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Interview: Anela Malik of Feed the Malik

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A food writer, culinary explorer, and a powerful voice for diversity in food.

head shot Anela Malik
Photo by The Photographer RC

Writer, food blogger, advocate, and expert in all things “where and what to eat” Anela Malik of Feed the Malik has a passionate curiosity and working knowledge about food, food culture, and the people behind cuisine. More than that, she is a thoughtful and deeply intelligent woman committed to supporting diversity and racial equality.

I like to think that I am an intrepid and passionate food lover. I have tasted roasted guinea pig in West Africa. I’ve  scarfed mind-blowingly spicy curry in northern Thailand, and ema datsi in a dirt-floored barn in Bhutan. There was that unfortunate rattle snake pizza in North Carolina that one time. And I write for a Eater, a website that requires an up-to-date, insider knowledge of the local food scene. But Anela — also an intrepid world traveler and D.C. resident — reminds me that great, multicultural food does not just exist in the far-flung corners of the earth. It is also found right here in our own communities — and that we owe it to ourselves to seek it out.

Also check out: Food + Grief With Chef Eli Kulp and Feed the Fight’s Elena Tompkins

image from feed the malikFeed the Malik

Anela Malik’s blog, Feed the Malik, began in 2018 while she was living in Amman, Jordan. Not content to rely on the same-old tourist spots, Anela ventured off the beaten track to find more local, and better, food. “Through food and storytelling I could introduce people to new cultures, to diverse stories and perspectives they had never imagined,” she writes on her blog.

Life in Washington, D.C., has not changed Anela’s perspective and goals. If anything, they have broadened. Below, we talk about her blog, her love of food and travel, and her expanding role as a food writer and advocate.

Ed. note: Subsequent to this interview, Anela published a beautiful essay in the Washington Post, “My father taught me about Black food and identity. Now that he’s gone, cookbooks fill the gap.” It’s beautiful, reflecting upon the intersection of Black food, tradition, history — and a father’s love. I hope you read it. 

The Interview: Anela Malik of Feed the Malik

This interview took place on July 3, 2020. This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space.

Lisa Ruland: It seems like venturing out good food has always been part of your travel experience and of exploring different cultures. 

Anela Malik: My dad was an avid adventurer and explorer. We didn’t travel a ton because we didn’t have a ton of money, but when we did, he would drag us off to eat somewhere off the beaten track. And as a kid, that’s not what you want to do. My dad would just be talking to someone for hours, but that was his way of connecting with people. He loved food. And that’s the way I look  at it. It is a way of getting to know about people and their stories.

There are people who use food as a way to connect with people, and see food as an extension of the culture they are experiencing. And it’s probably going to push you to go a little further from your hotel, too, if you have researched certain places to try in a city. 

How did you arrive at the decision to feature minority-owned food businesses here in D.C.?

It wasn’t really intentional. I like food and I write about food and take photos of food. I’ve been focusing on minority-owned and marginalized places right now because that’s what I want to learn about. If I wanted to learn about the Michelin-starred places or the really trendy spots, that is already out there. But if I want to learn about where to get the best fried chicken sandwich, there are one or two things in papers, but very little beyond that. So it is a natural extension of what I want to learn about.

And D.C. is a really complicated city. D.C. is so starkly segregated, almost in an immediate visual sense. If you go over a certain line, the demographics change immediately. So it’s a very complicated food city. 

How do you find out about the places you spotlight?

It can be really hard to find places that end up being true gems, because there is a lot of trial and error. So, let’s say I want Caribbean food, I’ll start with friends who went to Howard because there is a lot of Caribbean food around there. So I always start with people who have lived here. It’s a lot of word of mouth. Instagram also; I’ll put up an Instagram story and that’s helpful.  

Where’s a place you’ve recently gone and were really wowed.

Most recently, we drove out a food hall in Brentwood, Maryland to a Caribbean seafood place called The Shell Shack Seafood that opened during the pandemic, I think like two months ago now. I thought it was interesting that they opened during the pandemic. It was awesome. Really awesome, and a really Caribbean take on seafood. We had this plantain fried rice and a little lobster. The servings are huge, and the prices are way cheaper. I never would have known if I didn’t see a picture someone posted on Instagram.

Is your husband into food as well? 

He is. I don’t know how we could have a long-term relationship if he didn’t love food as well! 

There has been a reckoning about racism in food right now, people talking about racism in food media, but also in restaurants, food stores, and in general. So, this is a big question, but I would like to ask your perspective on racism in food.

It’s a really complex question. In the American context, it is insidious and woven into aspects of our lives that, on its face, we wouldn’t expect it to be. So I think before this particular reckoning, a lot of people had not had deep conversations about racism in food. These are people who do like food, and they do read Eater, and food is what they are interested in.  

This reckoning has taken something that everyone says, “Food connects us,” and made it more complicated. And I think that is a good thing, but that is hard for people to recognize this racism on its face.

