At Sagara, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, the meal starts with a gunshot, in the form of a peppery heap of roasted cashews, that signals the start of a culinary marathon. And just like that we’re off, eating doughnut-shaped lentil fritters, bowl-shaped crepes of fermented rice flour, fish rolls, shrimp stir-fry, grated finger millet, shredded scraps of roti dripping with cheese, caramelized eggplant, fried rings of cuttlefish, and three different rice dishes—including one wrapped in banana leaves that may or may not contain testicles. “I don’t think so,” says Ligaya Mishan, a food critic for The New York Times, taking a picture of the dish on her phone. “Testicles are surprisingly more discreet.”
The small restaurant is sandwiched between a beauty salon and a barbershop on a nondescript stretch of Victory Boulevard. Inside, the walls are a dampened pink. Tables are set with bouquets of plastic sunflowers and chipotle-flavored Tabasco, as a flat-screen television plays music a little too loudly. On a balmy Tuesday night in October the only patrons besides our party of four are two solo diners hunched pensively over their meals. A lone waitress sports a baseball hat that reads “Be humble.” It’s just the kind of place Mishan has been spotlighting for over seven years in Hungry City, her weekly column in the Times.
Although the parade of food, which bleeds onto an extra table, is satisfying and even thrilling at times, it’s more comforting than newsworthy. But under Mishan’s pen, dining at Sagara is animated by history, illuminated by the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Hewabajgamage, the restaurant’s owners, who are from Colombo, Sri Lanka.
“He came to the U.S. twenty years ago when he was 21; she was 19 and didn't join him for six years,” Mishan says a few weeks later, sitting at a cafe on the Upper East Side. Ten years ago, the couple opened a different restaurant nearby but were forced to shutter within a year after the economy tanked—just as Mrs. Hewabajgamage gave birth to the couple’s third child. “It's not all in there,” Mishan says of the Sagara column, “but I put some of it in there because I feel like people should remember that it's a struggle. Running a restaurant is not glamorous.”
Through Hungry City, Mishan has steadily made the case that the culinary backbone of New York City isn’t name-brand chefs or flashy food trends, but the quiet, typically unsung food of immigrants. She celebrates restaurants located in oft-ignored pockets of the city, affordable mom-and-pop eateries without PR agencies or mainstream press (she typically finds them on food blogs) which “tell a story about the life of the city,” she says. Mishan writes astutely about the sensory aspects of food—capturing the crackle of flaky Egyptian crepes folded into each other “like a series of Chinese boxes,” in a former Bay Ridge bodega; or the creamy, tumeric-stained monster curry bun that resembles “a crab stranded on its back,” at a Malaysian restaurant in Elmhurst—but Hungry City is a food column that is only sort of about food.
“It's really important to me that people know there are human beings at these restaurants, and that the food they're making has this journey behind it,” she says. “It's not just food on your plate—whatever transaction is happening, more is going on.”
Mishan, who’s in her forties, is compact and sprightly, an eager conversationalist with long dark hair and an intense gaze. She grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, the daughter of a Filipino mother and an English father. “I kind of feel like I don’t have a native cuisine,” she says. “Everything was so idiosyncratic in my family, aside from the fact that we were eating some British food and the rare occasion when my mother would make something Filipino and”—here her voice lowers to a conspiratorial whisper—"it was terrible. So I feel like I came into food without a really specific identity.” But rather than induce a sense of absence, “I always thought being hapa was the best position, because I thought I could have everything.”
This sense of cultural elasticity is endemic to Hawaii, where a typical dinner table might contain a hodgepodge of diasporic offerings—kimchi and pork adobo next to chow fun and sushi—that, despite their geographic distinctions, all feel inherently “local.” The food scene on the island, at least when Mishan was growing up in the ’80s, wasn’t stratified by class or income, in part because there wasn’t really a food scene to speak of.
“I didn’t think about food as anything other than you eat it,” she says, recalling with equal parts nostalgia and incredulity the culinary staples of her upbringing: frozen fish sticks, Tang spiked with calamansi plucked from a tree in her backyard, and Kraft Mac & Cheese sprinkled with bits of crispy fried Spam. “We put Spam in everything. I still think it's kind of like prosciutto,” she says, laughing.
