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Chef Priyanka Naik – Staten Island

Your Hometown
Your Hometown
Chef Priyanka Naik – Staten Island
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Chef Priyanka Naik is a self-taught vegan cook, Food Network champion, social media influencer, and author of the cookbook, The Modern Tiffin. In this episode, host Kevin Burke talks to Priyanka about her New York story. How did growing up on the South Shore of Staten Island as the daughter of immigrant parents shape her senses—and her sense of home and the world. What about being a kid on Staten Island drew Priyanka closer to her roots in India? What sparked her passion for taking her family’s traditional recipes and putting her own modern spin on them? And what is the deeper source of her creativity, drive, and sense of daring to put herself “out there” in print and on camera as a virtual one-woman show?

“The whole concept of, you know, seeing Italian food and stuff, it was just very bizarre. Marinara sauce, like red sauce, when they first saw that here, they were freaked out because they were like, “What is that?” “We've never seen anything so red.” And so, it was a huge adjustment.”

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Show Notes

Music
Billy Joel, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” – The Stranger (1977)
Archival
Clip of Chef Priyanka Naik from her website:  https://www.chefpriyanka.com/receiving-the-1st-copy-of-my-debut-cookbook-the-modern-tiffin/
Clip of Chef Priyanka Naik from Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CSZZscsDDa7/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
Clip of Chef Priyanka Naik from Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/reel/CSQWMGOj5gn/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
Clip from CNN broadcast announcement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuHfSo5YI_M
Clip from Throwdown with Bobby Flay (2020): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVp9QteuveQ
CNN coverage from September 11, 2001: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VveRmJpFW6o
Artwork
Illustrations – Nick Gregg
Poem
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
Recommendations
Recommended Reading: Priyanka Naik, The Modern Tiffin (Simon & Schuster, 2021)
Chef Priyanka’s website: https://www.chefpriyanka.com/

 

A special thanks to our partners this season the Museum of the City of New York; our lead funder, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and all our financial supporters for their commitment to this series. It’s because of them that we’re able to bring this series to you.
For more, including information on live events, check out our NYC series page at mcny.org/yourhometown-podcast

Ep. 14. Chef Priyanka Naik – Staten Island

Kevin Burke (VO): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York, with generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at YourHometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.
Priyanka Naik: The whole concept of like, you know, seeing like Italian food and stuff, it was just very bizarre. Marinara sauce, like red sauce, when they first saw that here, they were freaked out because they were like, “What is that?” They were like, “We’ve never seen anything so red.” And so, it was a huge adjustment. And that was sort of like, hard-working values, which I think most immigrant families probably have the same story, that gets passed down to us as the children. It’s like, I don’t think I’ve ever had a lazy day in my life.
 
Kevin Burke (VO): “Where did you grow up?” is a question we’re all asked—a lot. But the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us and what happened to them there— before we met the world and the world met us. I’m Kevin Burke, and this is Your Hometown.
 
[Tape] Clip of Chef Priyanka Naik YouTube: “Get to know me in under 1 minute!”
 
Kevin Burke (VO): That’s my guest, Priyanka Naik, making her pitch to the online world to follow her as the do-it-yourself vegan cook and social media star she’s become. I found her by chance and was instantly intrigued by her courage, putting herself out there with selfie videos on Twitter, on Instagram, YouTube, even The Today Show. It has to be a tricky art, I thought, especially during a worldwide pandemic when there’s no crew around, just Priyanka doing all the jobs herself. She’s the chef, the cameraperson, the marketer, the personality, having to be her own hype man. But there she is, constantly putting up new content for people to view and comment on, all while writing her very first cookbook, The Modern Tiffin.
 
And I wondered, where does that initiative, that daring, come from? And while she lives in Manhattan now, how did growing up on Staten Island— a different borough of New York City altogether— as the daughter of immigrants, shape her senses, her sense of home and the world, and herself as a personality. I mean, she’s Chef Priyanka, someone with a passion for taking the traditional recipes she grew up with and putting her own modern spin on them as a way of teaching us to cook all kinds of things with plants, but also as a kind of one woman show.
 
When I met up with Priyanka, I immediately sensed her energy and her humor. There are a few surprises in her story and not all of them are easy. We’ll start with the first. Mealtime isn’t a problem for Priyanka now, but it wasn’t always that way. I found this out when I asked her about her family home. It’s on the South Shore of Staten Island, a place you can still find her a lot, hanging out and creating in her mom’s kitchen. And I asked when she’s back there, what does she think of the little girl who grew up in that space?
 
Priyanka Naik: The little girl in that space, I would say, is a little bit different than who I am today. And even my mom says this. Like when I was little, I actually gave a little bit of trouble eating. Not pickiness, I just, like, didn’t eat fast and I really didn’t eat even though I was so chubby. So, we were like, we still wondered, like, where did I get so much chubbiness from not eating. I would just sit at the dinner table with a mouthful of food and just sit there and, like, not chew it, not swallow it. It was a lot of, you know, open the garage like a Mercedes is coming in. I really liked cars, so we did a lot of open the garage. I don’t know how many times the garage opened, but—
 
Kevin Burke: It must have been so vexing for your parents, especially your mom, because as a parent, you feel it’s one of your most important responsibilities just to make sure that your child’s fed.
 
