In part one, we talk about Zahir's hard hitting investigative journalism about Portland's best shawarma. In part two, Soleil interviews Bani Amor, a queer travel writer, photographer, and activist from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador. Amor explores diasporic identities, the decolonization of travel culture, and the intersections of race, place, and power. Photo of Bani by Neha Gautam Photography.
Produced by Juan Ramirez. Music by AF the Naysayer and Blue Dot Sessions.
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Soleil Ho This episode of Racist Sandwich is sponsored by Abbey Creek Vineyard, a winery committed to supporting minority winemakers in Oregon and embracing all customers from veterans to beginners. Abbey Creek invites you to come sip on a glass of wine at The Crick in North Plains, Oregon. Find them at AbbeyCreekVineyard.com. That's AbbeyCreekVineyard.com.
You're listening to Racist Sandwich, the podcast about food, race, class, and gender. This is Soleil Ho.
Zahir Janmohamed And I'm Zahir Janmohamed. Thank you for joining.
Soleil What's up, Zahir!?
Zahir Not much. How you doin'? How you feeling? Seven days until you start your restaurant. So it opens up in Puerto Vallarta. How you feeling?
Soleil Oh my god. It's crazy! So just every day, you see a little bit of the place together. You know, before it looked like a construction site, a total mess. Now it looks like a restaurant that got trashed. So that's good. That's progress.
Zahir Wow. And you doing a soft open? Are you doing a full-on open?
Soleil We're doing a soft opening, just inviting a few friends and some interesting people that we know here and neighborhood folks I think in--god, it's all such a blur--but I think in five days. I have no idea if we're going to be able to pull it together, but we're going to try!
Zahir How's your mom doing?
Soleil Oh, she's good. Right now, she's just feeding me lots of cocktails that she's trying out for the menu. So it's really stressful, you know? [laughs]
Zahir Can you give us a sample of one cocktail and one food item that you're really excited about?
Soleil Yeah! So actually, one of the cocktails is sort of made to mirror one of the dishes that I made. The dish is grilled corn, which is based off of the elote asada that I see on the street everywhere in Puerto Vallarta. It's just grilled corn with mayonnaise and cheese and chili, a little bit of lime. So it's a really great Mexican street food snack. I'm just going to serve a version of that based off of the Japanese grilled corn. I'm just going to serve it with a mayonnaise that I made with shallot oil and yuzu kosho, which is the rind of the yuzu citrus mixed with chili and salt. Anyway, so that's the dish. And then the cocktail is made with a syrup that my mom made with sweet corn. She muddles whole, raw corn kernels in the glass and then serves it with jalapeño and herbs and tequila. So I think it'll go really well.
Zahir Oh, that sounds incredible.
Soleil [chuckles] Yeah! It's just like double-fisting corn. That's a great Friday by my book.
Zahir I know. Totally. So what's one difference between running a restaurant--I know you're just starting it, but--working at a restaurant in Mexico versus in the United States?
Soleil Honestly, I think the big part is the cost, right? 'Cause in Portland, you probably can't start a restaurant unless you have about 100K in the bank just because it's so expensive, and real estate is so expensive. And all those licenses and permits and all of that stuff adds up. But in Mexico, things are a little bit more lax, and obviously the cost of construction and cost of equipment and all of that stuff is way lower. But as far as the customer base goes, there's a really big interest in Asian food, like Chinese and Japanese especially. A little bit of interest in Vietnamese and Thai, of course. But there's not a lot of us here, not a lot of Asians here to sort of bring in that palate and that knowledge. So a lot of the Chinese and Japanese restaurants here are kind of groping in the dark. People want that food, but I saw Italian sushi on a menu, Zahir, like, it's weird here
Zahir What the hell is Italian sushi?
Soleil Well, one of the rolls that I saw on that menu had Alfredo sauce and serrano ham.
Soleil [laughs] Does that sound good?
Zahir No, not at all. Please. Really?
Soleil [laughs] Well, when you visit me, we're going to have to get some Italian sushi 'cause I'm going to save that up for you.
