How two Bangladeshi-Americans are weaving in traditions with social activism:
For anyone straddling more than one culture, food often becomes an anchor with which we access and return to it. Sometimes, this anchor can be a source of guilt. Guilt for being afraid to linger in the smell of your mother’s cooking for too long. Guilt for ordering a twenty dollar biryani on the nights when home feels a little further away. Guilt for ever thinking it would taste as good as your mother’s when it arrives. At its best, however, it is a comfort that infuses each and every one of your senses. The warmth of a stack of parathas wrapped tightly in foil on long family car rides, cracking open cardamom between your fingertips, or waking up to the hiss of the pressure cooker on a Saturday morning; nostalgia at its most powerful.
For Mahfuzul Islam and Alvi Zaman, cousins and the founders of Bengali street food venture Jhal, the complexities that come with navigating two cultures through food is something they understand firsthand. The pair grew up in Queens, to first generation Bangladeshi parents, eating only Bengali food, with the exception of occasional trips to McDonalds and Thanksgiving. Mahfuzul credits their exposure to American food largely to afternoons spent watching The Food Network. Like many children of immigrants, they were quick to realize the food which was considered “normal” by their peers. They shared the same feelings of embarrassment so many of us often experienced towards anything which exposed our difference.
Fast forward over a decade and we are now faced with a food industry which has increasingly recognized and, sometimes fetishized, that difference. “Ethnic food” has been embraced in a series of trends that ironically celebrate the very same things which often caused us shame as kids. This evokes feelings of pride as well as frustration (turmeric existed before turmeric lattes) but for Mahfuzul and Alvi it presented an opportunity to claim and celebrate the Bengali-New York culture they were raised in.
The idea for Jhal was born out of a trip to the Queens International Night Market, an annual pop-up of street food vendors that runs in New York throughout the summer at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. While visiting with family and sampling the array of world cuisines, they recognized the lack of Bengali dishes offered and quickly set to work.
They began by serving two traditional snacks sold on the streets of Bangladesh. The first is Jhal Muri, a mix of puffed rice, chili peppers, and fried gram flour served in a newspaper cone. The second, Fuchka, is a hollow puri stuffed with yellow peas, herbs, chili peppers and tamarind sauce. When I first visited their stall last summer, I tried both, indulging in the heat of the chili before quickly soothing it with a sweet saffron and rose infused lemonade garnished with basil seeds.
Mahfuzul is quick to point out the stark contrast between street food culture in U.S. vs South Asia:
“Here people are paying a lot of money for a tiny amount and just for the novelty of it. In South Asia, street food is made by people trying to survive day to day. It’s grueling work.”
For Mahfuzul, Jhal is not about repackaging traditional street-food culture for a white American audience. Jhal is first and foremost a social venture, using food to empower immigrant women within the Bengali community.
“It’s not just the food itself, it’s the whole culture behind it,” he tells me.
Jhal employs a handful of Bengali women who are stay-at-home mothers or those who have newly immigrated to the U.S.
“It started because of my mother and aunts who are stay at home mothers and are very timid. Growing up, I used to get very frustrated. I was like why can’t you do this or go out and do this. As you get older, you realise why they’re in the position they’re in. They got married at a very young age, came over to America, and prior to finding themselves, they had to care for an entire family first. Looking back, I think they were depressed but they didn’t have a word for it,” Mahfuzul explains.
Mahfuzul’s mother along with many other women in her community are often confined to spending most of their time at home upon arriving in the US. Among other factors which make cultural integration difficult, leaving behind a support network, the inability to speak English, and a lack of financial independence can create an incredibly isolating reality that ultimately contributes to the rising rates of depression. Despite being one of the largest and fastest-growing immigrant populations in New York, both the conversation about these issues as well as culturally sensitive resources to help tackle them are limited at best.
In employing these women, Mahfuzul’s goal is to help them develop a set of skills that will instill a sense of independence. Currently, Jhal’s efforts are focused on hosting smartphone literacy workshops, helping women get their learner permit, and navigate public transport. These experience, he hopes, invites these women to step outside of their comfort zone and connect with other women to build a support network and reduce isolation.