Priyanka Naik: Especially when you have a family who’s very focused on food. And we’re very kind of, like, we had sophisticated palates in terms of what we ate and my sisters love to eat. And it’s just weird now that I, I am obsessed with cooking, obviously, and I think it’s more the process than the actual eating that I enjoy. And don’t get me wrong, I love eating. But even now, like, my family makes fun of me because they say, we say something in Kannada like, [speaks in Kannada], which is like, “You eat like a bird.” My portions are small but I, it’s, I think I just like the process of, like, doing things and observing and kind of creating something rather than the actual consumption part, which I find hilarious.
 
Kevin Burke: Let me try something out on you: Is it fair to say that you first fell in love with food with your eyes?
 
Priyanka Naik: Totally. I mean, I think food is a total visual experience. I think it’s first and foremost always visual. So, if it’s not appealing, I mean, I don’t know why you would want to eat it.
 
Kevin Burke: But as a child, thinking about seeing your kitchen through your eyes, what was delightful and beautiful to you?
 
Priyanka Naik: I think the delightful, beautiful thing about the kitchen and cooking is— and I’m sure other Indian people will say this— are the spices. It’s just so fun to touch and smell. And then cooking is like your blank canvas. You can use all those different spices at your disposal to create something new every time. And I think that’s just awesome.
 
Kevin Burke: And what about the— what was ugly or repulsive to you, when you think about it?
 
Priyanka Naik: Oh, the cleaning. The cleaning sucks and everyone teases me that I am a messy chef. I just, I don’t— like if I’m on TV, I’m an organized chef. If I am in my own home, I am quite a messy chef. I think another ugly part for me, which I try to do a lot to help kind of educate people on and provide different ways to use food, is food wastage. I actually became cognizant of it because of my parents. My mom never let us leave the dining table without finishing every piece of food on our plate, which is probably why I sat there for hours since I ate so slow. And my mom was very strict about that because there was, they were very strict about food wastage in India. Like you, it’s very disrespectful to take something in your plate and throw it out just from, just for the sheer fact of wasting food, but to the person who cooked it. But also economically, you know, my parents came to this country, obviously worked their butts off like so many other people in this country. They didn’t come here to raise a family, to then waste that money. So, if it’s on your plate, then you finish it.
 
[Tape] Clip of Chef Priyanka Naik Instagram: “3 Ingredient Creamsicle Sorbet”
 
Priyanka Naik: My dad went to medical school in India and he was fortunate enough to do his residency in Manhattan. And, you know, obviously I wasn’t around in the seventies, but from what I know there was a demand for physicians. And so, he came here as a resident which then opened up a whole kind of bucket of opportunities for my parents.
 
My dad actually spent a year here on his own as a bachelor. I think he came with one other older brother who actually was a civil engineer. My uncle used to be the chief civil engineer of the MTA for many, many years until he retired about five, six years ago. But like, very like, very typical New York, kind of immigrant story, like smart guys who come over hustling. You know, didn’t come with much. My mom and him were arranged back in India because, you know, arranged marriage is the thing. So, my mom picked my dad and after meeting him briefly and they got married in India and then they both came over here and lived, you know, in a, I think it was a studio apartment in Greenwich Village.
 
The interesting part of, kind of their migration here is that aside from the whole new environment and life and the era that they came in, is the sort of quality of lifestyle in India. We generally have big families who live under one roof. And even if you don’t get married, you will bring your spouse to that home and kind of everyone lives together. So, you’re leaving that huge family behind and you’re coming here and you’re essentially alone and you have no idea what’s going on here. The whole concept of like, you know, seeing like Italian food and stuff, it was just very bizarre. Marinara sauce, like red sauce, when they first saw that here, they were freaked out because they were like, “What is that?” Like, “We’ve never seen anything so red.” But they loved pizza.
 
And so, it was a huge adjustment. And that, those sort of like hard working values, which I think most immigrant families probably have the same story. That gets passed down to us as the children. And all we see are our parents working very hard day and night, whether it’s like my dad sleeping in the hospital for three to four days a week because he used to be the chief of surgery at the time, or he would work all of the holidays that, you know, he basically would help the other guys out if they’re celebrating Thanksgiving or something. You know, it didn’t mean much to us. And then my mom would be taking care of three kids at home with, you know, there’s no help, there’s no anything, and so she never got the opportunity to go out there and get a job. And growing up and seeing that it’s, you almost, it’s like I don’t think I’ve ever had a lazy day in my life.
 
[Music] Billy Joel, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” – The Stranger (1977)
 
Kevin Burke: How did they go about creating a home for you and why Staten Island? And what were they seeking there?
 
