E3: Pop-ups, Dudebros, and Indian-Mexican Fusion (with Kusuma Rao)

Zahir and Soleil are back! In our intro, we discuss the food media's new obsession with poke, Anthony Bourdain in Vietnam, and chaat. After that, Portland chef Kusuma Rao of Ruchikala talks to us about the pop-up life, growing up Indian in Tucson, dudebros and the sexualization of food, and identifying as "miscellaneous brown."

Produced by Alan Montecillo. Music by AF the Naysayer and Blue Dot Sessions. Photo of Kusuma Rao by Liora K Photography.

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Soleil Ho  Welcome to “Racist Sandwich,” the podcast about food, race, class and gender. I’m Soleil Ho.

Zahir Janmohamed  And I’m Zahir Janmohamed.

Soleil  So today, we’ll be talking to Kusuma Rao. Her business is Ruchikala. She caters. She does so many things. And she has a lot of really cool stuff to say about being a woman of color in the food industry, about having her own business, about making fusion cuisine that marries Indian and Mexican cuisines. So, stay tuned for that. But first, we’re going to talk about some food stuff.

Zahir  So what’s been happening in the news, Soleil? I know you follow this stuff much more closely than I do.

Soleil  Yeah, it’s really frustrating. So…

Zahir  Obama went to Vietnam, had Vietnamese food with Bourdain?

Soleil  Yeah. The one person in Vietnam who knows about Vietnamese food is Anthony Bourdain. I get it, and I love that he appreciates Vietnamese cuisine and Vietnamese culture. But, I don’t know. I’m so tired of his aesthetic. I’m so tired of him being the one to narrate the third world for the rest of America. I’m so tired of it. I’m tired of that one perspective.

Zahir  Yeah, I was really frustrated, too. I liked Bourdain when he came out however many years ago because I do think he offered a whole new voice on food. But sometimes I watch his show, and I think he’s not sort of really bringing out sort of new—I mean, he does bring out new voices. But I wish he would do more of that. And sometimes he can seem sort of hypermasculine.

Soleil  I used to watch No Reservations. And every time he goes to Vietnam, he loves making the Apocalypse Now references and talking about the war and how, wow, everything’s changed since the war. And I get that, and I get using that as a reference point. But Vietnam did not come out of the ether with the Vietnam War, with American involvement with Vietnam.

Zahir  So what else is going on?

Soleil  So, my husband and I were driving down… Belmont? Burnside? I don’t know. One of those streets.

Zahir That’s in the Southeast, for those who don’t know Portland.

Soleil  We were just driving through Southeast Portland, and I saw a building facade that had these posters on them and said Poke Mon PDX, and I got super excited because, OK, I love Pokémon. And so I was like, Oh my god, Pokémon? What’s happening? Are they opening a Pokémon center in Southeast Portland? What the hell? And so I looked it up, and it’s a poke restaurant, like the Hawaiian chopped fish, or chopped vegetable dish, and the restaurant is just about that. And they’re going to do like grain bowls, bowls, but Hawaiian. Exotic. And I was so like, Ah, come on! I’d rather have Pokémon! And then today I saw an article from Bon Appetit magazine, the food magazine, about how poke is going to be the next big thing in American cuisine. And there’s this whole little blurb about like, Most Hawaiians just eat it out of a paper cup on the beach. It’s very aloha and chill, whatever. And I was just thinking about like, Oh wow, it’s the poke moment. This is the moment where the food reaches the tipping point, and we see this happening. And this pattern is so easy to recognize, right?

Zahir  When something is anointed as the next big thing, what it really means is white people are finally discovering it.

Soleil  Yes.

Zahir  I know with Indian food, for example. Indian food has the snack called chaat, which actually our guest Kusuma makes really amazing chaat. And so there this notion like, Well, white people are eating chaat now, so it’s the big thing. It’s been discovered. It’s the new trend. It’s like, no, we Indians have been eating chaat for a really long time.

Soleil  Funny, when this happens, everyone suddenly wants to become the expert. I think that’s the funny part. Like, “Top 5 Places to Get Chaat in Portland.” Now I feel like I’m in a rush. I need to try this chaat and to try this poke somewhere so I know what everyone’s talking about.

