Biskut Bar Interview with Mother Tongue TV

 

"Mother Tongue is an online platform that celebrates food stories of migration, race, (in)authenticity and the Second Generation. It connects global narratives through original writing, personal interviews, recipes, videos and a curation of related content around the world." 

For more interview and our founder's original interview, please click here or see below.

 

Where are you answering this from in the world? What are you eating or drinking today?

I’m sitting in East London at home overlooking a sparse, pandemic-era Victoria Park across the canal. It’s a brusque winter day and I follow the sun’s rays weaving through the bare trees and landing on the rippling water. The backdrop of nature’s stillness is delicately nudged by neighbourhood ducks and swans while sun-kissed reflections flitter off houseboats - a sight I feel lucky to bear witness each day.

I have a cup of masala chai and a bowl of pinni biscuits in front of me (both of which are testers for new products at biskut bar) as I journey through these thoughtful questions with you.

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in Chandigarh, India then moved to England when I was a toddler before we made our way to the US when I was around 6 years old. I lived in Virginia until I left University and couldn’t escape fast enough (or so laments my mom). I traipsed off to Milan for a year to study fashion because I dropped pre-med like a hot potato. My University was a more traditional liberal arts school and my family background more suited to hardball academics, I didn’t know fashion was an option until I made it one. After my course ended I moved to my dream city: New York City, baby, where I bought a book outlining the best stores, printed out a bunch of resumes and spoke to whomever gave me enough time to say “Hi, I want to work in fashion but not in retail. Can you direct me to your corporate offices?” And that is how I got my first fashion job working in Production. I continued to live and work in fashion for 7 years in Manhattan. Oh right, there was that little 6 months blip in my life where I took off to Buenos Aires, Argentina to write a book I never published. It turned out to be a painstakingly long diary entry about love, heartbreak and whatever adolescent woes, identity and quarter life crisis that overwhelmed my “all the feels” feeling heart.

Eventually I met my partner in crime who lived in Los Angeles and we were destined to make a long distance relationship survive. It thrived, we got married, had a 3 month honeymoon adventure when bam, my husband landed a job in London! A month later we found ourselves in an Airbnb in East London, our former lives squished into suitcases ready to go to wherever the wind settled us.

So come on, what about food, I can hear you nudge. Well all those places I lived and all the countries I have visited in between are made up of hundreds of savoury and sweet food memories. Five and a half years of fashion in London and two little savage babies later, I decided to jump off the deep end (because from my experience nothing is more challenging and risky in life than raising the next generation of world citizens) and launch biskut bar.

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What would you say is the mantra of Biskut Bar?

When my husband and I transplanted to London, I was not working the first few months and in exploring my new home, I was naturally inclined to dive deep into the food scene, then I started to cook at home more. The more I read about cooking, the more I fell in love with the process, and the more I cooked, the more I could deconstruct each ingredient into a singular origin, making each from scratch. Not revolutionary, I know, but all of a sudden I felt that I could make anything. With the world wide web at my fingertips, I made all things that I had an affinity for and it was a different type of gratification from the fashion world. And the people I turned to for guidance felt more of the earth than those I was surrounded by in the fashion industry. 

With time, I found myself going back to South Asian sweets over and over trying to find new ways to curb my sweet tooth. I wanted to love them the way I did their Western counterparts, but I just couldn't devour the all too sweet sweets in the same way. And then as these things usually happen, I had my aha moment shortly after my second babe was born. I was gifted several ziplock bags of panjiri from my mom's friend to help with my postpartum recovery. This old school ayurvedic wellness and herbal restorative mix has been passed down for countless generations of new mothers before me in order to strengthen bones, aid in digestion and infuse a mama with nutrients and vitamins for milk production and health. Along with the panjiri, I was also gifted classic chocolate brownies and barfi.

The treats were given to me to "sweeten my mouth" in celebration and welcoming of a new life. This tradition of celebrating and delighting in sweets in South Asian culture is called "moo mitha" and it is this very act of giving joy and warm blessings that speak to me the most.