Zahir Oh my god. Italian sushi. Wow. That's insane. Well, I'm super excited. So basically, what's the exact opening date?
Soleil [chuckles] Even now, I still don't really know because we're still figuring out how to open as soon as possible with the construction going the way it's going. So who knows?! I think next week though for sure, we're going to be open.
Zahir Wow. Good luck. That's super exciting.
So we have good news to share with our listeners. We've already shared it on Twitter and Facebook, but we got nominated for an award: The International Association of Culinary Professionals nominated us for Best Culinary Audio Podcast. First of all, who knew that culinary audio was a thing? But we're nominated for best podcast. It's so cool.
Soleil These days, yeah, there's so many shows out there that are amazing, right? The Splendid Table, which we're up against. I really enjoy Eaters podcast. There's The Bite on Mother Jones, and there's all sorts of shows. Sporkful, of course, does really interesting work. Gravy. So yeah, it's a genre. It's amazing.
Zahir It's kind of wild, yeah. We're so excited. We'll find out in March, March 3rd in Louisville, Kentucky. So we won't be there, but if you're there, you're welcome to attend on our behalf. So that's exciting.
Soleil [chuckles] So OK, I wanted to talk before we get into this episode, which is an interview with Bani Amor, the travel writer, food writer, activist. I would love to talk with Zahirabout food that we've eaten lately, 'cause I don't think we talk much about food on this podcast, actually.
Zahir Yeah. And I'm glad you asked me that because on our podcast, I made a joke--I can't remember which episode--that I've always wanted to sample the shawarmas in downtown Portland. There's a square right by Literary Arts. It's over on 9th and Washington in downtown Portland. In one square, there are 10 shawarma spots in downtown. You have Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Turkish. So thankfully, a publication here, the Portland Mercury, they asked me to sample the shawarmas in this downtown area, this one block. So on Sunday, I went with two friends, and I ate way too much shawarmas. We went to four spots; two shawarmas per spot, which means we ate eight shawarmas [laughs]. Which was insane.
Soleil Jesus Christ.
Zahir I mean, we didn't eat the whole thing. Yeah, eight shawarmas, three people, yeah. But still, it was insane. So I'm excited. The article will come out probably next week or the week after, and I do have a winner. I won't say it on the show, but it's kind of cool because I began to see how much variety there is within the shawarma. We tend to sort of-- The word shawarma is a very generic term. There's even disputes about how to spell the word shawarma. But it's really kind of a cool thing. I see all these signs around Portland that say, "Support Refugees", "Refugees Are Welcome." To me, one of the best ways to support refugees is to go to this block of downtown and buy some shawarmas because most of the people there are Syrian and Iraqi refugees that work there. They're wonderful.
Soleil So what is shawarma exactly? For those of our listeners who don't know.
Zahir Shawarma, traditionally, is usually like beef or lamb or chicken that's served on like a spitfire thing that rotates. That's where it gets its name. It rotates around a flame, and it's usually marinated for quite a long time. Then it's peeled off and put into a pita or a bread. But there's only three things that are standard: It's served in a bread, like a pita; there's usually some sort of chicken, beef, or lamb; and the third thing is there's some sort of sauce on it, like a white sauce. But everything else varies. One of the spots that we went to had carrots in it. Another had French fries in it, which was really amazing. One had, so it's so big that you actually have to sit down and eat it also with a fork. So you're holding it with one hand and kind of using a fork with the other.
Soleil [laughing] Oh my god!
Zahir And another place was kind of long and skinny, which I like because sometimes when I'm downtown, I like to walk and eat. Or if I'm going on the bus, it's hard to eat one of those big, messy shawarmas. So it was cool, and I think for me, it was just an opportunity to talk to some of the food cart owners and ask them about what their life is like now. I think one thing I've learned hosting this show is when you ask someone, "Hey, what's it like being, let's say, Syrian right now," sometimes people can shut down. But if you start talking about food, and you start talking about why they specifically like this type of recipe of shawarma, it sometimes leads to other conversations. So on Sunday, I had a really good time talking to a lot of the food cart vendors--and hopefully, we'll try to get one of them on the show sometime--and hearing about what it's like to be Syrian at a time in which people from Syria are being blocked from entering the United States. So it was very powerful, and the food was amazing. So I can't think of a better way to support communities that are particularly vulnerable right now than to eat shawarmas. And it's a tasty way to do it, too.
