The Gannet Q&A

Mayukh Sen

29th March 2018

Interview: James Hansen
Photo: Jason Favreau

Mayukh Sen was born and raised in suburban New Jersey for the first 10 years of his life, before his family moved to North Brunswick. These days he lives in Brooklyn and is currently staff writer at Munchies; his work is an unsurprisingly regular fixture in The Gannet Digest. While staff writer at Food52, he wrote a profile of forgotten soul food sensation Princess Pamela, which was nominated for a James Beard Award last month. He has been working on a story about K.T. Achaya, “the godfather of Indian food writing” for over a year, and is excited to be writing it for an Indian audience while living in the eternal hope that it “won’t be a colossal failure”. We’re not sure he has anything to worry about.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

My father died in June of last year. During one of our last outings as a family, he, my mother, and I visited Swagath Gourmet in Edison, New Jersey, the town where I’d grown up. It’s the last meal I remember we were together as a unit. Swagath is a South Indian restaurant, and we loved eating there when I was young. My dad had been growing frail by the time of that last visit. Though he historically devoured his rasam, this spiced soup that’d be served before your dosas came out – so much that he’d then demand to have mine, too – he could barely finish his own that time. What’s more is that the general quality of the restaurant, we found, had declined in recent years. During that last visit, it unfortunately wasn’t much better. I ordered a paper dosa, and he ordered his go-to, a masala dosa. He expressed real disappointment over that dosa, finding the filling too soggy; he couldn’t finish it. I think we were all expecting to find more pleasure out of that meal, and it didn’t happen. But, at the risk of sounding corny, I wish the three of us could go there again.

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

I don’t cook nearly as much as I should, though I’m really trying my best to change that. But I’ll go with the cookbook I’ve graffitied with many, many notes since I bought it a year ago for $7: Irene Kuo’s dense The Key to Chinese Cooking (1977). This book is as big as my head, and I’ve got deep affection for it; Kuo should’ve had a much longer career. She speaks to the reader in such an approachable, but still erudite, way – it’s an example of how instructional food writing can also be totally arresting. Such is the power of her work that it can get a timid cook like myself to muster up some confidence that doesn’t come naturally.

What’s your biggest food or drink aversion?

There’s definitely a meme about this that I can’t find, but if I ever find a cardamom pod in my rice I will kill myself. Just, like, instant seppuku. Biting into it is a surprise I would not wish on my worst enemy – it manages to single-handedly bulldoze every other flavor on your plate, turning the very task of eating rice into a source of anxiety, as if I need yet another reason to feel anxious in my life! I’m forced to become hyper-aware of every potentially unpleasant surprise lurking in my food. It’s so bad.

There’s definitely a meme about this that I can’t find, but if I ever find a cardamom pod in my rice I will kill myself. Just, like, instant seppuku

Describe your perfect breakfast.

I don’t eat breakfast like a good boy should, apart from getting a cold brew every morning on my way to work (somewhat masochistically, because I do this no matter how bone-chillingly cold it is outside). If I were to have breakfast, though, it’d ideally be a banana and a cup of vanilla yogurt and nothing more. It reminds me of that line I believe Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character says in The Lunchbox (2013): A banana alone can keep you full enough to carry you over to your next meal.

Of all the restaurants in the world, which makes you happiest, and why?

Mithaas, a fast-casual Indian street food chain that luckily has locations in both of the places I call my hometowns, Edison and North Brunswick. It serves perfect papdi chaat, chai, and kachori; has a wide array of mishti (Bengali sweets); and radiates the exact kind of familiarity I seek whenever I return to either of the places I grew up. You’ve usually got a throng of kids running around the restaurant with parents who don’t seem to care, while Zee TV blares in the background. It’s a scene of mild chaos, in other words, with no sense of formality. But your food always arrives on time, and it’s nearly always perfect. (Bonus: I don’t think I’ve ever run into a former high school classmate of mine there).

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

Lately, I’ve been enjoying the music of Tamil composer Ilaiyaraaja, particularly the soundtrack to 1983’s Sadma starring the recently-deceased Indian actress Sridevi. It fosters the exact kind of concentration I need when I’m cooking, especially through “Aye Zindagi Gale Laga Le” and “Surmayee Ankhiyon Mein.” (This answer gives the false impression that I am a man of taste. Sometimes, my choice of white noise is garbage television like Jem and the Holograms.)

Tell us about a dish you make when you’re short on time.

The Bengali dish that my family and I call deem sheddho, aloo sheddho, bhaath: basically boiled eggs, mashed potatoes, and rice, respectively, all mixed together with ghee and salt. Though it takes on some gnarly off-white color as you mix it all, it tastes totally divine. It’s the dish I grew up eating whenever my parents were short on time – the thing made from scraps, basically, that they cooked up if we’d come home late after a particularly long drive. It rarely leaves me hungry.

If you could only drink one thing, aside from water, what would it be?

Ginger beer, which, when it’s good, has a kick that lets it stop just short of being too cloying – or just does an exceptionally good job of masking its high sugar content by putting that itch in my throat.

I vow to write a piece on these cookies one day and the great tragedy of their disappearance from American supermarket shelves

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

Peek Frean’s Fruit Creme Sandwiches – I’ve never quite had a cookie like them. After they were discontinued in the States, I spent years, in vain, trying to find anything that can match their specific majesty. They’ve got these jellied, strawberry-flavored centers dusted with sugar. I’ve also got some vague memories of limited-edition citrus flavors, orange and lime I believe, but I can find zero confirmation of this online. I vow to write a piece on these cookies one day and the great tragedy of their disappearance from American supermarket shelves.

Who is your food hero?

I’ve got many, but one is Toni Tipton-Martin, whose deeper preservationist impulse and clarity of writing I can only hope to emulate.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

I went on the Film Comment podcast recently to talk about how much I love the treatment of food in Kiki’s Delivery Service, my first Miyazaki movie and perhaps one of his least appreciated films. I think there’s a scene right after Kiki realises that she’s lost her powers, and she’s eating some sad breakfast of eggs and toast. The film itself is a marvellous portrait of depression and how sneakily it paralyses your ability to do much of anything, even eat. There’s nothing aspirational or unattainable about the meal here like the food scenes in other canonical “food movies”; in this scene, she’s on autopilot, feeding herself some meal populated with breakfast staples, It is just enough for her to survive.

If you had to limit yourself to the cuisine of just one country, which would it be and why?

Ethiopia – maybe it’s the utter scarcity of Ethiopian food options in my immediate orbit that’s colouring this. But I hope my last meal is some injera and doro wat.

Describe the thing that most annoys you as a customer in a restaurant.

I don’t like to complain too much when I’m dining out, because my default posturing is usually something like, thanks so much for letting my sorry ass sit in your restaurant and eat your food! But I’ve been in a few situations lately where I’ve been forced, not asked, to move tables to accommodate an incoming party. It’s pretty disruptive, and I hate feeling devalued during an experience I’m told should give me some sense of pleasure. Anyway, experiences like these confirm my suspicion that I should never leave my apartment.

Posted 29th March 2018

In The Gannet Q&A


Interview: James Hansen
Photo: Jason Favreau

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