American Food Today
"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are," the saying goes. We Americans are so many things at once. You see it in our food—dishes like bulgogi tacos, Thai larb burgers and Texas brisket ramen that reflect the tastes of generations of native peoples and those from around the world who've settled here and commingled.
While our nation is vast and diverse, growing up I didn't see folks who looked like me—Indian-born and raised in New York City—in food magazines and TV shows. That's in part why, for the last 20 years, I've chosen to ponder that uniquely American culinary magic that happens with the amalgamation of communities through my books, as the host of Top Chef, and recently with my Hulu show Taste the Nation. That's also why it was a great fit for me to collaborate with EatingWell as a guest editor on the October issue focused on what American food is all about today.
The photo of me on the cover (above) was shot in Chinatown, blocks from my home in New York City. For years I've loved to scour the markets in this thriving neighborhood for Asian vegetables, noodles and condiments. We selected Chinatown because it's one of the OGs of ethnic enclaves, a neighborhood that has preserved its food traditions, while second, third and fourth generations have continued to reinvent them. The different incarnations of Chinese flavors—the upstart and the old guard—coexist and create something uniquely American.
Food offers us a chance to examine who we really are as a nation, as well as to celebrate our unique foodways. What I have found is that today we are looking to discover new ways of eating, new ingredients we didn't know about, and new dishes that we haven't tried. American food is an ever-evolving landscape, composed of so many influences, past and present. What is traditional today may not be traditional in 50 years or even 20 years from now, and that all depends on who's settled here, who's coming now and who's about to come.
There are so many factors that affect the constant evolution of American food. They can be health reasons, they can be economic reasons, they can be the movements of refugees from one part of the world to another, and they can just be due to media coverage and exposure. Social media, and food shows like Top Chef and Taste the Nation and others, have also brought deeper understanding to the public about what American food can be.
Finally we are seeing more diversity and more contributions from all corners of this nation in food media. To me, that adds to the beauty and bounty of what American food is. We're in a great moment —our access to restaurants, chefs, ingredients and recipes has never been more exciting and delicious.
There is so much more to discover about American food. I hope you're as curious about it as I am!
Beef Shawarma with Beet Yogurt Sauce
Beef shawarma is traditionally roasted on a spit and then sliced thin. This grilled version by Padma Lakshmi has similar vibes thanks to a highly seasoned marinade.
Baharat Spiced Eggplant
Baharat means "spices" in Arabic—and this Middle Eastern seasoning is loaded with them. The specific ingredients vary by region and even from family to family, but the warm, aromatic blend always starts with plenty of finely ground black pepper and includes paprika, cumin, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and often cardamom.