Zahir Janmohamed, visiting professor at Bowdoin and founder of “Racist Sandwich” podcast on food, race, gender, and class, shown at Smalls in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

There are a number of ways you may have already heard of Zahir Janmohamed.

A visiting assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College since 2021, Janmohamed is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, The Guardian, McSweeney’s, The Economic Times and many other publications. He’s made media appearances on NPR, CNN, BBC, CBC, Al Jazeera and “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.”

But he’s still fondly remembered by many as co-host of “Racist Sandwich,” a podcast that he founded in 2016 with co-host Soleil Ho while they both lived in Portland, Oregon.

“Racist Sandwich” explored the intersection of food, race, gender and class and racked up wide acclaim over its nearly four-year run. It was named among the best food podcasts of its time by Forbes, Saveur and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, while an episode from the 2018 season, “Erasing Black Barbecue,” was nominated for a James Beard Foundation media award.

Janmohamed earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. Before his writing career, he spent about a decade working in politics, including serving as advocacy director for Amnesty International from 2006-2009, where he managed the organization’s lobbying, public outreach, and media work on the Middle East and North Africa.

Janmohamed teaches fiction and nonfiction at Bowdoin, including an introductory food writing class, “Writing the History, Culture and Politics of Food.” This fall, he’ll also lead the writing track for The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies at Maine College of Art & Design.


We sat down recently with the 47-year-old educator and journalist to talk about his time with “Racist Sandwich,” how it shaped his later work, the problem with “authenticity” in food, what excites today’s food writing students, and his favorite places to eat in Maine.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the story behind the name “Racist Sandwich”?

After I moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2015, I heard about a school principal there who was making an analogy at a school board meeting about how if a school is predominately Latinx, then maybe you don’t serve a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, you serve a torta. She wasn’t really talking about food, but more making the analogy that a school should change its curriculum based on the demographics of the students. And all these conservative commentators said, “She’s calling the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich racist,” which she wasn’t.

So I found that was sort of an apt metaphor for the way in which we often get awkward and sometimes comical when we try to talk about race. At the time, I was a really big fan of a podcast called “Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period,” which is basically two Black comedians using Denzel Washington as a vehicle for talking about being Black in Hollywood. Both of the comedians were not well known at the time, and one of them said in an interview, “If you’re not well known, you have to have a really catchy podcast name.”

“Racist Sandwich” is a name like people are like, “Wait, what? I don’t get it.” We kind of wanted something that was a little bit out there.


I think it captured the whole ethos of our approach: We were trying to ask questions that no one else was asking. Like, why are we willing to pay a certain amount for Italian food but less money for, let’s say, Mexican food? Those are basic questions, and now they’re being asked, but back then, I didn’t feel like they were being asked that much.

Were there certain food-world events and circumstances that helped define your show’s mission from the outset?

There was a Somali pop-up at the time in Portland, Oregon, and I think it sold out in minutes. And yet there was also an article around then about how Somali immigrants were having a hard time finding housing in the same city, which I found fascinating – Somali food is really popular in the city, but no one wants to give them housing.

At the time, there was also a lot of conversation about (white chefs and cultural appropriation), like should Andy Ricker (chef-owner of the former Thai-influenced Pok Pok restaurants, based in Portland, Oregon) cook Thai food. I was actually a big fan of his restaurants. Soleil (former “Racist Sandwich” co-host Soleil Ho) and I were not really interested in having that conversation. If you’re white and you want to cook Indian food, as long as you do it with respect, I don’t really care.

It was more a question of how we could highlight stories of people who historically have been on the margins in the food world – people of color, queer people, differently abled people, people who are fat. I didn’t want to do a whole podcast about telling white people what they can and can’t do. That was not interesting to me.

We went into the studio, and I didn’t know anything about podcasting. At the time, podcasting was very different. Today, it’s more corporate, and there’s much more finesse. We had really poor sound quality, didn’t know how to use a microphone. But back then, there was much more of a do-it-yourself ethos to it. And we just started with this long conversation, saying, “Yes, there’s so much talk about how food brings us together, but food can also tear us apart and lead to shame.” I was teased as a kid for bringing Indian food to school for lunch, and that’s also a conversation we need to have.


I think the success of the podcast was because we had an insider-outsider take to this, Soleil being a longtime chef, myself as someone outside the food world but who had done a lot of journalism. I got up to speed really by showing not just curiosity but also sensitivity. I wanted people to have a conversation that they didn’t feel they had the space for in other parts of their lives.

“We can appreciate the food world, and at the same time hold complex feelings about it,” said Janmohamed. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

What were some of the episodes and interviews with the most impact?

We interviewed some very high-profile people, like Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen and Hari Kondabolu, the famous comedian. But I feel I’d gotten the most emails about Episode 8 (“Writing About Race, Family & Food”), and it was me, Soleil and a writer named Amy Lam. And we’re all Asian American, wrestling with what it means to have success in these fields that our parents don’t really understand. When we got the James Beard Award nomination (for the 2018 episode, “Erasing Black Barbecue” ), the first thing my mom says is, “Oh, great! If you win, how much money do you get?” And I was like, “Uh, we get a medal, and I’d have to fly out to pick it up.” She didn’t understand how it was an honor if you didn’t get any money. That episode was such an inside baseball conversation, and it spoke to a lot of people.

We also did an episode about fatness in the food world. That had a big impact on me. I never thought the same way about chairs. When I walk into a restaurant, I don’t think, “Is this chair going to accommodate my body?” We had someone talk about how when she walks into a restaurant with a fat body, she’s always thinking about whether that place is accessible to her. So that really shifted how I think.

