a critical look at food, with people of color talking to each other – [an] antidote to the often problematic conversations taking place in media”.
Racist Sandwich understands that a dominant ideology can conquer cuisine – but it also realises this that these issues can be discussed and battles fought. The podcast teaches not to stereotype and belittle and explains that the larger picture may in fact be a set of very small, diverse ones, all complete and complex on their own.
As of 2018, Racist Sandwich has completed one season with more than 40 episodes. As it enters its second season, its discussions have widened – but the focus on cuisine and food remain.
“A menu is a thing of great ability,” said Janmohamed. “You can tell a joke with a menu, you can trace histories with a menu. But also we found, menus and food can consequently be great sites for discussion. A lot of times we want to interview someone and they say no, and we’re not sure that a lot of people are listening to us. But as long as someone is listening, and we’re staying true to what we wanted to do, it’s all that matters.”