Soleil Yeah, it's a win-win. You get to eat tasty shawarma and then help people. How could you not?
Zahir I know. And I can't wait to announce the winner soon. I have to wait for the article to get published, but I picked a winner. It's awesome. It's so cool. And it's really interesting because there's a lot of something that comes up again and again on this show: I think we expect "ethnic food" to be cheap. There's this one chef there, and he's really playing a lot with what our notions of a shawarma are, and I think we tend to not think of "street food" as being refined. We're having this conversation, long overdue conversation, about what does this term "cheap food" mean, and who really pays the price of cheap food?
Soleil Yeah, right. Because it's cheap because someone else is paying, right?
Soleil It might not be the money that they're paying, but their labor, their sweat, their time. You know what I'm saying?
Zahir Yeah. I mean, when I was interviewing this food cart owner the other day, and he was telling me that his dream is to open a restaurant. His food was amazing, and I thought, man, I hope he does. But as you spoke about earlier with your restaurant in Mexico, a) it costs a lot of money, but b) are people really willing to pay for a restaurant headed by a Syrian man making upscale Syrian food? I hope they are. I haven't really seen it. What we've seen is white people making high-end Middle Eastern food, but I hope I see that day in Portland. 'Cause I've been to Syria before, and the food can be incredibly complex. So yeah, I think there's a lot there. How about you? What's going on with you? Any updates on your end you want to tell our listeners about?
Soleil Yeah! So this week, I'm hoping to record a bit of-- So Zahirand Alan and now Juan have been bugging me to do an audio diary of the restaurant opening. So I'm going to do that. I'm going to record a little bit of my thoughts, my experiences, my point of view and hopefully make it into a nice little segment. I'll release it first, I think, on our Patreon for our patrons there, and then we'll send it out for the general public. So stay tuned.
Zahir Sweet. I can't wait. So tell us about our guest today, Bani Amor. I know Bani Amor is a very special person. I've been following their writing for a long time. Can you tell us about Bani, please?
Soleil Yeah. So Bani Amor is a person that I've gotten to know just through their work on Bitch. Bitch Magazine has been running a series, or they ran a series, on climate change and feminism by Bani just about how climate change is a feminist issue. Especially because of how it affects women of color and working women, women in poverty. And Bani's also done a lot of really interesting work in travel writing as Everywhere All the Time--that's their masthead--and just has written a lot about food and Columbusing and all these really big concepts that I think have a lot of relevance to our listeners and to just our work on Racist Sandwich. So I'm really excited to have Bani on.
Zahir In your conversation, is there anything in particular that struck you about what Bani said?
Soleil Yeah. So I never really thought too much about travel writing, and I know that both you and I have lived abroad. I'm living outside of the U.S. now, and you lived in India for a while. But our experiences aren't really that reflected in literature. Talking with Bani made me realize that because they do so much work to decolonize travel writing and travel culture and just talking about why all of this matters, why the perception of who gets to travel and who, when they travel, is either an immigrant or a refugee, right? Just how those contours of identity intersect with the concept of travel and borders and all these really big concepts. But they're able to sort of distill it in really simple terms, which is why I think it's just a great interview.
Zahir So now that you live in Puerto Vallarta, which is a big tourist center in Mexico, has it changed your perception of the tourism industry and travelers?