A quick look at the past year for Jhal makes it very clear that it stays committed to investing back in the community in which the idea was born out of. In addition to street snacks, Jhal is now exploring more of Bengali cuisine through catering. Most recently, they catered fellow Queens native Anik Khan’s album listening party, and hosted events at the Rhode Island School of Design and The Bronx Museum of the Arts to discuss the Bengali diaspora. Upcoming projects also include creating a short film, and mural in Jamaica, Queens in honor of the Bengali community.
For Mahfuzul and Alvi, food is an anchor with which they connect to their New York-Bengali community, but more importantly, respond to it. In the past year, their work through Jhal has moved beyond the exploration of recipes and flavors, delving further into prevalent issues in their community, proving that the celebration of Bengali culture may start with food but it does not end there.
Priya is a writer and producer from London. She has written for BuzzFeed, Burnt Roti, and Kajal Magazine amongst others. She is a contributing writer to The Good Immigrant USA (Little, Brown 2019), an American edition of an award-winning best-selling anthology exploring race. Her writing often reflects on South Asian immigrant identity and how it intersects with pop culture and womanhood. Priya is currently based in New York where she produces original content at Vevo. You can find her tweeting into the void over at @pri_diddy
Passion is something many claim to have, but few truly possess. Whether it’s hobbies, professions or romances, it’s the secret ingredient we all crave but is quite difficult to come by. But on meeting Chef Devan Rajkumar — aka Chef Dev — it takes just a few moments to understand true passion. For the Indo Guyanese chef from Toronto, passion has always been food and its power to connect, nourish, excite and represent.
Whatever the outlet, Rajkumar feeds his mission to bean ambassador for modern, West and East Indian cuisine. I recently sat down with him to talk about this and the experience of bringing Indo Caribbean flavors to South Asia and beyond.
Feeding a passion for food
“The sights, the sounds, the aromatics. The excitement of the kitchen has just always appealed to me,” he began. “Food moves me in a certain way. I want to nurture and nourish. I’ve just always wanted to do for others.”
As he sat back in a ‘Guyana vs. the world’ tank top, Rajkumar’s energy was palpable.
“I’ve always lived and breathed food, all day, all night. Like I’m talking about food right now. I’m constantly talking about food.”
To Rajkumar, food is education — one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to learn, teach and explore the world — and he credits his older brother Jai for inspiring this mindset. Jai was the first to introduce him to different cuisines, teach him to be curious about the world and show him how to challenge the norms of a “typical brown kid.”
Despite this encouragement, however, a culinary career wasn’t Rajkumar’s first instinct. The son of a businessman, he initially jumped around universities and career paths. He also struggled with substance abuse and grief after Jai’s passing. Through all the challenges, food remained a constant, and the sense of community it created was a powerful draw.
“At a very young age, I recognized how food made me feel if I was in a bad mood and how it made others feel,” he shared.
He’s always looked forward to sitting around a table with friends and family, enjoying a nice meal, and how everybody could share their stories or just forget their troubles.
“Food is a very powerful vehicle for transporting someone.”
In 2009, Rajkumar finally followed his passion and joined a culinary school. He realized he had a knack for creating this experience for others.
“I realized I had the power and the gift to nourish and nurture someone else in this way,” and it became irresistible.
A cook with no boundaries, Rajkumar didn’t want to limit the number of people he reached to just those in Canada.
For many, success in the culinary world is having a thriving restaurant, but after spending six months opening one with The Food Dudes in 2015, Rajkumar realized this route wasn’t for him.
“I wanted more culture,” he explained. “I wanted to learn and not so much get my ass kicked, but to be a sponge. I knew I needed to travel to broaden my horizons.”
So he did. Rajkumar spent months cooking in India, London, Peru and Dubai. He shared his experiences on social media and people back home took note.
“When I returned to Toronto,” he continued, “that trip had established me as a cook who had no boundaries. As someone who wasn’t afraid to explore and get out of their comfort zone.”
And get out of his comfort zone he did.
“From catering to a pop-up abroad to filming ‘Cityline’ and speaking engagements, every day is different,” he explained. “I’ve had my bouts with imposter syndrome, but ultimately, I’ve gotten to make more of an impact than just opening a restaurant.”
That impact has especially been prominent in South Asia.
Rajkumar embraces not only his Caribbean culture, but his South Asian roots as well.
