In college, Priya Krishna at first imagined a future career in government or diplomacy. But then she started writing a column for her school newspaper about creative ways to upgrade the food from the college meal plan, and that inspired a book on the subject—Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks. This in turn led to a job at the legendary food magazine Lucky Peach, and her fate was sealed: She was going to write about cooking, eating, and everything food-ish.
Which brings us to her most recent book, Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family. Now an established contributor to outlets that include The New York Times, Bon Appétit, and The New Yorker, she enjoys alternating between writing about her own cooking and covering other subjects.
“Do I have to choose between being Priya Krishna the author and Priya Krishna the reporter?” she muses in an interview. “I want to write about food, to talk about narratives that are underrepresented. Not just my own, but the narratives of people in states that don’t often get covered in media . . . members of the LGBTQ community, or refugees. I see it as one of my goals to give voice to people who traditionally haven’t had one in this industry.”
Krishna’s mother, in particular, looms large in her work, serving as a source of vast knowledge on dishes and preparation, as well as an amazing example of the unquantifiable instincts found in the best cooks of any cuisine. On the book tour for Indian-ish, her parents “were seeing these really well-known chefs treating my mom’s recipes with such reverence and interest. And I think that was so amazing to her. Just seeing your family recipes codified in a book is super cool.”
Some of the dishes in Krishna’s book are traditional, and some are hybrids—incorporating parts of non-Indian recipes, or substituting ingredients more widely available in America. But this isn’t the cold artifice employed in some fusion cuisine. “What my mom does is really natural. It’s what happens when immigrants come to this country, and they can’t find the food they’re looking for. They discover the flavors, and something really amazing like saag feta is born out of it.”
While Indian-ish is full of great recipes, it also explains not just what to cook, but how Indian food works. For example, there are walk-throughs of the relationship between ghee, oil, and spices, helping to instill in a novice cook’s an understanding of the basics so that you can improvise with confidence later.
That confidence comes with experience, but good intuition may be more of an inborn talent. Does Krishna get nervous about improvising off her mother’s recipes? “I’m not nervous about it,” she says. “I just think my mom’s a better cook than I am. My mom has a level of intuition about flavors and pairings that is just amazing. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen, and I write about food and chefs for a living.”