Zahir  It’s funny. One of the reasons why I’m so excited Kusuma’s our guest today is because—so when I moved to Portland last fall, I had just been living in India. And I was really missing Indian food. So I would just Google Indian restaurant reviews here in Portland. Instead of reviewing a restaurant, which I suppose they did do, they would go into all these tangents about how Hindus worship cows or Sikhs worship cows, which isn’t even correct. And they’re such Orientalist depictions of Indian food. And so partly what I think is so interesting about what Kusuma had to say is the way in which she talks about cooking food in which she is racialized in ways that she doesn’t want to be racialized. Or she’s sort of genderized, as well, too. So I think that’s so interesting, because I’ll be fascinated to find out when that restaurant Poke Mon comes out and what the reviewers are going to be like. Because it seems like, Oh, Hawaiian people do this, Hawaiian people do that. And it sometimes essentializes people.

Soleil  So, excellent pivot, Zahir, from my rambling about poke to our guest today, Kusuma Rao. Again, she is a chef, an independent chef, and her business is called Ruchikala. She’s from Tuscon, Arizona. And she is just a delight.

Soleil  Why are you doing pop-ups as your business model? That’s really interesting.

Kusuma  I started out doing what I was doing by just throwing these really elaborate dinner parties for my friends. It would start off with maybe a few courses, and then it turned out to be like nine courses with cocktail pairings. And I was just getting really extra with everything that I was doing. And that just kind of turned into a business, and people started to leave money at the table when they left. And I was working a job that I was really bad at. I was really bad at my job.

Zahir  A restaurant job?

Kusuma  No, I was actually a data analyst in for-profit education, which doesn’t fit into any of my political ideologies or any of my personal passions. I really was not good at my job. So, I just kind of cooked to de-stress from that.

Soleil  So, what about your cooking career is politically solvent, I guess, to you?

Kusuma  I feel really lucky because the community that I came from, there’s just a lot of really amazing underground supper clubs that were popping up in Tucson when I started to do this that were connected to the Tucson CSA. They did a lot of really awesome work to create a community and a culture around food and help a lot of different people get access to organic, sustainably grown, really interesting produce. So I was definitely one of those people in 2008 that read Omnivore’s Dilemma and it’s like, Ah I need to get a CSA! And I did that whole thing. And when I found the Tucson CSA it was just so great because there were all of these… First of all, it was super accessible. It was like $20 a week or something like that. And it was so much food. And there’s so many resources that were in place for subscribers to learn how to use this produce. And it was definitely one of the things where you walk into the CSA pickup and you just kind of see all different stripes of people. It just felt really inclusive, and the CSA actually worked almost as a little bit of a micro business incubator supporting a lot of different people that were really passionate about food and giving them resources to get connections to farmers that were growing really interesting things. So, I feel like a lot of the causes that they were connected to were absolutely political causes because that’s just… You just have to be kind of an activist to live in Tucson because there’s a lot of people that vote against your right to be brown or alive.

Zahir  I was going to say, so, I know your parents are from India. You were born and raised in Arizona?

Kusuma  I was born, technically, in Chicago.

Zahir  Chicago, OK.

Kusuma  So, I would get pulled over a lot and have really long conversations with police officers where they were trying to determine my country of origin and where I was born. And I would just have to say I was born in the country of Chicago.

Zahir  You often got teased growing up for being Mexican, and you’re not. You’re Indian American.

Kusuma  Yeah.

Zahir  What were some of the demographics growing up, and how were you treated as a person of color in Tucson, Arizona?

Kusuma  Tucson's a very interesting place. It’s so diverse, but there are a lot of different pockets around the city. The neighborhood that I grew up in was definitely lower middle class. Kind of on the cusp of more meth-y, kind of meth trailers. And there’s a lot of definitely white supremacist activity. It was sometimes difficult for people to put their finger on what I was. So I felt like I was just kind of given whatever ignorance of the day that that person had—

Zahir  Mexican or Arab or Indian.

Kusuma  Yeah, like Native American or, yeah, definitely after 9/11 I was just Muslim. Just some hodgepodge monster of whatever.

