Invited to the Table
Expanding our Taste Horizons
There’s a moment after taking the first bite of a meal when our taste receptors begin their run of show. Salt punches in at the tip of the tongue and acidity kicks in on the sides of the mouth as the bitter notes rush to the throat. As the flavors start to take hold, our reaction can often be emotional: recognition, a surprise, a sense of delight, a savory satisfaction. This is food’s universal facility, a promise that exists before function or form.
Food is a great unifier. We are born asking to eat, and throughout our lives this essential function brings us together. We arrive at table or window or counter for a first whiff of smells strange and familiar, impatient for the satisfaction ahead. In its provision, preparation and anticipation, people have eagerly converged through the ages, creating time and space for community and kinship.
These days, the pace of life often leads us to reach for our food — from restaurants and premade services to markets and grocery shelves. Whether through a comforting readymade recipe, a new eatery featuring less traveled cuisine, or a global ingredient found locally, these offerings provide exciting opportunity. The branding of food is a powerful force when it speaks to an individual so deeply that it is possible to see a reflection of themselves; an extension of their identity, personality, or needs. A new taste or recommendation becomes an invitation to understand who someone is and where they come from.
In many of its favored forms, food is steeped with nostalgia. From the salt or sugar overload of a childhood treat to the improvised meals of adolescent living, we gather a treasure trove of timeless flavors as we move through life. Recreating a memorable dish is a way to travel across time and place, often finding form as the traditions and heirloom recipes a family or community passes down.
Yet the meaning of food can evolve, especially at the personal level. For first-generation Americans, individuals born to one or more parent coming to the US from abroad, a unique existence between cultures is exemplified in the convergence of traditions and flavors. Fragrant lunch boxes full of ingredients found beyond the typical grocery store shelves can be isolating, while American childhood food traditions might feel foreign growing up in a multicultural home.
One such example is Kolkata Chai, founded and run on New York City’s Lower East Side by two first-generation Indian American brothers. Across South Asia, sipping chai is a ritual found routinely in family homes, but also in tea shops and along bustling streets. It’s a cultural mainstay familiar across the diaspora, often paired with shared company and snacks. Inspired by this awareness, Ayan and Ani Sanyal began the café with a simple idea: “How do we extend the authenticity, respect and tradition behind a cup of masala chai to NYC?”
With bold, colorful branding and innovative offerings like seasonal soft serve and oat milk variations, Kolkata Chai is not inauthentic but rather expansively inspired. Creating a brand experience true to a multicultural lived experience has brought a timeless drink to new tastebuds. What remains consistent is what draws crowds of caffeine and culture lovers alike — the warm welcome of ginger, cardamom, black tea and milk.
In brick and mortar and beyond, food brands are embracing this fusion of cultures and cuisines with growing momentum. In 2023, Food Business News predicts the rise of ‘mosaic’ cooking, the continued convergence of regional and global flavors. Autobiographical diaspora cooking, another approach in focus, refers to chefs bringing together American foods with heritage recipes.
The diversity and adaptation embodied by first-generation and multicultural American identity is inspiring new ways to expand our palettes. Brands like Omsom, which offers a full spectrum of pantry starters for Asian dishes, and Diaspora Co., a fair-trade spice company, create ethical access for consumers to make beloved or discovered dishes their own. Both also pair iconic flavors with equally bold brand expression and visual representation across platforms, embracing their positioning by challenging stereotypes around food and its origins.
Food is a way to show appreciation for the culture and traditions of others. When we are invited to such a meal, we step beyond our own experience with an innate curiosity that’s often obscured. Eating together lets us experience stories that extend far beyond one place or person. Being offered a seat at the table, a phrase today imbued with contended meaning, is remembered around a meal as a humanizing gesture of acceptance and good will. There is something immeasurable to value in the everyday actions we engage in ritually and often choose to share. Through food we celebrate the beauty of living together while embracing our differences, and the expansive possibility of continuing to open the door.
This post was written by Shanti Basu. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.