San Francisco's Besharam Serves Up Desi Nostalgia for Immigrant Kids
Photos by Connor Bruce Photography.

San Francisco's Besharam Serves Up Desi Nostalgia for Immigrant Kids

Chef Heena Patel masterfully created a space where young people of color can find community, rebellion, and the food that tastes like home.
July 10, 2018, 8:15pm

I’ve only heard “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!!” by Vengaboys twice in my life. The first was as a thirteen-year-old in summer camp, clinging to the unfamiliar pop songs older camp counselors played as the sun fell—and the second was at San Francisco restaurant Besharam, musically flanked by Bollywood hit “Kala Chashma” and TLC’s “No Scrubs.” I sipped on a turmeric lemonade, thinking of a time before “golden milk” when my mother would douse all my drinks in turmeric to give us both a semblance of healthiness, and bit into grilled chicken kabobs that reminded me of the fresh chicken curry my grandmother would make on my visits to India. All these memories I didn’t quite remember having until I had them through Chef Heena Patel. Besharam is the conduit for a sweet nostalgia that plays out like déjà vu in the eyes, ears, and bellies of its passengers.

Chef Patel and husband Paresh.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where my overwhelming sense of validation comes from within the confines of Besharam. It could very well be diaspora artist Maria Qamar (aka Hatecopy)’s branding—which is what brought me to the restaurant in the first place. Qamar’s plates display quips such as “Spicy Food Is For Spicy Girls” and “Hot Chai, Cold Revenge” while the walls of Besharam are muraled with one of Qamar’s signature aunties salaciously eyeing the food. It could also be the young waitstaff commandeering a playlist as fun and fusion as the champagne-and-chaat-masala cocktails they invented. Maybe it’s the fish moilee that separates and melts only when it’s in my mouth, crisped and teetering delicately on top of the curry and rice instead of within. Or maybe it’s that Chef Patel masterfully built a space like so few others where young people of color can gather—an act of resistance in a political landscape that attacks hybridity and culture.

Besharam, which translates to “shameless” in Urdu, is also Patel’s late-in-life personal rebellion. Growing up as a daughter in a traditional Indian family, her family’s focus on finding her a good husband came with strict guidelines on how to speak and dress. “I never had the courage to say I want to wear something where my tummy will show or to chop up my own hair,” Patel explains, “I don’t have the personality to push back in that way, but I can push back with my food. The ‘besharam’ name comes through all the boundaries I want to cross.” The sentiment is palpable inside the restaurant. Patel’s boundary-pushing besharam maps onto the same besharam diaspora kids know all too well—both cases of shamelessness born from the need to reconcile with their multifaceted identities.

The second of five daughters in Gujarat, 21-year-old Patel moved to London for an arranged marriage. She spent five years there, helping her mother-in-law in the kitchen, a territory she had rarely explored in her bookish childhood in India. Rooted in the same hopes as many other immigrants at the time, the Patels immigrated to Marin County to start a new life. For them, that manifested in running a liquor store and a flower shop right next to each other. In the 1990s, Marin’s demographics were even more single-tone than they are now, with a white population that accounted for 89% of Patel’s new community.

Looking to recreate the flavors of her childhood, Patel took to home cooking. As much as she attributes her skill in the kitchen to the Gujarati women who taught her, she’s also passionate about the flavors she only had a chance to try once she left India. The need to feed her Indian-American children growing up in a homogenous community, her desire to recreate some of the multicultural spices she’d only recently fallen in love with, and her longing to taste something from home produced what’s now an incredibly vivid take on Indian cuisine.

While running the family business and raising her children in the back of her flower shop, she also managed a German beer house part-time in order to get her U.S. citizenship. “I wanted to do it so my children didn’t have to worry about citizenship later,” she explains nonchalantly. It was her first exposure to commercial kitchens, and catalyzed her to build a business around her home cooking. In her quiet and matter-of-fact tone, Patel shrugs, “Whatever I get, I fight for.”

La Cocina, an SF-based food incubator aimed towards low-income immigrant women, provided Patel the avenue and resources to pitch her food business idea. At the 2013 La Cocina orientation, Patel centered her business plan around an Indian street-cart style food truck. Patel recalls, “That’s the food I could afford growing up; the flavors were always so bold.” The food truck was only meant to take a small part of her day, but before she knew it, her business plan had grown. “As I got more involved, my food truck turned into a restaurant which turned into fine dining. My dream just kept getting bigger,” she recalled. Until only last year, Patel was doing catering, farmer’s markets, private events, and EatWith dinner parties with her family’s help. Now, Besharam exists through a partnership with Alta Group founder and acclaimed chef Daniel Patterson.

“My food is my journey. It’s not authentic, but it’s about what I remember,” Patel explains, “I have an emotional attachment to all of my food—with my family, with my aunt, with my college friends and sneaking out in the middle of school to go buy that bhel puri.” To be an immigrant is to live in a transient state, one where you’re constantly taking in the present while clinging desperately to the fleeting past. Operating entirely on muscle memory is nothing short of exhausting, and when you’re constantly exhausted, anything that keeps tastes, smells, sights from your childhood alive is a real comfort. Patel says, “I want you to go back to your memories; if you are Indian, I want you to feel like this is like your mom’s food and if it’s your mom, I want her to say this is exactly like I had it in India.” Anyone can enjoy Besharam, but Patel always meant to build the experience in a way that gives desis more. It’s as if we’re part of her inside joke.

Spaces like Besharam are few and far between, even in the culturally rich population of the Bay Area. La Cocina does its part in providing second-generation immigrants with food they can latch onto through financing the endeavors of the first-generation, but there’s still an enormous amount of room to grow. For now, the cultural mainstays that afford young people of color the privilege of community are doing their best to serve good food and good conversation: Bini’s Kitchen provides Nepalese momos at street food fairs for forlorn Desi-yuppies; Reem Assil of Reem’s California offers an activist space for Palestinian changemakers fond of za’atar mana’eesh; El Huarache Loco sells Mexican street food reminiscent of Chef Veronica Salazar’s hometown of Mexico City; and Preeti Mistry has long been known for creating inclusive spaces, like her now-closed Juhu Beach Club and Navi Kitchen, and fighting for her own existence as a queer woman of color in the food industry. Young people of color are looking for locales to imprint on, ones that define them and their intersectionalities, ones that make them feel seen.

As any child of immigrants, I grew up in a family anchored by cultural institutions without having any of my own. There are many elements of second-generation immigrants that just don’t quite fit into any one space, because the multiplicity of our identities can often feel contradictory. Besharam does not only feel like a place of solidarity and likeness with my diaspora peers, it’s an individual exploration into who I am. It is a physical representation that I can point to when I feel like the puzzle pieces of my own hybridity just aren’t matching up—a reminder that all the jagged parts of my cultural identity have the potential to coalesce as easily as they do within the confines of Besharam.