Soleil Yeah. I just, I don't know. I feel like a lot of the people who are not from Mexico who live here are from the United States, from Canada, and I just can't relate to them [chuckling] at all! I felt kind of weird. I was like, what is wrong with me? But a lot of them are retirees, they're white, they're privileged in economic ways. But then I realize that I'm also privileged. I'm not better than those people 'cause I also have a college education. Relative to the people from the area where I'm living now, it's just so different. Before, in the U.S., I took comfort in being a Vietnamese American. That was my identity. That was who I am. But here, in Mexico, I'm just a china.
Zahir Mmhmm, interesting.
Soleil Which is chino is just the word they use for any Asian. So there's this really interesting other layer of otherness that I have here. And I'm also a person from the United States. So I have that kind of power. It's just really complicated! I don't know. Did you experience that in India too?
Zahir Not so much in India, but definitely when I was living in Egypt a long time ago where people would sort of lump a lot of people from Asia together, you know.
Zahir And even when you try to push for complexity and say, "No, I'm not that," they're like, "Oh, yeah, yeah. You're pretty much the same." And you're just like, wait a minute. And I think the one thing I realized, this notion of the othering that we experience as people of color in the United States, I felt it in so many other countries. I mean, when I went to Saudi Arabia, gosh. I mean the kind of profiling that I got for being South Asian. Even though I have a U.S. passport, they see a South Asian showing up, and they think, oh, you're like one of those cheap workers, and they put me aside.
Soleil Oh, Jesus.
Zahir And then when they see my passport, the U.S. passport, then they're like, "Oh, no, no, no. We made a mistake. Come over here to the other side." But it's kind of interesting. So that's interesting about the china. Do people say that on the street to you? How does that word "china" come up?
Soleil I mean it's totally banal. It's like saying someone has hair. It's like, "Oh, yeah. That china." It's not like a slur. It just is a descriptor, which is really funny and interesting. So I just, at first I was kind of offended, but now I'm just like, oh, OK. Yeah. I'm a china. Whatever. [laughs]
Zahir That's insane. Wow. That's cool. Well, I look forward to hearing this conversation.
This is our first episode produced by Juan Ramirez. So we want to welcome Juan again and thank him for producing this episode. We hope you like this interview with Bani, and Bani, thank you so much for coming on our show.
Soleil This episode of Racist Sandwich is supported by People's Food Coop and their 4,000+ community members. Offering responsibly-sourced produce, groceries, and bulk items at fair prices since 1970, People's works with over 40 local farms and runs Portland's oldest farmers market every Wednesday from 2:00 to 7:00 pm. Visit them at SE 21st Avenue, just south of Division Street in Portland, Oregon. Or visit Peoples.coop. That's Peoples.coop.
Bani Amor I'm Bani Amor. So I have a series of interviews with travel writers of color, people who write about place or people, POC travel personalities doing new and interesting things. So what we try to do is decolonize not just conversation but challenge the tourism industry and its abuses on people of color and yeah, just kind of expand what that means to be a travel writer.
Soleil So why this project, then? What is the impetus for starting this?
Bani Well, I wanted to be a travel writer when I was young. I've always written, and I started traveling when I was young. I dropped out of high school, and I just left. And my experiences are not like all the experiences that I read in travel books, these white dudes. So it's radically different. When I-- I didn't know that I could do this because I haven't really seen anyone else who's done that. I'm Ecuadorian. I don't see, I haven't read an Ecuadorian travel narrative from an Ecuadorian. You don't see that shit. So once I started thinking about this as a path for me professionally, then I started doing travel writing workshops and looking in the field and looking shit up online and scoping out the scene, I just was kind of aghast, just taken aback of how exclusive it was and how uncomfortable I felt. I think the first travel writing workshop that I took, all of the faculty or whatever are all white guys. I was so uncomfortable that I never went back. I just went to that one, the first day, and I never went back, and I didn't get my refund. I'm like, ugh! This is just, how can I learn how to do this when the way that you're teaching me to write about place just makes me so uncomfortable? And then, my ideas were shot down. I just didn't want to do commercial stuff, and I don't want to cater to this audience. I don't want these editors to keep mincing my words and just shaping my writing into something it really was not meant to be.