Zahir  [laughing] You’re from the country of Muslim.

Kusuma  Yes, exactly!

Zahir  A country of Muslim—

Kusuma  Yes, that, yes.

Zahir  I get told that all the time.

All  [laughing]

Kusuma  Yeah, I definitely got called “Kusama Bin Laden” a couple times.

Zahir  Oh, that’s terrible. I didn’t mean to laugh!

All  [laughing]

Zahir  Kusama Bin Laden. Oh my god.

Kusuma  Yeah, there’s definitely a redneck culture. It’s cowboy country in so many ways. But it’s interesting because if I had grown up just maybe like three miles south of where I was, I would be surrounded in a sea of color and just a totally different world.

Soleil  So, when you mention your cuisine that you’re known for, it’s Indian-Mexican sort of fusion. So at that point when you moved out of that neighborhood and began to interact with more brown people, was that sort of where those seeds started sprouting?

Kusuma  I think that they started sprouting, I would say, since I was a kid. So it’s very interesting. You’ll definitely see lots of racist cowboys that are just eating Mexican food all day. I don’t know why I keep going to this racist cowboy, but I guess that a lot of it is. There’s definitely racist cowboys. But it’s 45 minutes, an hour from the border. And that’s just, it’s the best food that exists in Tucson. So I definitely ate Mexican food growing up, even in my neighborhood, because it’s just everywhere.

It was interesting because it was the only food that my parents really enjoyed, because there’s just so many similarities in the spices and heat and acidity and appreciation for bitterness. And American food was really hard for my parents to eat. There was just nothing in it for them. There was no flavor. But Mexican food is so exciting, there’s all these chilis and there this cumin and there’s so much, especially in Tuscon. So our Mexican food, 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. And so my parents really enjoyed Mexican food. So it was definitely something that we all could eat together and have an experience with.

Zahir  Interesting, because I grew up in Sacramento. My parents are Indian from Tanzania. And there’s the same experience where they love Mexican food because of the spices. Because even the, what’s it called, the tortilla is very much like the Indian chapati. A lot of the Mexican restaurants were places where my parents weren’t really made fun of for the way they pronounce things. So I wonder, for your family going out and enjoying Mexican food, was it the food? Was it the culture? What was it about Mexican food that kind of drew not just you, but even your parents to that cuisine?

Kusuma  I would definitely say that there is something to color. And—well I don’t think that my father was maybe able to articulate this as much—but I think that it was really important to look around a room and see someone that looks like yourself. So I think there was this unspoken like, Oh we can be around other brown people and not have to feel so different. So I definitely think that there is something to that.

It was really difficult for my family to always be accepted and communicate with Americans. They spoke wonderful English. They spoke really amazing English, and my mom actually worked in customer service at a credit card company for a really long time. And my mom, I think, minimized a lot of the racism that she experienced in her day to day life. And at work, I definitely heard a lot of some of the things that she had to go through, being angry about the way that she spoke. And that was always really hard. So I guess it did really feel like it was easier to have an accent. And also—I was just thinking just now—I remember when we would go to Mexican restaurants. The conversations that were had when people at the restaurant would talk to my mom about where she was from were always really positive. And really it felt like this beautiful kind of cultural exchange, like culture sharing, like, This is what we have. I remember my mom having that same conversation like, You have tortillas, and we have chapatis and this is how we do things. And it was just beautiful to see my parents also get excited about these crossovers and actually have those more intimate conversations with people outside of their Indian community. Because, really, there wasn’t a lot—I didn’t feel like there was a lot—of opportunities in their day to day to actually connect with other people that weren’t Indian because they were so different.

Soleil  So what you’re talking about here seems like a model for sharing food and talking about food that doesn’t take notes from cultural imperialism or appropriation, you could say, because it’s sort of this mutual like, Where are you from? This is where I’m from. This is our similarities. And those are all really great. It’s not just this one-sided like, How do you make your tortilla? I’m going to take this and sell it for ten times more. After I wrote this essay on cultural appropriation, a lot of people asked, Well what can I do then? How do I do it differently? Well, there you go. Like, that’s… right?

