It's a rainy Wednesday evening, and Himanshu Suri is dicing vegetables in the kitchen as his mother wraps herself in a blanket on the couch, a news report on the presidential election murmuring from a T.V. across the room. Nestled in a quiet, picket-fenced stretch of Hicksville, Long Island—a neighborhood increasingly referred to as Nassau County’s “Little India”—the Suris’ home is a large, brick monument to East Coast suburbia. Faded family pictures hang from the walls; sneakers and tricycles crowd the front door; a freshly-mowed baseball diamond sits just a few blocks away. When the T.V.’s not tuned to CNN, the Suris watch Law & Order: SVU.
The scene feels far removed from recording sessions and world tours. But under the stage name Heems, Suri has led one of the more interesting careers in hip-hop in decades—first, as a member of the absurdist, avant-garde rap trio Das Racist, and more recently as one-half of Swet Shop Boys, a frenetic, politically-minded project featuring the actor Riz Ahmed.
Today, the 31-year-old Suri has moved back home to help care for his aging parents, but the living arrangement has also given way to a new passion: cooking. While domestic life might feel stifling to other artists, the comforts of Hicksville lit a creative fire in Suri, leading the MC to a network sitcom pilot, an offer to write a cookbook, and collaborations with some of the country’s most respected chefs.
“It might be cliché, but I really do think painting, writing, fashion, food—it’s all just different colors on a canvas,” Suri tells me, tossing some garlic and coriander into a hot pan. “It’s easy with Indian food, because the spices are really colorful. You can be like, ‘Oh, a little bit of orange, a little bit of red.’ Throw some white in there and you’re just like Jackson Pollock.”
In the kitchen, Suri operates much like he does on a track—moving on instinct, drawing inspiration from seemingly incongruous sources. “Mom, I’m gonna cook some goat!” he yells before grabbing a bag of ground meat from the refrigerator. For dinner, he plans to mix the meat with broccoli and Hakka noodles, an ingredient often used when blending Indian and Chinese cuisines. Though he was recently approached by a publisher to write a cookbook, he loathes the idea of written recipes and measuring cups, instead gleaning what he can from his Punjabi relatives.
As Suri’s musical career continues to take twists and turns, food has become an increasingly crucial component of his identity as a creative. In 2010, Das Racist performed a surreal version of their song “Ek Shaneesh” in Anthony Bourdain’s refrigerator for the No Reservations holiday special. And four years later, Suri supplied the music for the Punjab episode of Bourdain’s CNN series, Parts Unknown. On Sunday, he appeared on camera with Bourdain to help shepherd the chef through his native Queens, stopping by Yu Garden Dumpling House in Flushing for boiled pig tongue and spicy beef and tripe.
Last year, Suri also presented at the the Taste Talks Food & Drink Awards, and teamed up with L.A.’s Badmaash for a menu centered around pav bread—an Indian bun he used to create rava fry po’ boys and pork vindaloo Cuban sandwiches. He’s hoping the collaboration might one day lead to a permanent restaurant and tearoom on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
"[Heems sent me a menu] and it really blew me away,” says Nakul Mahendro, one of the owners of Badmaash, which means “badass" or “delinquent” in Hindi. “Adventurous is the wrong word, elaborate is even the wrong word, but it was written like a chef’s menu. It was very thoughtful, and you could see that this person understands flavor.”
“Indian food in America has been in a state of 911,” Mahendro adds. “Our goal is to take the idea of the ‘Indian restaurant,’ to put that on a pedestal, and to just fucking TNT the thing.”
Today, as hosts like Action Bronson and Eddie Huang lead a fresh wave of food and travel shows on T.V., it feels like Suri is positioning himself as another figure who can bring hip-hop into the kitchen in 2017. And when it comes to the tired clichés and stereotypes associated with Indian cuisine in particular, he may be another delinquent willing to light the fuse at the end of the dynamite.