Priyanka Naik: I believe my dad got a really good opportunity at Staten Island University Hospital as the chief of surgery. And at the time, Staten Island was not as populated as it is now. So, it was one of the few areas in New York City that was still part of New York City, but you can actually get land, and space and a house, and have a little bit more of a residential suburban upbringing, and that’s what my parents wanted. My dad is very much into architecture, so he worked with— he designed the house completely. He worked with the builder to build it. They, like, handpicked the plot, like it’s very much, like, built from the ground up. And it was all white brick, all white. So very like, clean, clean lines, clean spaces. We had a white, like, staircase at the entrance with two huge white lions.
 
Kevin Burke: Huh. And those were— your dad installed the lions there? What was his reason for that?
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah. So, everything’s, like, all of this, he just, I think it was like a certain, like grandeur it added. And, you know, it’s a testament to kind of the personality of the family. I think we have a lot of large, but welcoming personalities and I think the house sort of reflected that. And my dad was the official photographer and videographer of our family—
 
Kevin Burke: I was going to ask you about that.
 
Priyanka Naik: So, having three daughters, we have posed at, on every angle of that house in some ridiculous way.
 
Kevin Burke: It was very important for your father to capture all this,
 
Priyanka Naik: The technology and gadgety part of it, he’s just really into that kind of stuff. But for him, because he wasn’t home that often, because he was working so much, this was like his way of, like, capturing the moments. So, we just had so much VHS recording of me and my sisters, which now we look back and we were like, oh, my God.
 
Kevin Burke And when he took these videos of you as a family and the three of you as girls, did you also sit down and watch them as a family and sort of relive the moments, or was it just a matter of recording, then putting it on a shelf?
 
Priyanka Naik: No, we would watch them. And I think that’s probably also why I do so much on camera work now and so much TV work, because I’m probably so used to just like watching myself on camera. And I mean, maybe people think it’s narcissistic, but I think it’s, I think it’s a way of learning to keep watching myself on camera and to be like, “Oh, I could do this better, or that,” so, I think when you start at a very young age, you just become that much more comfortable with it.
 
[Tape] Clip of Chef Priyanka Naik Instagram: “Pumpkin Pecan Chocolate Loaf”
 
Kevin Burke: And how did you feel about watching yourself as a kid on TV, on screen? Did it feel embarrassing to you?  Did you want to run out of the room when you came on?
 
Priyanka Naik: I don’t think I was embarrassed. Yeah, I don’t think so. I think I there was, there’s so many videos of me attacking my little sister because she’s also a really good singer, so my dad would take videos of her singing and then you would just see a little foot coming into the video and, like, kicking her. And I was just mad that I wasn’t in the video.
 
Kevin Burke: [laughs]
 
Priyanka Naik: And, you know, clearly, I’m not singing or doing, I don’t— clearly there’s no talents there, but I’m just like, “Why am I not on video? Why is Dad taking Puja?”
 
Kevin Burke: Sounds like— I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you were—
 
Priyanka Naik: Clowning around?
 
Kevin Burke: Personality. You were just being on camera. There’s a difference. I mean, made for more of the reality world that was coming that we weren’t growing up around.
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah. Before Keeping Up with the Kardashians was a thing, it was Keeping Up with Priyanka. you know. Yeah, I don’t know. It was just a lot, it was a lot of it would be my dad behind the camera, like, usually in Kannada, like “Pri, like what are you doing?” And I’ll be like, I was just always like there it’s I would feel it would be a lot of me just like clinging on to my mom and like, I was very attached.
 
Kevin Burke: In terms of the attachment to your mother, was she your safe place?
 
Priyanka Naik: Even though I was very, you know, there’s a lot of personality of mine at home. I was very shy on to other people. And I had very, very big cheeks when I was a baby, like very chubby, as I mentioned. So, people who have the habit of coming and squeezing my cheeks.
 
Kevin Burke: Oh, kids hate that.
 
Priyanka Naik: And I hated, like, I hated being touched, I hated being talked to, like, I just didn’t want to deal with any outside people. So, I think my way of trying to avoid that would just be like, hanging out with my mom and being like, don’t touch me. Like, this is my protective shield, which like, that didn’t necessarily work because people still came over. But, yeah, I think it’s a sense of comfort. I spent so much time with her because we were home with her. We were always in the kitchen with her, so it’s just like, I just like that feeling. And even now, I go home and I’m just like bothering my parents, specifically my mom, like, I’m in the kitchen and I’m like, “Mom! Mom!”
 
Kevin Burke: To this day?
 
Priyanka Naik: [laughs] And she’s like, what?
 
If you ever came to my house, like everyone jokes, like, we have a TV everywhere. Like, TV, built-in sound system everywhere. My dad’s very much like, you know, he’s watching CNN all the time. He needs to be connected at all times.
 
[Tape] Clip from CNN broadcast announcement
 
Kevin Burke: And what did you like to watch on your TV?
 
Priyanka Naik: So I watched a combination of Nickelodeon, cartoons, Cartoon Network, and cooking shows, so I—
 
Kevin Burke: Even as a young teenager, you did?
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, yeah. So, I was completely obsessed with Food Network.
 
