Author Takes Us On A Journey Through Her South Asian Heritage & Fave Cuisine In New Book ‘Khabaar’

Author Madhushree Ghosh | Image by Hannah Claire Photography

In 2020, scientist and writer Madushree Ghosh, wrote an essay for Longreads about her family’s South Asian cultural heritage, honoring her late parents’ through vivid memories of her immigrant family’s favorite dishes. It ended up receiving a notable mention in The Best American Food Writing, and from there, the idea for her debut novel ‘Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory and Family’ was born.

‘Khabaar’ weaves together contemplations on the diasporic experience through the eyes of food stall owners, household cooks, and professional chefs of color, asking a simple question: “What does it mean to feel at home?” – particularly through the foods we make. Madhushree also examines her own immigration experience as a woman of color in science, a woman who left an abusive marriage, and a woman who keeps her parents’ memory alive through her Bengali food.

Relying on historical and anecdotal research on how food traveled, ‘Khabaar’ addresses the question of what in food morphs when immigrants adopt another country? What stays the same and evokes the memories of a country long gone? What is passed down through the generations in the adopted country, making the cooking integrally immigrant cuisine

Released on April 4, 2022 through University of Iowa Press paperback, we had the opportunity to dive in deeper to Madhushree’s story prior to pub date. Read on below to hear more about her dynamic story that is sure to ignite the taste buds of readers in more ways than one.

‘Khabaar’ by Madhushree Ghosh

Your personal story is so layered and fascinating. First, can you tell us where your love of food and cooking came from? 

I feel like every one of our journeys are multilayered—we are daughters, cousins, sisters, partners as much as we are from multiple countries, lineage, and lives. I am no different. My love for food is my love for my family. Coming from a Bengali family that had left what’s now Bangladesh during 1947’s British partition of India into India and Pakistan, I grew up with stories of that migration, of the foods they left behind, their childhood memories, and the hope that they would return, if not to move back, to visit what they left behind. Food, in turn, became the representation of what we loved, and what we left behind as a people. 

When I moved to America almost three decades ago, I couldn’t cook to save my life. Just a few fancy things like butter chicken, or gobhi Manchurian which is great, but not something one can eat daily! I had to scour cookbooks, watch other desi graduate students cook their special foods, and call up home to get quick recipes from my mother. But only when she died did I actively started looking into what that food was, how she added certain spices and in which order. It was a very meditative process.

Given that she was gone, as well as her recipes, I was surprisingly able to recreate her food almost out of memory. Initially, it surprised me how much I remembered, as I was never in the kitchen with her. Later, I accepted that as my channeling her memory and my love for her.

What has been one dish in particular, or one type of food that connects you to a specific memory in your life?

Food, memory, and family—what else is there, right? For me, it’s been my mother’s goat curry. I’ve written about it ad nauseum because how can you recreate that food when America, compared to India, is a goat desert?

My memory is that of a sunny childhood—of my father and I heading to our market in New Delhi, bargaining with the butcher, carrying the package back home to my Ma, and watching her clean it (again) before adding spices to marinate it. Sundays were listening to the pressure cooker’s whistle as the curry cooked, of Ma saving the ground goat meat for keema curry with peas for dinner. Sundays were much-anticipated lunches—of us eating our vegetables quickly because without that, we wouldn’t get our share of goat curry.

I think of our childhood of the late seventies and eighties a lot—I have to say it was soft, slow, lazy, and filled with food, food conversations, and memories of a place my parents used to call home.

You have written a lot about your family’s immigrant history and your Bengali heritage. How has this experience formed who you are as a writer today? 

As the daughter of refugees –my parents were children when India was divided by the British in 1947 and moved from what’s now Bangladesh into India—and an immigrant (to America) myself as a graduate student in 1993, the migration of people and what it does to us as humans informs every decision I make. I say that because for the longest while as a young woman in science, I tried very hard to fit in. To know the lyrics to ‘Scarborough Fair‘ or ‘Don’t Let Me Down‘—being ‘westernized’ was a thing to achieve. 

But as one comes to their own, I too realized I am a child of a violently divided country. I am also a child of privilege, with the educational opportunities that many women in my native country aren’t afforded. I am privileged because the Hindu caste system enabled me to. I am the next generation that left their native land because my parents sacrificed so I could get a ‘better’ life. 

I have questioned what that ‘better’ life really means. Is it that we become western and adopt those cultures as our own? Is it that we forget our ancestral roots, our cuisine, our culture? Or do we identify as both, apologize for none, and present to the world what we are—people who come from a different land, adopt the land they now call home and grow a culture that incorporates both, in food, in writing, in social justice, in life.

For me, food writing is life writing. Food is the medium through which one can examine feelings of belonging, loss, grief, outrage, justice and love. My writing has the slant of experience as an immigrant and as the daughter of parents who pined for the land they left till they died. One can grieve and wallow over loss. But one can also find joy in those memories.

My writing examines social justice, be it in immigration or migration or as a person of color, or as a woman in science where being called ‘bossy’ or ‘assertive’, especially as a POC, is a slur. One can examine it through creative nonfiction, or memoir and continue to pay homage to the land of my ancestors.

As a woman of color in the sciences, what were some of the most startling experiences you have had in your career, and how do you deal with this? 

How much time do you have? 