As the goat continues to simmer on the stove, Suri and I discuss his philosophy on cooking, the connection between food and hip-hop, and the complicated state of Indian cuisine in America.
everything I do maintains an element of India—of the motherland—and then an element of America.
You’re a Queens native, and you grew up around a lot of food, but cooking is a relatively new outlet for you. Why start now?
As a first-generation American, you start thinking about [why food matters], especially now. The timing coincided with my sister having kids, where you think about how you pass things down to the next generation. Language, religion, food: these are the three main things that help you hold on to a culture that you might feel is fleeing from you.
It became important to be able to do this down the line, to be able to cook. But also being a creative, everything I do maintains an element of India—of the motherland—and then an element of America. Whether it’s rap music with Indian samples, whether it's artwork that involves the Knicks and images of women from Indian tin boxes, or whether it’s food. I’m always thinking about how to adapt what I’ve learned from India with what I know from New York. Food became another avenue—just like clothes, just like writing—for me to kind of flex that muscle.
You recently moved back in with your parents. How does your family feel about you taking over the kitchen?
I mean, I think it’s tough sometimes as a guy to get cooking tips from your parents, because there’s this idea that you’re supposed to have a job, and if you make enough money your wife can stay home and she’s supposed do the cooking and cleaning. And that’s changing in India itself. There’s a much larger professional class, and there are a lot of women making a lot of money, so these gender roles are being revised in the middle and upper class.
Initially, it was a touchy subject. It’s not an outspoken thing where it’s like, “I’m not going to teach you because you’re a guy,” but it’s also like, “This my role. I have a claim to this kitchen.”
Still, it feels like this is really your way of reconnecting with your heritage.
What interests me about Indian food is the passing down of it. My mother doesn’t know recipes, her mother doesn’t know recipes, her mother’s mother doesn’t know recipes. One of the few traditions that’s still oral that’s available to me is food. [In a world] where everything has been written down on paper, I’ve never seen a cookbook in this house. Never. My sister uses cookbooks. I got one once and it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere.
How do you think America views Indian cuisine in 2017?
Stereotype-wise, I think you get “spicy,” “bad for the stomach,” and “heavy comfort food.” But South Indian food can be super light, and a lot of Indian food isn’t spicy. The food my parents cook in here is barely spicy at all—they use turmeric, a little bit of salt. But I’m the one who makes things more spicy, and I think that’s more of my American [heritage] than my Indian.
Now there are a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants that are Indian, that are kind of changing the discourse. Badmaash in L.A. is a really cool restaurant. Indian Accent in Manhattan, which grew out of the New Delhi one, is doing multiple-course, really high-end Indian food. And then in London you have places like Dishoom and larger chains that still offer really good food. I think it’s beginning to change now, but Indian people haven’t really been in America much before 1965. Considering we’re a relatively new group here—and one that’s more prone to cooking at home than eating out—I think it’s moving along a lot faster in the last 10 years than it did in the previous 40.
You need someone like Bourdain, who’s so revered, but is just a dude who you feel like you could kick it with. Really, he takes the stuffiness out of food.
Despite your aversion to written recipes, you were asked to write a cookbook recently, weren’t you?
Someone reached out to me about doing a cookbook, and I thought it would be super awesome to do a biographical cookbook, where I’m talking to different friends of mine and then they’re interviewing their mother’s to get a recipe.
It’s me interviewing them, them interviewing their mothers, and then a recipe from each [family].
It would be me and my friends I grew up with: a Sikh Punjabi, a Hindu Punjabi, a Pakistani Muslim, and a Christian Malayali. That was our neighborhood in Queens. It would kind of be like an oral history of our immigration experience through the lens of food. The publisher was like, “This is a bit cooler than what we were thinking, and we don’t really think we can do it.”
You’ve worked with Anthony Bourdain a number of times over the years, and you appear on the Queens episode of Parts Unknown. How did you two meet?