So it was just being in the industry, trying to work in this industry, that made me realize I think I need to reach out to other people like me. I think that there's more conversations now with social media that folks who are like me who are first generation in the diaspora going back to the "motherland" or whatever, having this experience of, oh shit. Am I a tourist? Am I from here? Am I not? Did I romanticize my country my whole life? All those feelings. So yeah. I wanted to create this space, and it's just what it is now.
Soleil I think that's actually how a lot of writers of color come into politics. Because we're not--just by existing--we're not necessarily woke or aware of all the things that are happening in our chosen genres.
Soleil But when we start writing, we start looking around. And we're just like, holy shit! You know? What is happening around me, and what is the context that I'm writing in? It's just necessarily political.
So part of the reason why I wanted you to come onto Racist Sandwich is because I think there are a lot of parallels between the work you do and the work we do with food writing. That dynamic is really, it's weird how similar it is: The dynamic of the white explorer being the tour guide for the reader into this sort of ethnic miasma. Do you have any thoughts on food writing and how the work that you do is sort of similar?
Bani It's that dominant narrative that's similar. It's all of journalism, you know. It's the publishing industry. It's this conversation has been had for a long time. If they keep being like the people who are the explorers, people who have the mic of what the world looks like and what it is, because that's what travel writing is--i's showing what places are, the story of them--then we're going to continue to have incomplete stories about what they are, incomplete ideas. So when I think about food writing, it's the same thing. From today what I see, what we see a lot of is just people who are not from certain places coming in and just being like, "This is what this tastes like, and this is how it is. Let me be the one to show you and to guide you into this totally different, exotic-ass world."
It really shows and reveals how siloed those worlds are. It's like they're not even talking to us. So when I started reading travel writing and being like, these people aren't even talking to me. They're talking. This doesn't apply to me. None of this applies to me! So I have to write it myself. That was my first articles was travel writers of color: Here they are. 'Cause I had to do that research myself, and then I realized there was this whole canon of history of literature of travel writing by people of color. And diverse travel writing. It's not just POC but shit that's not just the dominant narrative.
Soleil Yeah, no. Absolutely. So you were working on this food show. Didn't happen. But what were the stories that you were looking to put out? What did you see was missing in that media?
Bani We wanted to talk to immigrant cooks, people in the hood, all kind of different people who sell food mostly on the street, street food folks. 'Cause you're on the street every night seeing all these things. I have my elote lady, she sees everything. Those people have so much! Damn! They've observed so much. If you're on a corner from 9:00 pm to 4:00 am in all kinds of weather, and you're just selling elotes to people, you have relationships to folks, you have stories to tell, and you also have experience with policing, with people pushed out. Now that we have food trucks and all this shit, and it's cool to eat street food, it's not cool to eat from these specific women. I mean, women but people in general.
I remember when my mom got into the coop that she's in, and the board, they were just super racist, these white people. They were like, oh, things were getting better; we just got a Starbucks. And thank goodness it's getting so far.
Bani Yeah. That was the beginning of the end. And she was like, "Thank goodness those women aren't cooking rats on Roosevelt Avenue anymore." And we were very silent 'cause she was talking about us; she was talking about Ecuadorians who cook cuy, guinea pigs, who roast it on Roosevelt Avenue. That, for us, is like home. I need to eat the food that I grew up eating. Immigrants who just got here, they can't just completely change their diet. They need this street food, they need these restaurants, they need this "holes in the wall." For her and those people to say those things, obviously it's offensive and it's hurtful, but those women are not there anymore. They're not there. They were pushed over, or they're just not there. So that just kind of shows you the impacts of what the idea of this colonialist gentrification, how they view our food [chuckles] as like this disgusting stuff. And then you have young food writers who come in, and then they want to try it for like a wild, exotic adventure. It's...yeah. It has real effects on the community.
Soleil Your cuy story reminds me of there's this upscale arepa truck in a place where I lived once, and it was owned by people who traveled and came back and decided to start this concept. They actually served guinea pig, confit cuy, on their truck, and it was a big sensation. The food writing community there jumped on that, and they were really excited and fascinated. The way those people were treated versus the ways those women were treated, it's such a different world.