Kusuma  This conversation comes up a lot, and I always have a really difficult time navigating this topic with white chefs. It comes up a lot. And a lot of times I just kind of quietly zip my mouth and leave the room, because I don’t really have the wherewithal or strength to hash it all out. But one of the things that always feels like a disconnect with me, when the topic of white people doing food outside of their culture comes up, is I feel there’s this line of defensiveness that is: So I don’t come from a people that make delicious food. We have this boring WASP-y tradition that… And I totally understand that. Like, I cook a lot of food that doesn’t come from my people, and if my options were just limited to just doing traditional—whatever a person’s definition of traditional South Indian food would be—I don’t think that I would be very inspired to create menus every day in the kitchen.

But one of the things that I feel like people don’t think about very often is, I just feel like it’s very personal for me. And I grew up kind of… I had to be kind of ashamed of the food that I ate. This happens to a lot of Indian kids, where friends won’t come over to your house because your house smells funny. A lot of non-American kids have that experience of having to apologize for the food that your parents eat. And kind of growing up with that experience and growing up where it wasn’t OK for me to have the name that I had. It wasn’t OK for me to be brown. That’s kind of so much of my life experience, about everything that I was not being OK. Then to all of a sudden jump into a world where there are white hipsters that are making food that your parents ate—that if they had eaten as a kid would have gotten beat up or 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 I feel like when I make food, it’s impossible to separate the food from all of these memories and this experience and even a lot of guilt on my end, because I was brought up in Tucson.

I struggle with even calling myself Indian because I didn’t grow up in India. I haven’t been to India very many times. And when I was in India I experienced a ton of culture shock. And there were a lot of things that were very difficult for me as an American woman going back to India and experiencing some sexism that I think a lot of maybe white tourists don’t have to experience, going into families and having to feel shamed for ovulating or just different traditions that as a tourist coming in you don’t have the full experience. You kind of get this very romanticized backpacker tourist experience where you’re like the celebrity sometimes. And it’s so much more complicated when you have this baggage that’s associated with the food that you do. And I feel like I cook because I am trying to make sense of that, because I feel very maybe disconnected from my own identity.

I always used to call myself miscellaneous brown growing up, because I always felt like I was whatever anyone else saw me as. And I just felt like I had a lot of different identities. And when I’m making menus that are maybe regional Indian dishes, I always feel like I need to apologize for, or make it very clear, that I am not trying to pose as this Indian person that’s this authentic Indian experience. Because I don’t really connect with that identity fully. And it feels phony to me. So when I see other people that don’t have that moral conflict of selling something that they didn’t actually have a lot of personal experience with or maybe like marketing for food businesses that are really kind of outlandish and kitschy and use a lot of symbolism or religious imagery or imagery of brown people or people of color 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 have changed how they market what they do or…

Soleil  And the inverse, too, right? Like you imagine how amazing would it be if I were that confident.

Kusuma  Oh my gosh!

Soleil  Right?

Kusuma  [laughing] Gosh, that would be incredible! I can’t imagine that! I can’t imagine that world, because I second guess everything. That’s such an amazing question. I second guess everything that I’m doing all of the time. And it stifles me. It keeps me from doing so many things. But at the same time, it’s something that I don’t really want to let go of, because I feel like it pushes me to always ask questions about who I am and explore what identity really means and to think more in the shoes of another person that’s had a very different life than me.

Zahir  So, since you moved from Tucson to Portland, how do you see the conversation about race as being similar or different in Tucson versus Portland. Like, when you talk about, let’s say, race and food in Tucson, what’s the reaction there versus the reaction that you get in Portland?

Kusuma  So, to be honest, I feel like I tend to hesitate more having this conversation with everyone that I meet. I try to connect with people that maybe I feel like I can trust a little bit before I start talking about food and identity in Portland, for sure. Because I’ve noticed that race is a very difficult thing, I think, for people to talk about here, and otherness and people kind of shut down. Like, it feels impolite. And they get a little bit ghost faced when you talk about just being other. Like I said, I identify with just being miscellaneous brown. But I, a couple times, referred to myself as a brown girl. And I’ve found people really taken aback by that, like, Oh you don’t have to call yourself a brown—like, yeah I do. Like, I’m a proud brown girl. Like—

Soleil  Right, it’s not a disease.