[Tape] Clip from Throwdown with Bobby Flay (2020) 
 
Priyanka Naik: I would come home and like, put the, you know, the kitchen TV and family room TV on Food Network. I was very obsessed with watching cooking shows because it was very different than the way it is now. Food Network had a lot of the instructional cooking shows where like, an Emeril, or Bobby Flay, or the, you know, when Martha Stewart had her show, they would just be standing there and teaching you how to cook, like, making a dish. It was less of the, you know, competition shows or things like that. It was very much instructional. It was showing new techniques. And I was interested in it because I just felt that every show I watched, I was learning something new. Whether I applied it to my own kind of cooking repertoire or not, it didn’t matter. It was more just learning something that maybe I didn’t see in our own kitchen, or just it was an extension of what I saw in my kitchen and applied in a different way. That’s a lot of the way I learned about like Western culture, and cooking and cuisine. Because we obviously didn’t make, like, quote unquote, American food. I mean, really what is, quote unquote, American food? Yeah, it’s a combination of so many cultures.
 
Kevin Burke: So, you had a vegetarian household? Back then?
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, so—
 
Kevin Burke: It would have been very rare back then, just in terms of this– it wasn’t en vogue yet.  
 
Priyanka Naik: Right. So, we, yes, we grew up in a primarily vegetarian household. My parents were pretty strictly vegetarian. But the only reason why we evolved to eating chicken and seafood here and there is because there were so many limited options. So, my parents wanted us to like, at least have some options when we went to school or school trips or anything, which now everything has changed, but back then it was like, OK, well, here you go. Right? So, it was very difficult in that sense. And also like, when kids would be eating like, Burger King and stuff, like, we were like, “Oh, we want to eat Burger King.” Like, “What is that?” And it still is very difficult on Staten Island because the culture on Staten Island is so… It’s very traditional, they’re very conservative, as you guys probably know, and there is a lot of there’s very little room for change there. So, it’s a lot of very traditional, you know, Roman Catholic, Italian, now there’s a lot more Eastern European, so Polish and Russian, and they’re not necessarily going to change their ways in the way they eat. So even, you know, ordering from Italian restaurants or going to a deli, like, I’m not going to find vegan cream cheese, or vegan cheese, or anything like that. Where in Manhattan, you can, you can. It’s much more part of the culture, especially in Brooklyn, I mean, all those hipsters. There’s definitely a vegan culture, but not, not in Staten Island.
 
Kevin Burke: Was there ever a time when you were eating over someone’s house and they served something that you thought, “I just can’t eat this. I don’t want to eat this. What do I do?”
 
Priyanka Naik: So, I actually never really was able to eat at other people’s houses because there was never anything for me because I—
 
Kevin Burke: How did that play out? Would you have to ask in advance, “What are you guys having? Oh, I can’t.”
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, my mom would be weird. Yeah, so my mom would like, she, the whole like, having someone over for like, having me over for dinner and stuff, it was very difficult because my mom would be like, “What are they going to— what are you going to eat?” Like, “What are they going to have for you? They’re probably not going to have anything.” So, and then, “How are you going to— what are you going to say?” So, it would usually be like a no. I think the only time that I would be over to eat is like, after school, if I went directly to a friend’s home, then we would have a snack or something. And it, that’s why I think a lot of times when people would come to my house, they, like, loved eating at my house because we had so many different kinds of food and like, things for them to try. And there would never be, like, a limitation of someone eating at my house because all my stuff, like, all the stuff is vegetarian.
 
Kevin Burke: So anyone can eat it?
 
Priyanka Naik: Anyone can eat it. But the only limitation is spiciness. So, like we eat very spicy. So, there’s actually been jokes amongst my different friends that I, like, trained a lot of my friends to, like, amp up their spices.
 
Kevin Burke: Did you really?
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, because you get used to coming to, like, your Indian friend’s house and then you’re eating, you know, all this spicy food now.
 
[Tape] Clip of Chef Priyanka Naik Instagram: “BBQ Rubbed Stuffed Jalapeño Poppers”
 
Kevin Burke: You liked hosting?
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, yeah. I liked hosting and I think it was like, it was also easier for me to get my parents to say yes to kids coming over the house rather than me going over to other people’s homes. Like, sleepovers was like, a no-no. Like—
 
Kevin Burke: You weren’t allowed to sleepover. Why was that?
 
Priyanka Naik: My mom was not big on sleepovers.
 
Kevin Burke: Was this something that you hated? A rule that you hated? Or did you sort of thought it made sense to you that you weren’t allowed to go?
 
Priyanka Naik: I think it was annoying sometimes. If like all the girls were doing it, like the girls are having a slumber party and like, I can’t go. I’m like, “Well, now I’m a loser.” Like, now I can’t go.
 
Kevin Burke: There’s that. There’s also if you’re always home, it’s the default you know, already, so you’re not discovering.
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: And there’s also the possibility you could be embarrassed by your family.
 
Priyanka Naik: I think I went over a lot of my friends’ homes. I just didn’t do a lot of sleeping.
 