Seriously, since I’m a science person, let’s start with statistics. According to several articles on gender pay parity, even in 2020, the 21st century, women earn $0.83 to white men’s $1. Hispanic women earn about $0.57 and Black women earn about $0.64 to a white man’s dollar. In science, this doesn’t change. In healthcare boards, women make up less than 27 % of which less than 5.7% are women of color. 

As a woman of color in science, and as a healthcare leader for decades in America, these numbers are what keep me going. Not only is it not acceptable, since the George Floyd murder in 2020, a lot of healthcare and biotech companies started diversity training and hiring diverse candidates which seemed like a great idea at first but now, over a year later, feels disappointingly performative. Hoping against hope, I was expecting change that has yet to take effect.

I remember when I was passed over for a promotion, I went to my manager proactively asking her what I could do to be selected the next time around. She replied, “You’re young and don’t have children. I needed to give this promotion to (said man) because he has children and his wife doesn’t work.” This problematic statement has framed my activism in science—for one, promotions are given on merit and ability. A wife ‘who doesn’t work’ is a homemaker who is working much harder than many of us, and needs the respect she deserves. Third, to be voluntarily childfree, does not mean you don’t have a life and/or responsibilities.

My experience in the American corporate healthcare world motivates me to keep mentoring emerging women in science, champion people of color, give them the opportunities I never got and be the relentless and passionate cheerleader I needed at that stage in my career. 

As someone who escaped an abusive marriage, why is it important for you to talk about this and share your story openly? 

Coming from a South Asian family where mental health, domestic abuse, and divorce are shameful topics never to be discussed even within the family, let alone with strangers or the neighborhood, I kept the issues in my marriage to myself. Something is wrong with me—I internalized it. Marriage is hard, everyone says so—I justified it. At least he doesn’t beat me—I minimized it. How can a feminist be abused—I questioned the validity of my own experience. This went on for a decade. 

When the marriage finally fell apart, I went to therapy because I needed to figure out how to live and stay alive. It’s another aspect of healthcare that South Asians rarely talk about—suicidal ideations, depression and self-confidence as it relates to South Asian expectations within the community, though it’s changing now. Therapy saved my life. The reason why I talk about it is because when I wrote about it for the first time, I had countless emails and DMs from women, especially South Asian women, identifying with the situation, and knowing they didn’t know where turn or who to talk to. 

Author Nayomi Munaweera wrote about undiagnosed mental health issues in her own family in the anthology, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About (ed. Michele Filgate, 2019) and noted how in her Sri Lankan family, abusive actions were taken as par for the course, especially against children. Most of us, especially Gen X South Asians, grew up denying ourselves the comfort and support of therapy. My role, however minuscule, is to destigmatize mental health support and to ensure that when women support women, be it at home, or work or among friends, we are powerful in every way.

In ‘Khabaar’, I speak about domestic abuse during the pandemic increasing, especially among people of color. Even before the pandemic, one in three women were physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner. According to UN Women, this number has increased drastically and is underreported during this pandemic, due to lack of resources or freedom to report. 

Chef Garima Kothari’s murder by her husband, Man Mohan Mall, who later committed suicide early in the pandemic, highlighted the fact that we cannot usually see domestic abuse until it’s too late. I needed to talk about it because I knew there are others who think they are alone. I am open with my life, because that’s the least I can be to break the chain.

For many immigrant families, there is a sort of disconnect that happens between generations as we adapt to new countries, cultures and way of life. Did you ever go through this disconnect with your parents? 

Of course! The disconnect I felt had to do with expectations and what I wanted to do growing up. Once I moved to America as a graduate student and then from a PhD to a post-doctoral fellowship to a job on the west coast, my perspective of what my life should be became more global. Returning to India wasn’t a priority because I was now getting married to a man who didn’t want to return to India. I made that choice, knowing my parents wanted me to return.

The second disconnect that I think I struggled mightily with was the standard one that South Asian families have—that their child be a doctor, or engineer. My mother’s side of the family were journalists and literary people—we grew up around books, literature, music. My poems were frequently published in daily newspapers in New Delhi, Lucknow and Kolkata. But when I was in college, Ma sat me down with, “The only thing you have is your science brain. Use that and get out. Journalism and writing will only give you poverty. Idealism, yes, but poverty.” 

Even though I wanted a creative life, my parents’ wishes were that I be a scientist, and I became one. I did not write seriously for almost a decade until my first job in San Diego as a scientist and I missed home enough to write fiction whenever I had a moment. Did I regret this career choice? No, because this gave me the financial freedom to continue to improve my literary craft while keeping my science brain alive. So yes, there were disconnects, but if one sees it from the previous generation’s perspective, what they want for you is what they couldn’t get themselves and that’s what matters.

What do you hope readers will take away and love the most after reading ‘Khabaar’?

I hope readers fall in love with the Ghoshes because my parents were amazing humans. I hope people appreciate that when people move, whether they’re forced to, or move to better their lives or when they have no choice, the love language especially for the country they left is that of food. Food, and versions of it, creates the communication channel to different worlds we wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. 

I hope people make the food I made, and they connect with the history of how South Asians continue to thrive in other parts of the world while absorbing newer cuisines, spices and languages into our own. 

I highlight colonization, of violence against each other, of distrust and of harm. But alongside, I highlight family, joy, memory, community and love. I hope readers identify with this, whether they are South Asians or not, and be part of radical kindness and respect for one another.  

You can learn more about Madhushree’s writing on her website, follow her on Instagram, and get a copy of ‘Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory and Family’ by clicking HERE.

Author Madhushree Ghosh | Image by Hannah Claire Photography