A self-described “accidental food writer,” Mishan started writing about food for a simple reason: She wanted a byline. After graduating from Cornell University with an MFA in creative writing and poetry, she worked in advertising for a few years in Hawaii before relocating to New York, where she landed a job at The New Yorker. As a proofreader, and later a web editor, she wrote “hundreds and hundreds” of blurbs for the magazine’s book section, uncredited. So when the magazine introduced its food column, Tables for Two, she talked her way into writing a review. “I didn't have any greater meaning assigned to food,” she says. “It just looked like it would be fun to write a restaurant review.” In 2007 she published her first piece, a review on the temple of high-end sushi, 15 East.
Shortly before giving birth to her daughter, in 2008, Mishan received an email from Pete Wells, then The New York Times food editor. He liked her writing, and invited her to freelance for the paper’s $25 and Under section. He also floated Mishan’s name as a candidate for The Times’ head food critic. As a new mother, she balked at the role, which required dining out five to six nights a week. “I don't necessarily think it's a male vs. female thing, but just for me, I didn't want to do that,” she says. “I didn't want to miss all those bed times.”
Instead, Mishan took on a new column, which only required two nights out, covering restaurants not being reviewed by Wells, who emerged as the paper’s main food critic. “I had wanted to call it ‘The Leftovers,’ but everyone said that's too negative,” she says. “I also thought about ‘The Underbelly’ because it's under his column and I love puns, I come from advertising.” She settled on 'Hungry City.' Rather than assign stars, Mishan was primarily concerned with celebrating go-to neighborhood spots. (Once, a restaurant called the paper to complain: “They said ‘Why is she reviewing us?’” Mishan recalls. “‘We are not an ethnic restaurant.’” Her reaction? “Everyone is ethnic.”)
At first, Mishan approached the column as an opportunity to highlight good food in far flung corners of the city. But after Donald Trump got elected, “I thought about it more about championing the food of immigrants,” she says. “The election made it seem more urgent.” A political awakening, combined with writer’s block—to which a former editor advised “stop writing about the food”—compelled Mishan to pivot her gaze towards the people doing the cooking.
“Once I had that perspective, I came into a sense of mission,” she says. “I started interviewing people because I found people more interesting. The food in and of itself is only so interesting, right? I had described it endlessly and didn't have anything new to say. But people are endlessly interesting in their stories. Every time I would talk to the owners of these restaurants they would surprise me. I was talking to someone from a Georgian restaurant and she had won the green card lottery—I didn't even know there was a green card lottery until she told me that.”
As a journalist, this shift in consciousness galvanized Mishan to extend her work into more pointedly political food writing. Recently, she’s tackled topics that include female couples remaking the restaurant industry, the ascendance of Filipino cuisine in America, and, to the relief of Hawaii-locals everywhere, a corrective to the poke trend. In the process, she’s emerged, unwittingly, as a kind of Asian-American activist.
Nowhere is this more evident than in a piece she wrote for T Magazine last November, entitled “Asian-American Cuisine’s Rise, and Triumph.” Mishan says she struggled with the story, massaging it through multiple revision and a complete rewrite. After interviewing over twenty chefs, she found herself hampered by a central question: What is Asian-American cuisine? “I was very uncomfortable with the term Asian-American,” she says. “What does that mean?” Her editor, Hanya Yanagihara, pushed her to confront the uncertainty.
In the piece, Mishan wrestles with the parameters of racial identity—the term Asian-American cuisine “is problematic,” she writes, “subsuming countries across a vast region with no shared language or single unifying religion”—before arguing that Asian-American chefs have played a seismic, if unacknowledged role in shaping the new American palate.
“What may be most radical about Asian-American cuisine,” she writes, “is the attitude that informs and powers it, reflecting a new cockiness in a population that has historically kept quiet and encouraged to lay low. It’s food that celebrates crunchy cartilage and gelatinous ooze, that openly stinks, that declares: This is what I like to eat. What about you? Do you dare?”
It’s at once a taunt, a declaration, and a rallying cry for a culture filtered through the prism of Asian immigrant food. “That piece had the biggest struggle,” Mishan says, “and then it came out and I feel like, out of everything, it’s probably the most me.”
That's the thing about covering all different cuisines—what you often end up really writing about is the people who cook and consume them.