The temple he grew up in was a blend of Guyanese and East Indians, so he knew foods from a typical Guyanese household like alu curry and saijan but also East Indian favorites like dhokla and malai kofta.
“Ultimately, we came from India,” he declared. “I embrace the culture and I am very comfortable leaning back and forth into it. It’s in me. It’s who I am.”
In fact, Rajkumar noted his career became much more defined and successful when he really began to identify as not just a chef, but as an Indo Guyanese Canadian chef.
Hearing this, it was no surprise that Guyana, India and Pakistan stand out as some of his favorite destinations.
“Guyana is hugely impactful for me,” he shared, having visited his parents’ homeland frequently. “As soon as that door opens [at the airport], you smell Guyana. You smell the sugarcane burning from rum factories. I have all these wonderful sights, sounds, smells and flavors from those trips.”
His sentiments for India are similar.
“Incredible India is incredible India,” he referred to the country’s tourism slogan. “Every 100-200 kilometers, the menus can change completely. I can live in India for the rest of my life and never see it all.”
Rajkumar’s first trip in 2020 was only nine days long, but its impact stayed with him.
He couldn’t have been more excited to return for a month, earlier this year, and host what his friends there dubbed the “Mad Love Pop-Up,” after one of his signature sayings.
He filled the menu for the 18-day event with global dishes like ceviche and scotch eggs but infused them with West and East Indian flavors like masala, jerk and cassareep — a rich extract of the bitter cassava native to Guyana. Before he left, he even prepared Guyana’s national dish of pepper pot, a hearty meat stew, for the staff meal.
“My whole thought process was ‘let me give these people — my family there — an experience they’ve never had before,” he detailed. “Any time I give someone pepper pot or cassareep, they’re just so shocked. It’s so unique.”
Rajkumar is always excited to share the flavors and culture of Guyana with new people, but with his roots in South Asia, bringing them to Pakistan was that much more profound.
“In India, maybe it’s different, but in Lahore, most people don’t know about Guyana or where it is. That’s another reason why I did this. That’s why I do all the things I do. That’s why I’m wearing this tank top — to raise awareness about my culture and how beautiful it is,” he said.
Time in South Asia has also helped Rajkumar gain a deeper appreciation for the origins of many Indo Caribbean dishes and reinforced his love for them.
“Guyanese cuisine doesn’t just have Indian influence, but so many dishes in some way, shape, or form come from there. Like when I’m eating sada roti, I can tie it back to which type of flatbread it came from in India. I feel like a better-equipped chef at the end of the day. I’m more connected to my Guyanese roots and to the culture overall.”
Rajkumar wants to foster a deeper understanding and relationship between both heritages. He wants his food to build connections, not disparity.
Bringing the world back home
Rajkumar has visited over 20 countries, but Pakistan remains one place he’ll cherish his entire life. He is grateful not only for the opportunities he’s had there, but also for the chance to offer a fresh, alternative view of the country from what is often shown by the media.
“When people saw me posting content from Lahore, they were like, ‘Oh my God, this is Pakistan?’ This is not what we expected. This is not what we thought we’d see.’ They were shocked at how beautiful, kind, and welcoming everyone was.”
Reactions like these are Rajkumar’s ultimate goal.
A cookbook is due next year. He has aspirations of launching merchandise and cookware, traveling to South East Asia, and continuing his pop-ups, but ultimately, he concludes,
“I just want to stand for something. I want to continue to learn, remain humble, represent my Western and Eastern cultures and spread mad love. I want to be an ambassador to that world and be someone who’s dedicated to his craft, bettering himself and those around him.”
“I just want to continue to grow as a person,” he added with sincerity as he touched on his sobriety and what it’s taught him about achieving your goals.
“That might sound cliche, but it’s new to me. I’ve spent the last two years learning about myself and being vulnerable about how I feel, my healing journey and what I’m going through. If I excel and continue to invest time and discipline in that arena, everything else around me will flourish. I believe that goes for anyone.”
Rajkumar is going far literally and figuratively, but no matter where he lands, you can be sure he’ll bring something back for his supporters, whether it be a new view of the world or a concoction like a ceviche pani puri on one of his menus.
“That’s my travels to India, Pakistan and Peru all in one bite!” he exclaimed.