The vibe of biskut bar is playful and experiential, spreading joy and celebration with each delivery. biskut bar is borne from repackaging and resourcing ingredients from those very ziplock bags of the nutrient packed wellness mix. It is borne from an undercurrent of South Asian foods ready to be in the limelight instead of the prize winning of colonisation or dare I say a second class cuisine by and for second class citizens to the West. It is borne from the lack of mindfully crafted and ethically packaged South Asian treat options providing conscious consumers a gateway to Punjabi culture. It is borne from nostalgic Summers spent in Patiala, India. It is borne from a desire to pass on an identity to my children, to bring forth my Punjabi and Sikh heritage and to allow it to exist beyond me. And most especially biskut bar is borne from a desire to give back to the community for every step of the way I am nothing if I am not a part of something. At biskut bar we donate a portion of sales to different charity organizations. I am indebted to God’s graces and thankful every single day for this Life. 

When I set out to create biskut bar, it was not a moment in time per se but a culmination of all my lived experiences. The products, the packaging, its value system are all intentional surmisings, doings and persisting. The past 20 years of my life has been a series of a game of darts. I have been throwing darts over and over again in the form of writing, cooking, recipe testing, recipe creating, photography, videography, blogging, podcasting, reading and biskut bar is where I’ve landed. Bullseye or not, biskut bar in my mind was the company I knew from the pit of my gut that I would launch one day and only until the moment of launching it does it just...make sense.

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Who have been the biggest food influences in your life?

My biggest food influences would be all the aunties (and the few uncles) in my life who are major bosses in the kitchen. Do they even understand the depth of skill they possess (doubtful); a fine craft that over the years has been explored and honed into their own signature styles. They are underrated first class chefs, honestly. And from whom can I deepen my connectivity to my Indian roots if not for the elders and my peers?

There was a time, not too long ago, where if someone were to tell me that I’d have a food business in Punjabi biscuits and treats, I would have been in disbelief. I grew up culturally tied to my roots but my upbringing was in essence All-American - captain of my sports’ teams, ballet, school dances, Girl Scouts, tailgates and sorority life. Except now I realise I was never actually All-American nor ever could be because I am brown! And my brownness was deeper rooted than I ever understood until now. My attachment to my roots plays out for me in my absolute love of Punjabi food and even more so Punjabi delicacies. The good stuff for me doesn’t lie in overly sweet gulab jamuns and jalebis (of which I love in tiny amounts) but in the stash of gajak my Dadi stored in her cupboard for me on visits alongside the patissah, rewari, fennel buns and rusk each from a specific bakery specialising in each. And of course it was the homely shortbread biscuits with sugar crystals on top on offer with each afternoon cup of masala chai or in my early years chai pathi dudh. “Biskut” is the Indian accent to the word “biscuit” and I can still hear my Dadi asking me if I want one with my milky tea. Oh but the kulfi falooda is what would do my stomach in at Gopals Sweet Shop just a rickshaw ride, the preferred mode of travel, down the street from our home. It was the dinners at a family friend’s home where chicken was roasting on the insides of a domestic tandoor in the garden and dal makhani would be simmering in a large kadai in the kitchen as homemade plum liqueur was being offered around. These memories of laughter, food and drink: punjabiyat, the spirit of Punjab, are the essence of my journey with biskut bar.

And of course, having children is the biggest impetus to my deep dive into Indian foods. Food is sustenance, nourishment, pleasure and comfort. It is a language, a culture and a heritage. Food is an identity and the best way I know how to tangibly pass down my Punjabi Indian heritage to the next generation. Confidence over their growing years stems from a rooted heritage. That is a duty I fear I lack depth in, but I am on the journey with them and hope to be forgiven for any shortcomings.

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And the biggest non-food influences?

