When Anthony Bourdain was doing the media rounds for his new CNN show “Parts Unknown” back in 2012, he sat down to do a live chat with readers of the now-defunct Gawker.com. A reader jumped in with a question. Where, they wondered of the chef-turned-television host, could they find the best vegetarian food?
Bourdain’s reply was both instantaneous and succinct. “India,” he wrote.
That one-word answer neatly summed up Bourdain’s fascination with India and his embrace of the subcontinent’s wide variety of cuisines, vegetarian and otherwise. As fans and food lovers have shared their memories and favorite episodes of Bourdain’s work since his death was announced last Friday, one persistent theme has emerged. His clear love of flavors and cuisines that are too-often shunned by the high-end food world has changed the way the American mainstream thinks about South Asian cuisine for the better.
One of the most memorable episodes of “Parts Unknown” was the show’s season three premiere, which centered around the host’s visit to Punjab. The show notes Bourdain wrote afterward to accompany the episode sheds light on his personal philosophy as both a journalist and host better than most of the glowing tributes that have been written this weekend.
For Bourdain — in addition to being delicious — food served as the perfect storytelling device out there. Discussing and sampling local cuisines provided him the opportunity to meet community elders, talk about the history of regions that often aren’t covered in American social studies classes and connect the dots between food, tradition and religion. And nowhere were all of these things more apparent than during his Punjab episode.
“I generally don’t care much what people take away from my shows. Of course, I hope people like what they see. I hope they are entertained — and interested; that they find the images beautiful, or striking,” he wrote in 2014. “But with this episode, Punjab, it would make me very happy if a few more people out there got a clearer picture of the Sikh religion is. Who Sikhs are and who they are not; a little about the central concepts and intent and principles of their faith. The degree to which we in the West (myself included) are ignorant of such things is pretty spectacular.”
His respect for Sikh culture and the concept of seva could easily be seen during his visit to the Golden Temple during that episode. Bourdain and his producers also did not shy away from talking about the pain of Partition and how its legacy continued to be seen in the region to this day. Bourdain discussed that legacy and what makes Indian vegetarian food so different in this clip below.
Bourdain’s compassion and care were also evident every time he and his crew headed to Sri Lanka. He never neglected to mention the country’s civil war and would make it a point once the conflict was over to encourage viewers to visit the country’s North. He frequently told viewers to support the businesses and people who suffered the most during that long war and to learn about Tamil Sri Lankan culture.
He would also openly talk about the restrictions he and his “No Reservations” producers faced when they taped their first episode on the island nation in 2007. As always, he did not mince words about the situation or the suffering that was occurring in the country they were showcasing.
“There was a war going on, a long, bloody, incredibly cruel ethnic war with unspeakable acts of violence and terror on both sides,” he recalled on his blog in 2007. But I saw only one side. My crew and I were restricted to the south, to the area controlled by the Sinhalese majority. One was not permitted to go north. Certainly not to Jaffna, the center of Tamil resistance, which, at the time, was being pounded mercilessly back into another century.”
He jumped at the chance to return to Sri Lanka after the war ended to finally give his viewers a fuller portrait of the country. As always, he eschewed the spin and false sense of balance most other journalists purported to present in their international coverage. “The war is over, and if the underlying problems are far from solved or even being adequately addressed, at least you can now SEE the Tamil people, SEE Jaffna. And people, finally, are feeling freer to talk,” he wrote.
Most pointedly, he called out his previous Sri Lanka coverage for the restricted look at the country it gave viewers. “So, this episode is a correction—not a balance; not a free and fair or comprehensive overview,” he continued. “It asks simple questions: WHO are the Tamils? Where do they live? And what do they do now?”
The episode was widely praised by members of the Sri Lankan diaspora after it aired.
Finally, one cannot write about Anthony Bourdain’s relationship to South Asia without also noting his long history of comments on vegetarianism. Bourdain’s jokes and asides about vegetarians and vegans have often become memes in the years since his memoir “Kitchen Confidential” was first published in 2000. While he wrote then about rolling his eyes about the accommodations chefs and restaurants had to make for non-meat eaters back then, it was also clear that he came to embrace the variety South Asian vegetarianism had to offer.
I’ve made much fun of vegetarians over the years and am said, frequently, to “hate” them. This is not true,” he wrote. “…I am made unhappy and even angry when a restaurant that claims to celebrate the vegetable in fact, utterly ignores the seasons, the conditions of ripeness that make vegetables interesting and wonderful in the first place — when such places, with determination and malice aforethought, murder vegetable after vegetable, sacrificing carrot after carrot, soybean after soybean to a sludgy, monochromatic, mush.”
Indian cuisine, he would point out time and again, treated vegetables with the respect they deserved. “In India, to eat vegetarian is usually a joyous and joyful thing,” he noted with obvious glee. The subcontinent, he continued, easily led him to forget all of the jokes he ever made about vegetarian diets. “Bright colors, wildly varying textures, huge selections and thrilling blends of spices and assertive, delicious flavors accompanied always by wonderful, freshly made breads. I could happily go veg for a week — or even weeks at a time.”
As we continue to mourn and pay tribute to one of the most interesting personalities of our time, perhaps we should all resolve to adapt that Bourdain quote to other parts of our lives. Sharing food and meeting new people is one of the most joyful experiences life has to offer. At a time when the news seems to be filled with stories demonizing and turning away people who are labeled as the ‘other,’ we should try our best to emulate Anthony Bourdain’s generosity of spirit and openness to seeing the humanity in everyone.