Kevin Burke: Ok, so you would visit?
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah. Yeah, I went over like yeah, a lot. But just not it’s funny when you say the embarrassing— the thing about being embarrassed, because something that we have in our house and I think in most Indian households is you’ll have a temple like a Hindu temple, which is basically like a shrine for our gods and goddesses, and my, there is like all these specific materials and stuff we’ll use for the temple. So, like we wash the dishes every day. So, there’s a specific towel that my mom will use to, like, dry them off. But she used to keep that towel in the kitchen and my friend washed their hands and they like, dried their hands. And then I turned around and I was like, “No, what are you doing? Don’t use that towel.” And she was like, “Why? It’s like, right here.” I was like, “No, that’s God’s towel.” And then she was like, “What?” And I’m like, “Yeah, we just we use it for God, like, don’t.”
 
Like it, and it’s like it’s funny because it’s not necessarily, I’ve never been embarrassed, but it’s more that when you translate things to English, it does sound kind of weird. Like it sounds insane like that, like if I’m translating something in English, like, the literal translation is “That is God’s towel. Like, what are you doing?” And to someone who’s, like, not Hindu, they’re just like, “What are you talking about?” And then I was like, “Don’t touch it.” Like, “Don’t let mom see you do that.” [laughs] So, so not like I guess one would be embarrassed, but I wasn’t embarrassed. I was just more, like, how do I explain this? You know, it’s just it’s weird to explain because it’s not something that other people are used to.
 
Kevin Burke: You mentioned that your parents had gone from Greenwich Village to Staten Island, which is conservative, it’s all those things. Do you feel that you were assimilating and becoming part of that world, or did you always feel sort of on the edge of that world?
 
Priyanka Naik: I don’t think we ever assimilated, to be honest. I don’t think we, I don’t think I ever did. I don’t think I ever will. I think my, the way I thought about the world and ultimately what I’m doing is very different from what people in Staten Island have done and do.
 
Kevin Burke: Did you feel that and sense that as a kid? In your neighborhood going around?
 
Priyanka Naik: Oh, totally. Totally. I think when I was little, in school, it was always different because the teachers— well, first of all, when they’re taking attendance, I knew when they came to a long pause that it was my name.
 
Kevin Burke: Oh,
 
Priyanka Naik: So, there’s that. Which also makes you feel awkward.
 
Kevin Burke: The first or last name.
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah. First or last name. Or completely butchering your name, even after you correct them multiple times and having no care to correct the pronunciation of your name.
 
Kevin Burke: And would the other kids laugh or sort of giggle?
 
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Giggle, they would call, I’ve been called a camel worshiper before and I’m like, “Well, camel’s not even one of our deities, so if you’re going to say one, at least say elephant worshiper, I mean, get it right.” I would say particularly for me, because at the age that it happened, 9/11 was a huge—
 
Kevin Burke: You were 13.
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, I was 12 or 13, yeah.
 
[Tape] Clip from CNN coverage from September 11, 2001
 
Priyanka Naik: So, I think for 9/11, so first of all, like regardless of what you look like or where you’re from, like, if you are in New York, that was one of the most devastating occurrences in our life. And we, there were so many weird things that happened during that time. My sisters were supposed to go to work that day and they worked at 90 West Street, which was right next to the Twin Towers. I don’t know if you remember, but that day, September 11, was a really nice day outside.
 
Kevin Burke: It was a Tuesday. It was a beautiful day, yeah.
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, it was really nice. And they decided to play hooky and stay home with my mom because it was nice out and they were just like meh let’s just stay home. And they went for a park at Wolfsbane Park and like I don’t know, after my mom dropped me to school and which is like by sheer chance that happened. But my uncle, who was I told you was the chief civil engineer for the MTA, was working at the MTA at that time and didn’t know that my sister didn’t go to work. And he was so scared that they were there and was running, trying to run towards them instead of running away. And that time, no one had cell phones and stuff or, like you did, but it’s like no one was using them.
 
Kevin Burke: No, no.
 
Priyanka Naik: It was just, it was a whole mess. But when everyone started getting picked up from school and we went home, we saw the smoke by our house because we live on the water, which is insane. Even now, when they put the twin tower beams up, we could see that from our house. Yeah, but the sad thing about 9/11 is what happened after that. Anyone who looked remotely brown, they deemed as a terrorist. So, I remember distinctly going to the grocery store and people not ringing up our items, they were just like, “No, you guys are like, you’re like, terrorists.”
 
Kevin Burke: And here your father was a surgeon at Staten Island University.
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, it doesn’t— It gets worse. So, we had this white fence around part of our house and someone vandalized it and wrote sand with the N-word.
 
Kevin Burke: Wow.
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah. Which, first of all, you shouldn’t call anyone that. And second of all, there’s so— this is where like when I say they’re a little bit narrow minded and closed minded is like, you can’t even tell the difference between different cultures.
 
Kevin Burke: But also, when you see I mean, going back to the spray, the graffiti on the on the fence, it must make you realize this is, you know, again, Internet was much younger then. Yeah. It must have underscored that people knew where you lived. In other words, it wasn’t random.
 