Bani It's black and white!
Bani You know. Or red and white. It's night and day, you know?
I've done ghostwriting; I've done food writing in the past. I was in this place where I was writing about my culture in ways that I didn't feel comfortable about, but I'm still proud of. I love our food. I want to talk about our food. I still want to write about Ecuadorian food all the time. But then I see how it's consumed; I see how it's kind of viewed. If I'm in the Amazonian region of Ecuador, and there's any travelers around, they all want to try the worm called chontacuros.
Bani Yeah, these fat worms that you eat alive. They have mad protein. You can grill them. But not everyone eats them, but these white people come in, and they're like, "Ooh," you know? "I'm gonna do this" [giggling]. You could sell like random shit--
Soleil Makes a really good selfie, right?
Bani Yeah, yeah. I mean I'm not saying anything, again, anyone else has said. But when folks send me messages or try to talk to me about how do I travel in a way that's not fucked up? I'm like, "Yo, there's no guide." Even though I have written a guide. [laughs] I did write a guide for Bitch.
Bani But it's very basic. It's basically like in the beginning, you have to sit with yourself and be like, what are my intentions? What am I trying to do with travel? It's so much of do you want a vacation, do you want to connect with people you don't know, do you want to understand them? If you do want to do that, why don't you do that in your own city, in your own town, in your own country? 'Cause we're there too. I like to constantly discuss this stuff. I will be in a bar at 4:00 am and be like, "You know, the thing about decolonizing travel culture is that we need to do a, b, and c." And everyone wants me to shut up, but this is what I constantly think about.
So I just think it has to do with your intentions and seeing ways to be like, what am I trying to do? Why am I doing it? Who am I doing it for? What am I trying to get out of this? If there's a certain reaction to this food piece that I wrote, am I prepared for, did I think about how this would affect people who are not marginalized the way that I am? Etc.
I'm always thinking about my privilege when I'm in Ecuador. In the United States, I feel very oppressed. I feel very othered. And then I'm like, oh shit. I'm not the most marginalized person in the world. Then you read books. To paraphrase James Baldwin, you think you're going through the worst thing in the world, and then you open up a book, and you're like, "Oh, shit. This is the world." So yeah. I think that as travel writers, food writers, the word "responsible" is annoying, but we have to think about ways to talk about our cultures that are not, that I could tell my family and not feel weird about, you know? Yeah. I want to write with more freedom, but it's difficult when we're writing a lot, especially now, in unfreedom. So I just think it's important to be real and conscious about that while we're communicating these stories.
Soleil So one last time, can you introduce yourself and tell listeners where they can find your work and how they can support you also.
Bani I'm Bani Amor. I work on decolonizing travel culture. You can find me at BaniAmor.com. If you don't know how to spell that, BaniAmor.com. I'm on Twitter @BaniAmor and on Instagram. So yeah, that's where you can find me. And if you want to support me, there's a donate button on my website and Cash.me/BaniAmor.
Soleil Thank you so much.
Bani Thanks to you.
Soleil Thanks for listening to Racist Sandwich, the podcast on food, face, class, and gender. That was me talking to Bani Amor.
Zahir So thank you for listening. Our show is produced by Juan Ramirez. This is his first episode producing Racist Sandwich. Welcome, Juan, and thank you for producing our show. We recorded, let's see. Where did we record? We recorded it via Skype and Zencastr and all over the place.
Zahir And our music is AF THE NAYSAYER and Blue.Sessions.
Soleil Our website is www.RacistSandwich.com. You can find us on social media @RaceandFood on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. You can also email us your comments and suggestions and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our artwork is by Jen Tam, and you can find more of her work at www.JenTam.com.
Zahir Alan, we know you're listening. We miss you. Come back and visit us. Hope you're doing well in Illinois.
Soleil Thanks for listening!
Transcribed by Storyminders