In this episode of You Did That!, I welcome Habiba Syed, an Afghan-American English instructor, food writer, and recipe developer known as @cheftaloo on Instagram. As a teacher at Queensborough Community College, she “advocate[s] for first generation and BIPOC students to acquire and habituate college level skills by utilizing an empathetic pedagogical lens.”
Main Topics Discussed:
- Engaging the Afghan diaspora through culinary adventures
- Having a strong sense of ownership over your native cuisine
- How to successfully publish a cookbook in 2023
- Highlighting Afghan joy through food writing
- Creating sustainable changes in your life that unlock the genuine YOU
Tell me about yourself and what inspired you to choose your career.
Habiba: I’m an Afghan-American. I grew up partly in California, partly in New York City, and went to school in Delaware. I love creating recipes, food photography, and networking with foodies in the field! My favorite part of my “unofficial” job is engaging with the Afghan diaspora through this tiny Instagram page! Food has a very special place in my heart. It’s comforting. It’s healing. There’s an exciting nature about it because there’s always something new to create, and it’s a great way to connect with family and friends.
Has there been growing interest in traditional food from the Afghan community?
Habiba: Yes. Food means home for us. The conversations start out on the surface level, but eventually bring to mind stories about being in Grandma’s kitchen and one’s upbringing. It also invites very politicized debates about the “most authentic” recipes. I get yelled at on social media for putting certain ingredients in certain dishes, but I have to admire the sense of ownership that people have over their cuisine. For many people, there’s only one version of something, because that version is what they enjoyed in their childhood.
Tell me about the moment you decided to make food writing and recipe development part of your career.
Habiba: This idea has been simmering for some time. I have lots of friends and family who know about my interest in identity politics mixed with culinary adventures. I think the “official” moment was when my grandmother passed last year. Much of what I remember about food, the kitchen, and my sense of childhood are associated with my grandma. It became my calling to preserve her recipes—her legacy.
What were some of the challenges you faced while building this platform?
Habiba: I knew that this wasn’t a place I was familiar with, but I was willing to learn all I could through attending workshops and connecting with people in the space. Because the publishing world had changed so much in the past few years, I knew I had to do things that were outside of my comfort zone. For cookbook authors, publishers are looking for more than a creative mind and writing skill. Beyond ideas, they’re looking for platforms. They’re looking for marketability. It’s tough to reconcile the artist with the salesperson, but it’s been something I’ve been continuing to work on.
Which has been more challenging for you: teaching or food writing?
Habiba: Teaching in the traditional space has always been challenging. But now that I’m writing a cookbook, I had to really learn how to switch from sounding academic to sounding relatable. I’m highlighting Afghan joy: our happiness, resilience, perseverance, and survival.
What has surprised you the most about this process?
Habiba: I have been growing in ways I didn’t know were possible. I always ask what my goals are for any given project and whether my discomfort is greater than my confidence. My answer is always, “No.” My discomfort is not greater than my passion for this endeavor. I promised that I would take this on until it comes to fruition. It’s been difficult at times because I have to deal with my limitations, but my failures teach me lessons I never could have learned otherwise.
What would your younger self say if she saw you now?
Habiba: In order to have a strong foundation, you have to make changes that are sustainable and feel genuine to you. It’s easy to rush into things and realize that you need to take ten steps back. Also, do things on your own terms. It took me a long time to figure out that I’m enough for change to happen. Of course you need help and guidance along the way. But this is my passion at the end of the day, and I can’t trust anyone else to bring that level of interest and ambition into it.
Learn more about Habiba Syed:
Follow her on Instagram: www.instagram.com/cheftaloo