Priyanka Naik: Oh, yeah. It’s scary. I the only word I could use to describe it is like, frustration because it’s like, we are on your side. Like, we are New Yorkers. Like, you already grew up feeling a certain way that you don’t look like these people. You don’t fit in. You eat different food. You know, we were made fun of our lunches when we brought them into school because they weren’t like, you know, a baloney sandwich. And it’s, you know, we brought in mango juice and like an Indian style sandwich. And it’s, in fact, you would think that I would or any of us would be like, “Ew, we don’t want to be Indian,” and like, “We want to get away from this.” But I actually sought comfort in coming home and being closer to my culture. And I thought it was a really important part of my life. It’s not like I was five and I was like, “This is so important,” but I was just like, this is—
 
Kevin Burke: It’s a feeling.
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, because we also, my parents had the opportunity to instill those values in us, but also to take us to India every year, right? So, we kind of saw the source. So, for us, it wasn’t this far away, imaginary land. Like, we knew it. It was like our second home. So, like, for us, it was important to us, so the fact that people weren’t embracing it was annoying, in fact. Like, it was like, why do you, why are you, like, being mean about it?
 
And it’s also why I cook now in the way I do and why I’m so prominent in the space of cooking and talking about my culture. And it’s actually what my cookbook is focused on, which is how my culture has inspired my cooking today, my travels, and kind of who I am. And I think it’s interesting because it could have gone either way. I could have been like, I don’t want to be associated with this, and I don’t want to be Indian, and be completely whitewashed, which some people have taken that route, like some people who are first-generation Indian, but I think for me, it just became increasingly important because it’s also what set me apart. Like, it’s a very unique part of who I am. And it made us unique on Staten Island.
 
Kevin Burke: You’re describing an experience of being an outsider in certain ways where you grew up in and choosing to stay close to your roots and your culture, right? And it sounds like, if I’m correct, that after 9/11, maybe you felt more drawn to it as a sort of protective way. Is that fair?
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. The time at which 9/11 happened for me at that age was— as it is, it’s a turning point at that age, 12, 13, 14, awkward years, you’re going into these different stages. And then on top of that, this horrible, tragic event that then shapes the way kids that age think about you, which is probably why, which probably explains why I have so many more immigrant friends, to be honest, because, again, just gravitated towards people who maybe were more understanding and had the same values and maybe had the same experience that I did, rather than people who maybe would be closed off to that or would have a formulated assumption and perspective on that, which I’m not saying all of them did, but a lot of them did.
 
Kevin Burke: I want to sort of now turn around and ask you about the trip that you to take to India, these, kind of, regular trips that you took as a family there. Now you’re going back to your parents’ home, right. And where they grew up and your family there. And I’m wondering, what did going there sort of expose for you about your own upbringing and how different it was?
 
Priyanka Naik: I think going to India was always fun because, you know, you’re reunited with your whole family. It’s really fun to, like, interact with everyone, but the lives are totally, totally different, you know? Like, they assumed we lived this fancy, lavish life in this house that I described, but they, I think, were not privy to how hard we work, right? Like, nothing in this country gets served to you. But in India, it’s like, I’m like, “Oh, you know, you have cooks, you have drivers, you have this, you have that.” And there is definitely a lack of privacy, I think there. One, is because the families are big and they’re all up in your business all the time. But two, there is, like, the help around all the time. And it’s just, it’s a completely different just from, like, a day-to-day life, like that piece, like I have never really liked. Because you sometimes I think at least for me, because I’m not used to it, you can’t like, fully relax because—
 
Kevin Burke: You don’t know who’s going to come in.  
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah. It’s just like, you know, everyone’s around all the time. And I think that piece was very different. But, I think, overall, like, I do love India. I always have. I think it’s, it’s really nice, yes, the family piece, but the food is a huge part of the culture there.
 
Kevin Burke: I was going to ask you what’s the comparison between eating Indian versus Indian-American?
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah. I mean, going to India was like a huge treat because, like, you can eat everything like you can. It’s just like, you never feel limited in that sense and, like, eating was like a really fun experience because there’s so many different ways you can eat. So, like, street food is huge in Mumbai.
 
Kevin Burke: Huge, yes.
 
Priyanka Naik: So, like one of the first places I always make them stop when we land in Mumbai— and we always land at like a weird, odd time, like two o’clock in the morning— two o’clock in the morning India time, but, you know, here it’s like, you know, whatever lunchtime. So, we go to this late-night pav bhaji stand, which is basically, I describe it as an Indian, vegetarian Sloppy Joe. That’s kind of what it looks like. But it’s a street food and they make it on this big tava, which is like, this huge grill or like, flat, wide kind of pan on high heat. And it’s a spicy vegetable mix and they put it on toasted Indian bread with a lot of fresh coriander and it’s really, really good. So, like, I ask them to stop there whenever we land. And my mom’s area, which is Ankali, which is, like, a small town outside of Belgaum, which is south of Mumbai, they live in like a big bungalow and so the whole family lives there. So, like, I basically, like, my aunties will ask me, like, “What would you want to eat?” And I, like, make this whole menu.
 
Kevin Burke: And what was it like for you to watch her interacting with her mother, your grandmother?
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, so this is a very, this is a sore subject because my maternal grandmother actually just passed away.
 
Kevin Burke: I know. I was going to mention to you how sorry I am.
 