I don’t know where to start! Arundhati Roy is a simply incredible, thought provoking firecracker not to mention a brilliantly poetic writer. I'm currently reading her latest, Azadi which was written now at the start of the pandemic. Jhumpa Lahiri always comes to mind as an influential part of my reading journey perhaps because she was the first South Asian author I can remember reading. Her books Interpreter of Maladies, Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth were representations of a part of my culture and it was novel (pun intended) to have this insight in a book. They are stories beautifully told and Interpreter of Maladies planted a seed that I, too, will write a short story novel some day. (This notion is a slowly dying one but not yet dead, eh). Music certainly is an influence and as I am made to think about my heritage more so by answering these questions I long to be in my parents home where I grew up with music turned up loudly in the house or in the car. Certainly in the last 10 years when we all visit as older children and with their grandchildren in tow, there is a momentous change in atmosphere transitioning the already manic house from afternoon to evening by the sounds of bottles of wine corking and music blasting - Punjabi love songs, old school Hindi Bollywood tracks, Bhangra, Sufi Gazals. I try to incorporate music into our lives at home with my kids and am lucky to have a son who absolutely adores singing! My children constantly force me to embrace our every day happenings in a new light and guide me to be a better person for them, a miraculous and taxing privilege. 

Undeniably, another blessed privilege is travel - a significant influence on whom I am today, my taste buds, aesthetic preferences and how I relate to others. I’d be remiss not to give a hefty dedication to Kobe, Japan where my maternal family lives. I spent many Summers visiting a place I can genuinely call home, a place for many growing up was truly a land of wonder - the Far East. For me, it is a place where I played out most of my childhood shenanigans acting a fool with my family. And the food, oh gosh the food! I think we all have some sort of childhood trauma because of the amount of time we spent eating and discussing our next meal. My grandparents immigrated to Kobe 65 years ago and my last trip was in 2019 when my Nani got to meet my children, her great grandchildren for the last time before passing away. Her story is one I hope to tell more of in time.

How do you feel when you’re asked the question ‘where are you from’?

Honestly, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t think people are genuinely trying to be offensive and if I sense they are I can end the conversation at any point. I am someone who likes to ask a lot of questions and don’t feel embarrassed to do so, therefore I equally welcome such conversation. I’m clearly a brown girl so to assume I am only American (or only British now living here) rejects a huge part of my identity. Perhaps to not be curious enough to ask further may be more offensive to me because I am not 100 parts of one culture or identity.

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What are your thoughts on ‘authenticity’ in the context of food?

This is a big question for me and something I battled with a lot leading up to the launch of biskut bar. There are so many extraordinary Indian chefs and bakers who understand the food, the tastes, the origins from a first person context. My context is and will always be a third culture take because I know only what I’ve been exposed to or what I myself take the time to learn. Especially living in London and being so far away from my family in the US, I feel I have to work doubly hard to create traditions and plant emotional cultural connections. There is no one else who will make them Punjabi food or indulge them in a Sakhi at bedtime, throw out a Punjabi idiom when a life lesson is to be shared, or translate the words of a Punjabi song playing in the background.

I have questioned whether I am the right person to provide an authentic presentation of Punjabi and Indian treats. Do I really understand the flavours? Do I really understand the methods? Do I have the right tools at hand? But my cultural excavation through food and calling to ancestry is my own journey and I don’t have to do it alone nor can I. Besides, sometimes it is the outsiders perspective that can bring out the best parts of a culture and its food. It can awaken lost traditions and represent them in new ways.

It also begs the question of whose version of Punjab or India is authentic when we each have our own family recipes, traditions and kitchen hacks? So long as there is a genuine connection to a food then authenticity will speak for itself. Otherwise whatever the output, it will never be just right.

And your thoughts on the word ‘fusion’ in the context of food?

I think it depends on who is doing the fusing and to what end it is enjoyed. If a person is inherently a mix of two cultures then a fusion of a food may not be fusion at all but a perfect marriage. If fusions are done well, it could bring a fresh new dish to a culture. Take Manchurian Gobhi, a popular dish in North Indian restaurants and a successful fusion of Chinese and Indian together. Nik Sharma comes to mind when considering his in depth knowledge of flavours, translating science and South Asian flavour profiles into other cuisines to reflect his personal experiences and taste. Priya Krishna, author of Indian-ish touts her cookbook as the ultimate hybrid of American and Indian, sharing her mom's fusion of the two cultures as a means for connection while raising children in the West. I think of my family in Japan who are truly a product of their Punjabi Sikh heritage and Japanese upbringing. Where South Asian spices and groceries were once limited, an Indian dish naturally was fused with whatever Japanese substitutes that were available. What comes to mind are burdock pakoras, my husband’s favourite snack on our visits to Japan and where burdock is a diasporic substitute to lotus root pakoras commonly eaten in India.