In restaurants, it is interesting to see businesses trying to position themselves where suddenly people are asking where they stand on the issue. This is not a question many businesses have had to answer before. And it’s businesses across the board: Where do you stand on Black Lives Matter? How diverse is your business? And a lot of them are caught off guard because this is not anything they have been asked to confront before.

If I was going to tell the average foodie about racism, I would say that it is ever present. And we may not even see it at first, but it affects everything, from what’s on menus to who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets to run front of house, who gets to be a manager. It’s in Yelp reviews. All of that is affected by our interactions with race, class, gender, all of that. And racism is insidious. 

Not long ago, I interviewed a Black ballet dancer, Nardia Boodoo, who also is a great cook. She made a great point about the restaurants that win awards and get the most press. Like, why does a Michelin-starred chef or James Beard Award chef always seem to be from the same background? Her point was about the measure of good food: Is it the ability to make it taste good, or merely appeal to a Euro-centric and socioeconomic tradition? Your thoughts on this?

In D.C., a lot of that is true. Isn’t carryout worthy of coverage? Isn’t carryout worthy of awards? D.C. is complicated because it is so Black, but so much of the coverage is not. If you look on Yelp for “ethnic” restaurants, you will inevitably find a review that’s like “good food, good service, but too  expensive for — insert ethnicity.”

You have been affecting change already, but what do you want to see happen from all of the advocacy and work you are doing to provide attention and resources to Black-owned businesses right now? [Ed. note: Anela created page of practical business resources for Black-owned restaurants and food businesses in the D.C. region, and also created a popular list of Black-owned food businesses and restaurants currently open in the area.]

What has motivated me is that I love food, and I want to see myself and my friends — the people that have nurtured me and have taught me and exposed me to their cultures — represented in food, even if I have to create it on Instagram. I want people to see that the food these people make with their own hands is just as valuable as sushi or Italian.

And even before this most recent movement, people [business owners] would reach out to me and ask, “Hey, do you know anyone who could help me with XYZ?” But it was very one-off. But it picked up pace, so it just became bigger once this civil rights movement kicked off. And it’s modest and slow going. And part of the slow going is because it’s hard for me to find  email addresses for some of  these food business owners. Sometimes they don’t answer the phone, and these businesses are usually run by one or two people, and they’re so focused on the day-to-day running of a small business, like licensing, cooking, cleaning, that it’s hard to make sure you’re focusing on your email inbox or social media.

But this is about providing the resource and having it available. I’m a local food blogger focusing on minority-owned business. People can take advantage of these resources or leave them. It is there for them if they want it.

Switching gears a bit, how have the Covid-19 restrictions and lockdown felt to a big traveler like you?

It has felt very limiting. My husband and I, usually we’re like, “Let’s take a weekend trip!” We live in a very small apartment in the city. We didn’t expect this to happen, so we have a small, old apartment. And it’s great, but just not great for living in a pandemic. 

We bought a desk and wedged it in the corner. He gets this side, I get that side. We are both teleworking from home, and sometimes it’s just loud because we have to talk over each other. In some ways I feel very limited, but in some ways we feel very lucky because we have stable employment and we are here in D.C., which is a city that I do love. And we are both hyper-aware of that we both used to work in service jobs and could be in a much more precarious situation.

Did you have to cancel any trips?

Yeah. My husband’s family is in Oregon and he had a ticket and that got canceled. And I wanted to visit my mom in Hawaii, and we’ve been tempted to go, but we just don’t think it’s responsible. Both our moms want to see us, but we just don’t feel like we can see them yet.

I still am struggling with dining out. I’ve eaten on a patio once — at Lincoln — which was nice because it was really chill midweek, but it still makes me nervous. And then I think, “Am I promoting this exploitive system where I’m making workers work when they don’t feel safe?” I know that people have to work because they need money, butI  still very much struggle with the idea of eating out. 

Do you worry about whether this renewed civil rights movement is just trendy right now, and will fade? Sometimes I feel like we all have such short attention spans.

I worry about that a lot. I do think that attention will shift a little bit. That’s why I’ve been trying to inculcate the idea of, like, every Friday, eat at a Black-owned business. Just enough where you can do it normally and it won’t be a burden. And it will take a lot more than this moment to correct structural inequality.  

Editors are asking me to write about it. But I don’t have the bandwidth because I haven’t really processed everything going on. It is a strange time to be a Black person on the internet. People you don’t know are suddenly sending you money on Venmo, and companies who ignored you for six months are suddenly super interested in talking to me. But if I try to do everything right now, I can’t. I am navigating a new space. 

How are you finding balance right now? Are you finding balance?

I wasn’t at first. I was working 14- to 16-hour days. I felt like if people wanted to be added to the directory [of Black-owned restaurants and food businesses open in D.C. and the surrounding region], I needed to do it right now. And I am also super not tech-y, so even just creating the map was hard. So now I am trying to work more regular hours and shut the laptop at 6 p.m.

Thank you so much, Anela. It has been great talking with you.

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