Zahir Janmohamed likes lemon bars. He likes them so much, sometimes he’ll even make a big batch and bring them to dinner parties.
“I would make lemon bars and go to these writing residencies, and people would be like, ‘Is this your grandmother’s recipe? Is this an Indian delicacy?’” says the Sacramento–born freelance journalist. “And I’m like, ‘No. It’s from Google.’”
That assumption—that someone of Indian descent would naturally prepare authentic Indian cuisine—nagged at Janmohamed. After moving to Portland last fall, he met Soleil Ho, a chef who’d also recently relocated to Portland, and who related similar experiences.
“Because I’m Vietnamese-American, if I cook anything Southeast Asian, people will assume it’s the definitive version,” says Ho, a sous chef at Marukin Ramen. “And I’m like, ‘I was born in Chicago. Chill out.’”
Rather than quietly stewing, Janmohamed and Ho decided to do something: last month, they launched a podcast called Racist Sandwich, diving headfirst into thorny questions of food and race through conversations with people of color in the local food industry. (The name of the podcast refers to a 2012 flap over cafeteria food at Portland Public Schools.) So far, they’ve featured black winemaker Bertony Faustin of Abbey Creek Vineyard, Han Ly Hwang of Kim Jong Grillin’, and chef Kusuma Rao of Indian fusion pop-up Ruchikala. Up next is an interview with Deadstock Coffee’s Ian Williams, the Nike janitor-turned-shoe-designer-turned-coffeeshop-proprietor.
“So much of the writing and discussion about food and race is, can white people do this? Can white people do that?” Janmohamed says. “That’s not really an issue for us. The issue is: why aren’t we hearing more voices of color?”
In Portland, where our culinary options can feel more diverse than our population, that’s a vital question. This isn’t a city, Janmohamed and Ho say, where people are accustomed to confronting or discussing such issues. Exhibit A: less than two months ago, N Williams Avenue's Saffron Colonial made national headlines for its offensive name—and for its owner's tone-deaf defense. The podcast was already in the works by that point, but the fiasco seemed to validate its existence. “It was an easy example that very quickly captured people’s imaginations,” Ho says.
“It punctured this very cliched notion that food brings us together,” adds Janmohamed.
The first few episodes of Racist Sandwich have been lively and candid, from Faustin detailing his hustle as a black man in an overwhelmingly white industry to Rao’s stories of growing up Indian-American in Tucson. In the future, Janmohamed and Ho aim to tackle issues of gender and class, and to extend the conversation beyond the podcast—they’re holding a launch party at Kim Jong Grillin’ June 21, and hope to host more informal gatherings in the future.
Their website also features a growing list of Portland restaurants and markets owned by people of color, with pithy—and genuinely valuable—one-line descriptions. Frank's Noodle House: “Watch the masters make Chinese noodles by hand and drool.” Chongqing Huo Guo: “Chill hot pot spot that will blow your sinuses into oblivion.” El Taco Yucateco: “At this taco truck, avocados come standard.” Nong's Khao Man Gai: “Reminds Soleil of Viet church basement vibes.”
For Ho, the podcast can help provide listeners—especially, yes, white listeners—with a template for conversations about race, gender, or class. “I feel like a lot of racism in the food world gets a free pass, because we’re used to the anthropological aspect of eating,” she says. “It’s the frame of reference we have as Americans: I’m going to have Chinese today and Thai tomorrow. You’re not asked to engage on any sort of meaningful level with those cultures. We want to go beyond whether something tastes good.”