Just deserts: A Wknd interview with the founders of The Goya Journal

ByRituparna Roy
Mar 17, 2023 01:00 PM IST

How did recipes travel and change? Where did early food innovations come from? The answer is often women, working unseen in their kitchens. The online publication Goya Journal, launched by Aysha Tanya and Anisha Rachel Oommen, is telling stories of such women, tracing evolutions, micro-cuisines, efforts at conservation today. For its unique work, it has been picked as one of The Guardian’s 30 things to love in the world of food right now.

Two missing things prompted Aysha Tanya and Anisha Rachel Oommen to launch their food media production company Goya Media in 2016: the big picture wasn’t being represented in much of the writing on food in India, and there was practically no home cooking being featured.

Aysha Tanya and Anisha Rachel Oommen. PREMIUM
Aysha Tanya and Anisha Rachel Oommen.

Through India’s thousands of years of history, “much of the stories that shaped Indian cuisine lived in the home kitchens run by women,” says Oommen, 37. It was time to tell some of those stories.

Oommen and Tanya, 34, had worked together at a food magazine, and bonded over a common love of Nigella Lawson. What they admired most about the British TV celebrity and cook was the way she gave new meaning to home cooking in the 1990s, and made the kitchen a space to reclaim in a new avatar. Watching her they thought that perhaps they too could challenge the gendered conversation around food in India.

“For so long, the kitchen has been a prison that trapped women in hours of servitude in the role of a nurturing caregiver, and it still does. Yet food is looked at as trivial, as a woman’s domain,” says Oommen.

Most of the stories in this sphere tend to emerge from the restaurant space, which is typically dominated by men. “It was time for all the players in the chain to take centrestage, from seed-keepers to farmers, cooks, and even food writers,” Oommen says.

The duo’s online publication Goya Journal was launched in 2016. In the seven years since, it has featured stories about women celebrating micro-cuisines and fighting to preserve niche ones; tales of cafés friendly to and frequented by lovers in Mumbai; explorations of new crops, grain revivals and new ways of growing food.

“In Tamil Nadu, Women Sustain the Revival of a Grain Orphaned by the Green Revolution,” says the headline of a story about the cultivation of different kinds of millets, published this January as part of a collaboration with Greenpeace.

It is this wide range and unique storytelling that, in February, saw The Goya Journal featured on The Guardian’s list of 30 things to love in the world of food right now. Since the aim of the publication house was to “paint a vivid picture of where India is at this particular moment in history through the lens of food,” this listing feels like a big win, Tanya says.

It isn’t easy publishing long-form content in the age of Instagram Reels, the women admit. They’ve been reaching out to their community of readers, and looking to expand it, with initiatives such as the community cookbook A Kitchen of One’s Own, produced in collaboration with Nivaala, an heirloom recipe journal, last year.

“We care deeply about documenting family recipes, and wanted to show that many of these recipes, even the ones that are slightly more process-intensive or use harder-to-source ingredients, can be adapted to the modern Indian kitchen. This is Goya’s equivalent of wearing your grandmother’s old sari to the pub,” Tanya says.

Meanwhile, revenue is coming in, from advertisers, events, and strategy and consulting gigs with brands in the F&B space.

Tanya, who grew up in Kannur, Kerala, started writing about food on a blog called Malabar Tea Room that she runs with her mother. “It was a way to help share her recipes and stories around them with the world,” she says. Tanya now lives in Bengaluru with her husband Sajjad Anwar and their cat. Oommen, who grew up in Bengaluru, lives in Mumbai with husband Pritish Wesley and their toddler Ari Oommen Wesley. The two women collaborate over scores of video calls, and work with a vast network of freelancers in India and beyond.

They see their mission as a vital one. Food is a way to address politics, gender and identity, especially in today’s polarised political climate, Tanya says. “Considering battle lines are first drawn in the kitchen, it makes food writing more important than ever.”

Goya plans to continue to cater to the curious food enthusiast. “Especially those who want to make sustainable food choices, learn more about the Green Revolution and its effects, or simply trace the evolution of a sweet delicacy whose recipe changed hands from the Sikhs of Punjab in Pakistan, to the Muslims of the region post-Partition,” Tanya says.

How do they decide exactly which stories to tell? “One of the things we ask every time we’re considering a pitch is: Whose voice are we amplifying?” she says.

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