Priyanka Naik: No, it’s ok. It’s from COVID, which has been very unfortunate. And I think, you know, my mom was very, very close to her. She was the only daughter. She, my ajji, as we call her, would come to— she’s, out of the whole family she’s come the most to America because to be with my mom. She stayed here months upon months at a time. But, yeah, it was it was very nice to see their interaction. But it’s also a little bit, it’s also a little bit challenging to see because there was a lot of difficulty between, you know, what her, what she wanted for her sons versus what she wanted for my mom. So sometimes my mom and my ajji would kind of like get into arguments about that because, you know, my mom was saying, like, you know, “It doesn’t matter boy or girl, son or daughter, like, you need to think of us equally in equal, equal light. And, you know, and just because I’m in America, that doesn’t mean I should be shut off from things that are happening here, or all of that kind of stuff,” which—
 
Kevin Burke: And did your grandmother also feel disappointed that your mother was doing all the work that she was doing and didn’t have support here?
 
Priyanka Naik: No, because I think the mentality there is that, like, well, your husband’s home now. But she never, she’s seen how much how hard my mom works because she would come and stay with us months upon months at a time, which is why she came to be with my mom and to help her. And so, she never, she knew that more of the opportunity for us, her grandkids was in America.
 
Kevin Burke: Thinking about that were that were the transitions as a family or for you and your sisters hard when you came back from these visits to India, coming back to Staten Island as kids?
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, I think we would spend a lot of our summer vacations and in India, so we would spend like two to three months there and we will come back and like, well, one no one wants to go to school, so there’s that. But it was hard to leave the family behind. And, you know, we, as it is, grew up speaking Kannada mostly at home, not English, so, we kind of had like these slightly Indian accents, which made it very difficult for us in school to be accepted as it is, right? We look a certain way, we have different type of food, and then now we have, like, kind of this Indian accent.
 
I think the most extension of India was, like, my house, to be honest. Like, just being at home and, like, cooking and eating and being among family. I remember we would bring suitcases full of food back and like, it would always get stopped at TSA duty check or whatever, because we’d bring spices, all those masalas and stuff like you can’t find here. So we would bring about we bring back, like, pickles and, like, just all this, all the handmade, like, foods and stuff, dry foods we would bring back, which was, like, hilarious because we wouldn’t do that now, but literally the whole dilemma would be, “Oh, how are we going to get the suitcase through duty?: Like, “Are they going to let us take this through?” And like, I’m sure every Indian family dealt with that.
 
But that’s kind of like what we used to do. And we used to bring back a lot of, like, clothing and jewelry. Like, I used to wear a lot of different shirts that were Indian, that were like Indian in design, but like American style and stuff. So, and even now, like, all my jewelry is pretty much, I mean, I have a nose ring. It’s very much Indian, like a lot of the jewelry I wear is Indian. So, I think like I always am very, it’s just part of who I am.
 
My prom dress was made in India. It basically was, it wasn’t a sari, but, like, it was similar to what we call it generally, which is a two-piece dress, but like a blouse and a skirt. But it looked kind of like an American dress, but it wasn’t. So, it was it was, like a tangerine-ish color, like orangey color. And it had all like Indian work on it. And it was fitted, like, slightly fitted skirt, like floor length. And then the top, like, covered my stomach. But it was like a fitted blouse and it was off the shoulder. Usually what we would wear in dupatta, which is the fabric that you put around your neck or shoulder. But in this style, I had it attached to the blouse, so it just sort of fell in the back.
 
Kevin Burke: And did you go with a guy from high school?
 
Priyanka Naik: No. So, I went with— so this is where I was, there was this other friend who apparently was going to ask me, but I didn’t know he was going to ask me. And my sister ended up setting me up with one of her boyfriend’s friends to take me. Some older guy who didn’t go to my high school. First of all, if it was up to me, I wouldn’t even care about this date business because I’m just like, why can’t we just go to prom and just be normal? But we had to, like, have dates. And I didn’t want to ask anyone and I didn’t know who was going to ask me. So that’s why she set that up, because she was like, “Well, we don’t want you to be date. Let’s, like, have a plan B in action.” So that’s, like, that’s why she set it up with her boyfriend’s friend. Which, like, kind of helped me, that helped me with my, like, I’m too shy and I don’t want to deal with it. So, I’m like, okay, good, let’s just, like, do that so we can, like, we can just have it set up and I don’t need to, like, deal with anything.
 
Kevin Burke: Right.
 
Priyanka Naik: We were obsessed with Disney, too. Like, we grew up with Disney, but you just know that that stuff’s not real. It’s like, it’s not real. And like, no one also looks like that. But we still love Disney because it’s fun and it’s, like, it takes you into a different world. It’s just like, I’m more of a realist. I’ve never been a romantic, like, fairytale-living person. So, I’m just kind of like, ok, this is the reality of the situation. We’re going to Chelsea Pier so I’m wearing a nice dress.
 