Kusuma  I’m brown and just, I don’t know.

Zahir  Don’t be so harsh on yourself!

All  [laughing]

Zahir  It’s OK, Kusuma! It’s OK!

All  [laughing]

Kusuma  You’re all white with me!

All  [laughing harder]

Soleil  It’s OK, I see you as white.

All  [laughing]

Kusuma  I feel like sometimes that is what’s being said. And I know these are all well-meaning people, and the opportunity doesn’t exist in the same way. It’s different, I think, because, like in Tucson, there’s so many distinctive cultural groups. And you all meld together in this very interesting way where there’s a lot of cultural festivals that you kind of actively participate in, even if you are not of that. And I feel like you can talk about differences.

And it’s interesting because when I talk about the food that I do in Tucson, I feel like it’s not something that I ever have to really explain. Like, Oh that’s fascinating, you’re Indian but you do Mexican food. And I do cook a lot of Mexican food, because I spent a lot of time growing up in my friends’ grandmothers’ Mexican kitchens and cooking with them. And this is just part of the experience. But if you’re a Tucsonian, it’s just that’s part of your experience, because you’re living it. The border culture is different. It’s easier to talk about being different there in a way that I think maybe doesn’t really exist here because of the more homogenous nature of this place. And I also think that the Tucson food scene, I feel like, is a little bit more inclusive.

Soleil  So when you talk about accessibility, what do you mean exactly?

Kusuma  I think of things like preserving some of the really amazing bakeries and raspados vendors that have been existing in the town for quite some time; like pulling in a nice cocktail bar with other vendors that have been creating this distinctive Sonoran Mexican food that is very much like the story of the town. It’s more of a sense of place, I feel like. It’s not this kind of out of left field coffee concept with this very minimalist aesthetic that I feel like is the new rule for any new establishing food business or any business at all where you have to have the lighting in a very particular way so it’s Instagram ready. And there’s a new way of creating restaurants over the past four or five years that I feel like is very same. And I feel like it’s also very alienating to a certain extent. So I just feel like being able to have a place where you can pick up your tortillas fresh every day, you can get masa, you can get the things that you need to cook for your family. But then you also have access to like, Oh hey, what’s this that you’re pouring over here? And there’s something about that that feels so much more comfortable than maybe just walking into this…

Soleil  It’s a catalogue in a lot of ways, right?

Kusuma  Yeah.

Zahir  When you spoke the other day, you said that a lot of the food scene you noticed when you started out was a bit dudebro-ish; I love that term that you said. Can you explain in what way did you sort of feel like this food scene was sort of hypermasculine? And how was pop-ups a way for you to navigate around that?

Kusuma  Yeah, so I feel like when I tried to enter restaurants in Tucson, one of the minuses of trying to get restaurant work there was having to permeate a bunch of dudebros that really wanted to talk a lot about how wonderful they were and how talented they were—

Soleil and Zahir  [laughing]

Kusuma  —a lot of machismo. I have such a hard time doing this pissing contest where, you know, just like, [in dudebro voice] Just fuckin’ cut into that, it will blow your mind. And like, It’s a panty dropper…

Zahir  They would actually say that?

Kusuma  I have absolutely heard it. Absolutely.

Soleil  Yeah, Zahir, this is not surprising to me.

Kusuma and Soleil  [laughing]

Soleil  Poor, naive Zahir.

Zahir  Yeah, I’m terribly naive. But like that’s insane.

Kusuma  Yeah, no, that’s just the norm. And the thing is, you’re just kind of told, Yeah, that’s what you do; this is part of the kitchen. And I can’t create anything in that environment.

Soleil  Yeah, I understand that. I mean, I’ve been working in back of house for almost 10 years now, and a lot of times I’ve been the only woman. And most of the time I’ve been the only person of color. And it was really hard at first adjusting to the machismo and the sort of attitude where I had to be complicit, at the very least, to a lot of sexist, racist stuff in order to be accepted, in order to have people want to work with me. And so I felt really like trash for the first couple years that I did it. It really is draining if you do it for a while. And it really is just like, What am I doing? I should just get an office job. I used to think that like every other week, like, Maybe I should just get a job where I sit. And that would be OK. If people said the same racist, sexist stuff to me, and I just got to sit, that’d be great.