You turn on Netflix these days, open up the New York Times, Eater, Bon Appetit, they’re filled with stories about food and race and queer people, and that’s wonderful and beautiful. Hopefully, we’re all getting more sensitive and attuned to these issues. Whereas when we started (the podcast), I can’t underscore enough how much resistance there was. We definitely got feedback early on from people who were like, “Why are you ruining things by talking about this?” So things are changing.

In your farewell episode in 2019, you said one highlight of your time with the podcast was being able to go into professional kitchens. Could you tell us more about that? 


Being invited into kitchens and food trucks gave me a degree of sensitivity, and an appreciation for the struggles of the food world – the razor-thin margins, the fact that your shift can dramatically change if one person doesn’t show up. I never knew how hard it is to be in a food truck. Being in one on a hot summer day and trying to chop onions is really challenging.

I had been guilty of romanticizing the food world. I still think there’s something romantic about going out to eat or discovering an outstanding morning bun at a bakery. There’s still a magic there, but now I know about some of the struggles behind it.

That’s what I tell my students, and hopefully that’s what the podcast reinforced: that we can appreciate the food world and at the same time hold complex feelings about it. It’s not about being a killjoy but recognizing the labor and struggles behind some of this food.

Tell us about your experience living in Maine, one of the whitest states in the country.

When I moved to Maine in March 2020, it was a little bit of a shock in terms of the lack of diversity here. But I’ve grown to appreciate and really like it here. Several things have shifted my opinion of Maine. Certainly the protests around the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and these recent protests around Gaza.

We’re at a coffee shop right now, Smalls, that has raised a lot of money for the (Palestinian) cause. I could have picked two or three other coffee shops to meet you at today that have done the same. That’s made me feel incredibly inspired and welcome here in this city. It’s one thing for a business to have a sign that says “Black Lives Matter,” but it’s another thing for them to fundraise for a cause that is very divisive and take a strong position.


What are the topics that most interest your food writing students?

Definitely climate change, without a doubt. We’re in Maine, so we know about the coast and the threat to lobster fishermen. There’s a growing body of literature about queerness in food, what it means for a restaurant to have a queer aesthetic.

Teaching this class at a time when there is famine in Gaza, that has come up – how we can use food stories to uplift stories of Palestinians. And at Bowdoin, a question is what is the school’s relationship to Brunswick, how can it be improved and how can students give back to the community?

And every time students go to the Midcoast Hunger Prevention program (a regular field trip for his students), it’s really eye-opening. It’s just a two-minute walk from Bowdoin, and the students are just like, “Wow, I didn’t know it was there, or there were these long lines for free food.” That’s always one of the most moving days.

My food writing class is always the most emotional class to teach, because it’s an inherently emotional subject – not just sad, but also incredibly joyous. I encourage them to recognize the emotion around food. What makes a meal special isn’t just about what’s on the plate, it’s the whole experience around it.

You’ve said people sometimes reacted negatively to your cultural cuisine when you were growing up. What was the issue? And how did your mother’s blend of Indian and East African cooking affect how you approach food?


If my mom packed Indian food for me at school, it was often coded as “smelly.” Or people would come to the house and they would complain about the food smell. So I would insist that she not pack Indian food, to pack peanut butter sandwiches or whatever. The food was often a sign of shame, something you had to compartmentalize.

Things are different now. I have a son who’s 3, and he’s growing up in a different world. He has a kid book about Indian food, and we love reading it together, and that was not something I had as a kid. It’s really beautiful to see these changes.

My mom has this spinach dish that I love to make. It’s a traditional basic Indian spinach curry, but she adds the East African touch of coconut milk. I’ve given it my own touch as well, which is almost like a salsa mix I add to it.

The one word I try to ban in the classroom is “authentic.” When you think about “authentic” Indian spinach curry, is my mom’s not authentic because she grew up in Tanzania? It’s a different version. My version is even more different. Every food changes and adapts, and that’s a beautiful thing.

One of my favorite restaurants in Portland is Regards. How do you classify it? You can start with a tamale, get a Japanese steak, maybe have flan for dessert. There are no borders to that food, and I like that. A word like “authentic” implies that people don’t move and doesn’t allow the possibility for people to change. I love Michigan Arab food because it’s like Middle Eastern food, but just greasier and cheesier. No one puts cheese in a shawarma in the Middle East, to my knowledge. But I think that’s exciting.

One of my favorite dishes going to the mosque here for today’s Eid (Eid al-Fitr on April 10, the culmination of the monthlong Muslim Ramadan) is the spaghetti that Somalis make, which shows the Italian colonial influence on Somalia, but it’s this spicier version that’s fabulous. So you have these items that don’t really have any business being together, and it works.


Food should be capacious. My mom is a mischievous cook in that she likes to blend things. She likes to make pizza, but she’ll make it Indian-ish by doctoring up the red sauce with garam masala, paprika, turmeric, a few cardamom pods.

Of course we can’t let you go without asking for your favorite Maine restaurants.

In Brunswick, Zao Ze Cafe is amazing, Maiz is really good, so is Tao Yuan.

In Portland, The Honey Paw is fabulous, Crispy Gai, Regards for a splurge, Rose Bagels, Smalls and Speckled Ax. Moonday on Washington Avenue has the best cappuccino in town. I love Nura for falafel, and pizza at Monte’s is amazing.

We’re so lucky in Portland. It’s such a small city, and it’s phenomenal how much good food there is. It punches way, way, way above its weight.

The place I go to the most is Boda for Thai. I have the Kra-Prao Chicken.

And I never thought I would like lobster rolls until I moved here. I love Highroller best. I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

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