Kusuma Rao is the proprietor and chef of Ruchikala, where she specializes in Indian-Mexican fusion. She was a delight to talk to — we chatted about pop-ups, being "miscellaneous brown," inclusivity in the food scene, and much more.
Here are just a few highlights from our interview. For the full conversation, listen to Episode Three.
Growing up "miscellaneous brown" in Tucson, Arizona
Tucson's a very interesting place. It's so diverse, but there are a lot of pockets around the city. The neighborhood I grew up in was definitely lower-middle class, kind of the cusp of meth trailers. And there was a lot of white supremacist activity.
It was sometimes difficult for people to put their finger on what I was, so I felt like I was just given whatever ignorance of the day that that person had. And yeah, after 9/11, I was just Muslim, or just some hodgepodge monster or whatever.
The seeds of Indian-Mexican fusion
I definitely ate a lot of Mexican food growing up, even in the neighborhood that I was in. It's the best food that exists in Tucson.
It was the only food my parents really enjoyed, because there's just so many similarities in the spices, and heat, and acidity, and appreciation for bitterness.
American food was really hard for my parents to eat; there was just nothing in it for them. But Mexican food is so exciting — there's all these chiles, and cumin...and especially in Tucson, there's a lot of really bright acidity. And my parents are South Indian, and huli is a vital component in finishing a lot of South Indian dishes. Huli is sour.
It was really difficult for my family to be accepted. They spoke wonderful English, and my mother actually worked in customer service at a credit card company for a long time. And my mom minimized a lot of the racism she experienced in her day-to-day life and at work. But I definitely heard some of the things she had to go through, with people being angry about the way she spoke. That was always really hard.
I remember when we would go to Mexican restaurants, and the conversations that were had when people would talk to my mom about where she was from were always really positive. It felt like this beautiful cultural sharing. I remember my mom having these conversations — "you have tortillas, and we have chapatis! And this is how we do things!"
It was just beautiful to see my parents get excited about these crossovers, and actually have these more intimate conversations with people outside of their Indian community.
On white chefs opening "ethnic" restaurants
I cook a lot of food that doesn't come from "my people." And if my options were just limited to whatever a person's definition of traditional South Indian food would be, I don't think I would be very inspired to create menus every day.
But one of the things I feel that people don't think about very often is how personal it is for me. I grew up having to be ashamed of the food that I ate. This happens to a lot of Indian kids, where friends won't come over because your house smells funny.
A lot of non-American kids grow up with that experience of having to apologize for the food your parents eat. And growing up with that experience, where it wasn't okay for me to have the name that I have, it wasn't okay for me to have the name that I have, it wasn't okay for me to be brown...
Then, to all of a sudden jump into a world where there are white hipsters making food that your parents ate, that would have gotten them beaten up if they had eaten it as a kid? Their lives would have been so different had they actually grown up with that cultural experience.
It feels frustrating that that conversation can't be had. Because when I make food, it's impossible to separate the food from all these memories, and this experience, and even a lot of guilt on my end because I struggle with even calling myself Indian because I didn't grow up in India. I haven't been to India very many times. I always feel like I need to make it very clear that I'm not trying to pose as this authentic Indian experience because I don't really connect with that identity fully.
So when I see other people that don't have that moral conflict of selling something they didn't have a lot of personal experience with, or marketing for food businesses that use a lot of religious imagery of brown people to sell businesses...it makes me wonder what it would have been like for them to have had the experience of being the "other," and how that would changed how they market what they do.
On the food scene
I feel like Portland and the food scene is on a lot of steroids, and there are these concept factories that are throwing out, like, "pick one obscure alcohol and pick one obscure ingredient."
I'm a little scared for the future of food. I'm really grateful for social media in so many ways, especially for pop-ups. But I also think it's doing food a huge disservice.
I think food media is a little crazy right now. And food celebrity, I think, removes people from this connection with food that we got really excited about ten years ago.