Kusuma and Zahir  [laughing]

Zahir  Sorry!

Kusuma  Sorry!

Soleil  You know? I don’t know. I relate.

Kusuma  It’s so funny. I think about that a lot when I’m washing dishes at like three o’clock in the morning. Like, This is ridiculous. It’s been 16 hours of standing in one place. I think about that all the time just when I’m hauling things and I feel tired sometimes and I just feel so over it. And it’s so weird, that life of just that adrenaline service, just kind of working your ass off. And you think that you’re tired before service even begins. You’re tired well before service starts, and you just don’t sleep. And you just wrap up at three in the morning, and then you’re like, OK, I’ve got like three more hours before I do this again—

Soleil  And then everybody likes to go out for a beer—

Kusuma  Oh my gosh, that was the worst.

Soleil  —and you’re just like [groans].

Kusuma  That was the worst. Even when I was doing that consulting, that was the hardest thing for me is, how in the world can I function just getting messed up for four hours? And then this is just what everyone does every day. And definitely having that experience definitely sold it. Like, I’m not going to be alive if I stay in kitchens, because I can’t hang like that. I need sleep, and if I’m going to abuse my body by just standing in one place for a million hours, then abuse my body for four hours drinking after and all of a sudden… I don’t know, it’s just, it’s a hard one.

Zahir  So wrapping up, what changes would you love to see in the food scene in Portland?

Kusuma  I feel like Portland right now and the food scene is just kind of on a lot of steroids. And there’s just these kind of concept factories that are just throwing out like, Pick one obscure alcohol and pick one obscure… I don’t know, I just feel like food should come with these stories. There should just be more of a connection to what we’re doing and not just throwing blanket adjectives everywhere and then trying to sell something.

I’m a little scared for, I feel like, the future of food. I’m really grateful for social media in so many ways, especially for pop-ups. It’s the best way to connect with an audience. But I also feel like it’s doing food a giant disservice. I think food media’s a little crazy right now and food celebrity is just… I think it’s removing people from this connection with food that we got really excited about like 10 years ago.

It was funny, I went to this dinner, it was a paid dinner. There was this food TV show that was filming for it, and it was so terrifying because the TV producers kept coming out and being like, OK, pull out your phones and take a picture while this guy pours this thing over your plate. Like, Pull out your phone and take a picture. And it was like, we were trying to have this intimate experience at this dinner and kind of connect with our food. But we were being forced to pull out our phones and photo it. And it was such a sad experience for me. It felt to me like I was sitting there in this food dystopia. Like, this is what our future looks like, where TV producers are hovering around us and forcing us to pull out our phones and photo these ridiculously staged events.

Soleil  So, Kusuma, where can we find you on the Internet?

Kusuma  I have a website. It’s Ruchikala.com. And I am on Instagram and my Instagram is @ruchikala.

Zahir  And you’re on Twitter as well, too.

Kusuma  I am. @ruchikala_llc.

Zahir  Well, thank you so much for coming. It was a pleasure.

Kusuma  Thank you so much for having me.

Soleil  Thank you for listening to this episode of “Racist Sandwich.” Our show is produced by Alan Montecillo. Our logo, designed by Jen Tam. You can find more of her work at JenTam.com. Our music comes from AF the Naysayer and Blue Dot Sessions.

Zahir  And we’re getting some wonderful feedback. We want to hear more from you guys. If you could, email us at racistsandwichpodcast@gmail.com. If you like the show, please do share it with your friends and leave us a review on iTunes. And find us on Twitter at @raceandfood.

Soleil  Yeah, we’ll take anything. Love mail, hate mail. And we’re definitely soliciting blog posts, too, if you have something you want to talk about on our website, that’s totally awesome. Send us a pitch and we’ll get back to you. We’ll be back in two weeks. Thanks.

Transcribed by Ann-Derrick Gaillot.