Zahir Janmohmaed, Soleil Ho and Alan Montecillo are the brains behind the podcast The Racist Sandwich. Together, they examine the politics of food and the ways we consume, create and interpret it. From discussions about racism in food photography to interviews with chefs of color, they hash out a diverse range of topics with humor, grace and very little pretension.
1. Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
This is one of the sharpest memoirs I have ever read. Shteyngart writes about immigrating to the U.S. as a Russian Jew and his struggle to adjust to life in America.
The book is so incredibly funny that it is easy to forget that underneath the humor is a profound exploration about identity, immigration, anti-Semitism and the former Soviet Union. I can't recommend it enough.
2. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
There are very few books that have made me sob. This is one of them. Ishiguro's masterpiece, published in 1989, won the Booker prize that year and deservedly so. The novel centers around a butler, Mr. Stevens, and his conflicted feelings towards his former colleague, Miss Kenton. Skip the movie, which turns this incredibly complex novel into a love story alone. It is that too, but it is also an examination of complacency, bigotry and blind allegiance to tradition.
3. Orientalism by Edward Said
Admittedly this might not be the best book to take to the beach but no other book has had a greater influence on me than Said's. This book was published in 1978 and remains a seminal text in understanding post-colonialism. Said's essential argument is that Orientalism is the exaggeration of difference, the presumption of Western superiority, and the application of clichéd analytical models for perceiving the "Oriental" world. When we started our podcast, Soleil Ho and I spoke at length about this book and how our podcast was an attempt to take Said's theory of Orientalism and apply it to the world of food.
1. The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches by Andrea Nguyen
Nguyen blasts open the banh mi paradigm with this book, and every recipe in it is stellar.
2. Afro-Vegan: Farm-fresh African, Caribbean & Southern Flavors Remixed by Bryant Terry
I love Bryant Terry’s mission to place the plant-based diet within the context of African diasporic cooking, and I especially love his suggested musical tracks to bob your head to while you’re working though his recipes.
3. Koreatown: A Cookbook by Deuki Hong
Oh, the banchan! The language in this book is so light and familiar, and it’s lovely to read various notables' fond memories of Korean food.
1. Red Sorghum by Mo Yan
I think Americans should read more Chinese literature. Here’s one place to start. This is a sprawling, visceral, multi-generational tale of a sorghum winemaking family in China. It takes you through pivotal moments in modern Chinese history, from the Japanese invasion in the 1930s all the way through the Cultural Revolution. Mo Yan’s writing has been compared to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I don’t know enough about Marquez to judge whether that’s accurate, but I will tell you that I first read this six years ago and its images and descriptions have stuck with me.
2. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in The End by Atul Gawande
Dr. Gawande shows us how the medical system is ill-equipped to deal with the reality of modern aging. But more fundamentally, this book will change the way you see old age, medicine and dying itself.
3. Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert Kaplan
Even if geopolitics isn’t really your thing, I recommend this book. And if you’re a generally curious, politically-minded person who wants to read something that will challenge your view of the world, you should absolutely read this book. The South China Sea is an abstract news headline to many Americans, but for millions of Asian-Americans and the hundreds of millions of people who live in Southeast Asia, it’s one of the most important issues of our time. Kaplan’s hard-nosed realism can be tough to swallow — and I don’t know if I necessarily agree with all of his conclusions — but it’s a sober and sharp reminder of how complex the world is.