Chef Dev’s journey has not always been an easy one, but it’s a powerful example of the success one can taste with hard work, embracing authenticity and following true passion.
It is officially that time of year—the holiday season. There’s nothing like Christmas and New Year’s in the West Indies. Between the pepperpot in Guyana and the palm trees decorated in lights in Trinidad, the home food, warm weather and laid-back ambiance makes us wish we could escape the cold and head back to the Caribbean. Most of us, however, cannot “take holiday” and find ourselves hungry for fresh dhal puri and doubles. But, thanks to these Indo-Caribbean food bloggers, we can bring the motherland to our kitchens.
From Diwali mithai specialties to curry chicken, Matthew is creating a name for himself as a young Guyanese food blogger. He makes a great effort to incorporate Hindu holidays and traditions on his Instagram account, in conjunction with the customary foods and sweets associated with these religious events. However, his expertise does not end there, with new and alternative recipes for classic dishes such as curry chicken and bhara, Matthew takes center stage sharing both traditional Guyanese dishes as well as specific religious dishes made for festivals. His most popular YouTube video, with 1.4 million views, features his grandmother and focuses on the best tips to make the softest Guyanese paratha roti. In addition, his YouTube account is home to many videos offering guidance to Indo Caribbean cooking. Find recipes at @mattews.guyanese.cooking
Natasha Laggan of Trini Cooking with Natasha is wildly popular throughout the Caribbean and the U.S. With humble beginnings, Natasha credits her love of food to her family’s business. She speaks of the nostalgia home food provides her as she reminisces memories of her grandmother’s cooking and helping her mother make sandwiches early in the morning. Featured by Forbes, Natasha grew her Facebook following quickly throughout the pandemic by posting old YouTube videos. Today, she has more than 1 million followers on Facebook and over 200K followers on YouTube. She uses her passion for cooking and Trinidadian culture to bring easy-to-follow recipes to viewers. Her following has now reached the West Indian diaspora globally as she has also become a brand ambassador to two well-known food companies. Follow the food expert @trinicookingwithnatasha.
With over 100K followers on YouTube, Ria is quite the expert when it comes to making roti. Her dhal puri, sada roti and paratha roti tutorials have over 1M views! However, her expertise does not stop there. Of the 180 YouTube tutorials, her recipes vary from curry to other Trinidadian favorites like macaroni pie and pigtail soup. Just scrolling through her YouTube page makes your mouth water. From doubles to classic Trinidad bakes like pound cake and sweet bread, she provides precision and anecdotal commentary while guiding you through the familiarity of home food. Check out Ria’s page at @cookingwithria.
Known as Chef Devan, Devan Rajkumar embraces his Guyanese Canadian heritage by creating recipes combining flavors of both the East and West Indies. His love of food has allowed him to expand his role to judge in a popular Canadian cooking show: Food Network Canada’s Fire Masters. His cooking often blends the flavors of multiple cultures but also creates the classic recipes of his motherland. With a multitude of interests, Chef Dev uses his social media platform to connect with followers by sharing various aspects of his life that go beyond cooking. His most recent YouTube video provides a trailer for an upcoming video “Tastes Guyana” which shows him exploring Guyana from the inside, specifically deep parts of the inner country. To learn more about Chef Devan follow @chefdevan.
Reshmi is the chef behind the growing blog, Taste of Trinbago. A Trinidadian native who now resides in Texas, she uses her love of food and Trinidadian culture to share hacks, tips and easy recipes with West Indians throughout the globe. She finds a way to simplify traditional West Indian meals, that we once watched our elders make with curiosity. From holiday specialties like black cake to Diwali delicacies, Reshmi has brought vegetarian and non-veg recipes to followers in an extremely accessible way. She even posts recipe cards on her IG highlights for followers who may need written instructions. Her IG profile is a mix of various West Indian foods while also sharing bits of her life and even her secrets to baby food. Follow her @tasteoftrinbago.
These are just five Indo Caribbean food bloggers sharing their secrets to easy cooking. The once very daunting recipes and food instructions our parents gave have been simplified by most of these bloggers through video, voice over and modernized recipes. We no longer have to estimate a “dash, pinch or tuk” of any masala. We are just days away from Christmas and this is the perfect time to find the best-suited recipe to make that paratha for Santa.