Running head first into tough topics in the food industry, from loaded language to body image, the hosts of Racist Sandwich unpack their show's success and discuss what's next.
“My Indian friends would visit my house, and they’re like, ‘The food you’re eating isn’t Indian.’’ But our Indian food has been influenced by generations of my family living in Tanzania,” says Zahir Janmohamed, journalist and co-host of the Racist Sandwich podcast, whose second season launches this Wednesday, over the phone. “Elyse, did that ever happen to you?”
Simple answer: No. Complicated answer: Growing up as a third-generation Japanese-American, I didn’t speak the language or have any family that I knew of in Japan. But slurping ozoni, the requisite Japanese mochi soup, was as much tradition for us as it was there on New Year’s day, and my mom sent me packets of nori (dried seaweed) for lunch along with PB&J. For cultural awareness day in elementary school, she’d carefully wrap me in the kimonos she wore as a kid, and she taught my class to make onigiri (rice balls), which my classmates loved to my surprise. “No, not exactly,” I told Janmohamed and fellow Racist Sandwich podcast host and chef Soleil Ho. But I knew that anxiety of bringing a bit of yourself to the table, not sure if you’re own personal authenticity was authentic enough for others or simply foreign and weird to outsiders. And no one had ever asked me that question before.
That’s the kind of emotional and intellectual plunge Ho and Janmohamed take with each episode of Racist Sandwich, detangling the prickly, uncomfortable issues encased in food that’s typically shied away from by media. Their show’s tagline is “the podcast on food, race, gender, and class,” but it’s much more than that. In their first season, Ho and Janmohamed talk about the white gaze in food media and how that affects food photography, fat and body image, and the charge of the word “curry” with authors, photographers, chefs, winemakers, restaurateurs, and even non-food people. Next season, they’re ready to go even deeper.
Averaging 30,000 downloads a month and after a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign this past winter, Janmohamed and Ho are launching the second season with a few new initiatives. “We’re hoping to switch up our format. We’re thinking of new ways to tell stories,” says Ho.
That means departing from their typical interview format and creating thematic episodes, like one all about Instagram, the politics of the word “oriental,” or city-centric based on their travels. Their first episode of the new season will be all about Detroit, and they hope to interview more people abroad, like from London, and bring in new voices by either accepting freelance pitches or chasing after non-chef stories. “Everyone wants to talk to them,” says Ho. “Who else can we talk to?”
The pair first started recording after a chance meeting at a party in Portland, Oregon. Ho told Janmohamed about how one time a restaurant owner complained her menu was “too Asian,” and how women are pushed into becoming pastry chefs at restaurants. Janmohamed immediately suggested they start a podcast. “I was blown away,” he says. “I just haven’t heard these stories before. Food is a way to talk about race, gender, and class, and I thought we should do something about it.”
Enter Racist Sandwich—cheekily named after an incident where people misinterpreted one principal’s comment about how PB&J for lunch may not be universal for all students—in May 2016. Ho never thought it would take off in the way it has, but Janmohamed knew they had something special with their second episode. “I was sitting back and listening to Soleil talk to Han Ly Hwang of Kim Jong Grillin’ food truck,” says Janmohamed. I was thinking about these two dynamic chefs of color talking about being children of immigrants, and there’s no white interlocution.”
Not that this is the point of Racist Sandwich. “I get this a lot: Why are you guys talking about what white people can or cannot do?” says Janmohamed. “Our podcast is about amplifying voices. One piece of feedback that’s moved me is when people hear their experiences told in a way they haven’t heard before.”
And now that the two are working in two different countries—Ho as a chef at Bonito Kitchen in Puerto Vallarta, Janmohamed as the senior news editor at Hyphen magazine in Columbus, Ohio—they’re constantly looking for new voices and conversations to give a home on their podcast. It’s not easy with balancing full-time jobs, distance, and the gravity of the topics themselves, but the two wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Every couple of months, we get a one-star review on iTunes,” says Ho. “My favorite one was someone who said they found our podcast through other foodie podcasts, but they didn’t like it because it made them feel things they didn’t want to feel. The idea that I made someone feel something they didn’t want to feel—it’s sort of amazing.”