Fusion dishes are going to be more and more a part of the norm because of the world we live in - interracial marriages, dietary restrictions, travel and accessibility to spices and recipes give us freedom to alter dishes to suit our individual sensibilities. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is what it is. You’ll always have people falling along the entire spectrum of traditionalist and contemporary.

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With this in mind what are your thoughts on cultural appropriation in the context of food? Can any ‘own’ a cuisine?

I’d be omitting an honest point if I didn’t mention this nudging feeling before I launched biskut bar. That with all the reasons there may have been along the way not to launch my own food business (no professional food experience, more restraints with two small children, the global pandemic!) there was a voice that got progressively louder as Indian foods became more prevalent in the mainstream market (speaking more from my American upbringing, cue turmeric in EVERY THING.) that whispered “if you don’t do it, someone else will and they probably won’t be South Asian!”. This in it of itself speaks volumes about how the effects of cultural appropriation run deep in my psyche.

That is not to say that non-indians can’t or shouldn’t make and promote Indian food but it should be celebrated and honoured as Indian food - Rick Stein’s cookbook India comes to mind as someone who succeeds in this. One can’t really have ownership over a food because that is in a way saying that all Indians are cut from the same cloth or perhaps two Indians in the food industry are unnecessary because they will give a similar perspective - both grossly false. 

Indians are finally now making their way into mainstream television, movies, and hey, the White House (I see you Madam Vice President). There are also more South Asians in the food industry. Do non-Indians still need to tell folks how to make Chicken Tikka Masala, and that too, without mentioning its origins (it’s a British dish!). Should there exist recipes for “tandoori” dishes without explaining that tandoori means to be roasted in an actual tandoor and not an oven otherwise it is just...roasted (gasp). When no information is given, it feels like it is purposeful as if to claim the technique or recipe for oneself. Take Bon Apettit’s recipes that call for a turmeric oil (tempered commonly used South Asian spices such as cumin, coriander, turmeric and peppercorn in oil) to jazz up vegetables and salads. Sure, okay, so they mean tadka (also called chaunk), a very specific and common method of flavouring a South Asian dish at the start or the end of preparation. I can be down with taking methodologies and implementing (even altering) them into one’s own cooking practices, but is the line crossed when the foundation is left out? Or better yet, when an anglicised, albeit inventive, formula simply replaces it? Cultural appropriation is rampant and it runs deep (ahem Starbucks chai tea erm...turmeric chai tea latte) but I’m hopeful that love for a culture will be paid its respects. One day...

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How do you hope narratives on food and race develop in a post-COVID world?

I believe these changes are already happening. I mentioned Bon Appetit above and they were knee deep in ugly allegations about terrible work culture, cultural appropriation and unequal pay between white staff and BAME/BIPOC exposed during the Summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. All industries came to some sort of reckoning, albeit belated, and we are very, very slowly seeing changes. I’m hopeful that narratives will continue to be diverse and varied, that the most qualified person(s) are called upon to share their voice. Change also means that it isn’t the job of the person of colour to be the only portal to such diversity either.

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Finally the plug section…

I implore readers to journey along the farmers’ protests happening right now in Delhi. Laws have changed farming rights grotesquely out of the farmers’ favour and without their consent. Farms in India feed the country and beyond and the right wing party is happy to displace an already impoverished working class into further poverty for corporate capital gains. Farmers traveling in the height of winter to Delhi in protest of this ruling, making life and death sacrifices on behalf of an entire nation. This is a grand political moment and Indian media is already distorting truths. Khalsa Aid in India is on the ground providing free nutritious meals to the masses and I would hugely encourage donations. 

For biskut bar there will be a few new items launching this year one being an Indian Afternoon Tea tin. biskut bar was first envisioned as a pop up Indian Afternoon Tea where I hoped to serve samosas and chaats, biscuits and treats alongside a solid cup of masala chai. Maybe in the “post pandemic” world a version of this can come to fruition but this tin and chai offering is a very exciting next step for our business. I’m also working on a Vaisakhi bundle to provide a medium for celebrating such an important moment in Sikhi, the formalisation of the identity. 

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