[Tape] Clip from Chef Priyanka Naik on TODAY
 
Kevin Burke: You worked in the business world and have worked in Bloomberg and now Twitter, so you have this day-life that’s kind of your Clark Kent role, right? And then you have the Superman part of you, which is you also are a self-taught Indian, vegan cook. I wanted to ask you about the process of going from being Priyanka to becoming Chef Priyanka, sort of what that process was?
 
Priyanka Naik: So, I have always been a self-proclaimed Chef Priyanka. I started my blog over 10 years ago now. You know, I would go out to eat in Manhattan and I— New York, you know, one of the best cities in the world, most diverse from, you know, cultural standpoint, food standpoint…
 
Kevin Burke: It’s a foodie town, yeah.
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah. But, granted, things have changed a lot since 10 years now, but I’ll go out to eat and I’ll tell the host or, you know, waiter like, “Hey, you know, I’m vegetarian,” like, “What are your options for me?” And they’ll be like, “Oh, you know, well we have the salads or a side dish.” And I’m like, “What the hell, why would I eat a salad?” Like, I’ve never eaten a salad as a meal before, like, ew, what am I? A rabbit? And then I was like, “Why would I eat a side dish?” Like, why would I come to a restaurant, and eat a side dish? Like, who does that? And then it just kind of occurred to me, like, well, perhaps the Western world is just not privy to all the cool things that we could be doing with food. Like, I grew up eating vegetarian and many times vegan. And there, like, there was an endless amount of dishes that we were able to make. Like, it just doesn’t make any sense to me why theirs is so limited.
 
So that’s what gave me the idea to start my blog. I think it’s just kind of like, again, it goes back to the being open minded, changing the perspective, and embracing something that is ultimately good for you and good for the environment. And that’s also what I want to extend in my cookbook. I’m very animated and I want that to come through in the book and for people to open it and be like, “Oh, my God, this looks so fun. This looks so cool.” Like, “This looks so delicious.” Like, “I want to be a part of this. I want to make this.”
 
Kevin Burke: I end every interview by asking every guest the same question, which is I go to the iconic New York poet Walt Whitman. He writes this and I want to read it to you and then ask you the final question:
 
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
 
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
 
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
 
And reading this passage has always made me think about kind of our place in the universe and where we can find those that we have lost or looking for, 50, 100, 200 years from now— hopefully more than 50 years since you’re so young— 100 years, 200 years from now, if someone in your family or someone who discovers Chef Priyanka’s recipes wants to know you, wants to follow in your footsteps, wants to commune with your spirit, where should they go in New York?
 
Priyanka Naik: Ooh, this is a hard question. Because my first instinct, or, in terms of response was “They should go to my house,” but I don’t know who would be living there, then.
 
Kevin Burke: It sounds like a pretty extraordinary place to have grown up, despite all of the challenges and real hurt, too. Like, you mentioned 9/11, but still that sanctuary that your parents built is some place that sounds like it just continues to feed you, feed you, and feed you, literally and spiritually.  
 
Priyanka Naik: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right. I think it is definitely unique and has, like, a very special place, I think for all of us, for me and my sisters. As much as we hate on Staten Island, it’s, like, it is our home. I can make fun of Staten Island, you know, all I want, but like, if someone else does who’s not from there, I’m like, “Excuse me. Like, what do you know?” But yeah, I think it is a very special place. And I also think, like, no one is ever too, like mighty or big to be like better than where they’re from.
 
I think it’s one of the most beautiful boroughs of New York City. Like there’s so many beautiful parts of it. I really do wish that it could change a little bit more from a mindset standpoint and people standpoint. Maybe it will, but I’ll never be, you know, above it and I think that it is it is the place that has shaped who I am. And I almost thank it because I think it’s pushed me to be that much more open minded and to see all points of view across all different facets of life. And it pushed me to travel so much. that’s why I’ve traveled to nearly 40 countries, because I’m like there has to, like, I need to see all these other things to understand people, because people can’t just be this way. And so, it’s almost like, to me, I’m like, OK, thank you. Because you— because of the way you were Staten Island, you pushed me to be the way I am today.
 
Kevin Burke (VO): Thank you for listening to Your Hometown, where the local is the epic.
 
This is a Kevin Burke Production. Visit YourHometown.org to subscribe to the podcast and our various social media channels. And wherever you’re listening, please drop us a review. Every star helps.
 
For information on live events that we do around the show, visit our New York City series page on The Museum of the City of New York’s website at mcny.org/your hometown- podcast.
 
Now, let me thank the team that works with me on Your Hometown, beginning with our executive producer, Robert Krulwich, our editor and sound designer Otis Streeter, our composer-performer Sterling Steffen, and our researchers Shakila Khan and Janmaris Perez. I also want to thank Tunshore Longe, Nick Gregg, and Charlotte Yiu for the vivid illustrations have given our show another dimension. Our social media manager is Mackela Watkins, and our website and branding design is by Tama Creative.
 
A special thanks to our partners this season the Museum of the City of New York; our lead funder, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and all our financial supporters for their commitment to this series. It’s because of them that we’re able to bring this series to you.
Thanks so much for taking this ride with me. And, remember – everyone’s from someplace, and everywhere is somewhere.
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Series one

New York City

Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.

© Museum of the City of New York, 2021