I first met him when when we did his holiday episode with Das Racist rapping inside his fridge. It all started when I rapped about Bourdain in the song called "Ek Shaneesh." I’ve been a fan of his, and his general demeanor and attitude—like New York City punk shit and culture shit—for ages. And so getting to work with him is really cool, and definitely changed my idea of what it means to work in food, or how you have to be to work in food.
You need someone like Bourdain, who’s so revered, but is just a dude who you feel like you could kick it with. Really, he takes the stuffiness out of food, which is the way I think food should be.
After working with him through computers and stuff, I finally met him when Danny Bowien was launching his cookbook recently. I’m hanging out, and I’m like, “Oh shit. These two dudes!” If I see myself hypothetically doing this down the line, I want to be like these guys.
Do you see yourself joining the same club as guys like Action Bronson and Eddie Huang—sort of this new vanguard of hip-hop-minded food figures?
[Bourdain] being a punk and these guys being rap dudes, I think a lot of that also comes from taking what’s around you and making the best of it. One thing I love about Bourdain is as much as he knows about food you’ll see him eating a White Castle cheeseburger on the Bronx episode.
Obviously, wanting to do a pav restaurant, the one model that comes up for it is Eddie Huang and Baohaus. I run into comparisons with them often. I think what they’re doing is awesome. I think anytime you take food and make it more accessible to different people [it’s a good thing]. Action is from Queens and grew up around a lot of food the same way I did. Growing up with actual Chinese food, not the American, bastardized version of Chinese food—it’s something that Queens definitely puts in you.
I get how to make a menu and think about food, but if I can’t back it up in the kitchen, it’s all kind of bullshit.
It does seem like food and rap are joined at the hip these days.
You rap about the shit that you’re around, and your come-up, and your mobility and class and everything. It has a lot to do with class. When you’re thinking about things you could rhyme about, there’s obviously the things that people want to reduce rap to—like misogyny, jewelry, and money—but there’s also this idea of books you read that show your class, or food you eat that shows your class. It’s just a matter of tastes expanding and music reflecting that.
It sounds like Riz Ahmed has also been a big fan of your cooking. He used a Swet Shop Boys feature in the New Yorker last year to call your kale saag paneer “amazing.”
The food keeps coming up because Riz really wants to do this cookbook that I was going to do…Whenever we have an interview, he’s like, “Oh, and we have a Swet Shop Boys cookbook coming out!”
He’s been super supportive of my cooking. We’ll be in the studio, and I'll need a break from rapping, because I put myself into it really [intensely]. I don’t write that much anymore, I just kind of walk around the room for 15 minutes, get my shit done, record it in two takes, and then pull out of it. Really get in the zone, and then pull out. I'd be sitting there while everybody’s working on the next thing, so I would go up to Tesco’s, grab a bunch of food, and just start cooking.
You’ve hosted some pop-up restaurants in the past, but what would a Heems food project look like today?
I always try to dip my foot in the water before I really go into something, so I’ve been cooking, and I’ve been talking about cooking. I presented at the Taste Talks Awards, I made a song for Anthony Bourdain, I got to do a test kitchen with the guys at Badmaash in L.A., where we worked on some pav sandwiches. I’m taking baby steps.
The thing is, if I do something with food I don’t want it to just be like, “Oh, this is the marketing/music guy that we’re going to use for the name.” I actually want to be involved with curating a menu. I think from an historical and curatorial perspective I get how to make a menu and think about food, but if I can’t back it up in the kitchen, it’s all kind of bullshit.
Could you ever see yourself crossing over into food full-time?
I want to learn how to cook for cooking’s sake. But when your career is taking things you do and making them public, [turning food into a business] is something that crosses your mind. But man, that seems like another hustle, and right now I’m tired of hustling. Cooking is something relaxing for me, rather than something I want to ruin with commerce.
When I was first rapping, it was just me and my friends dicking around in the studio, sending shit around to each other. I was talking to a kid who wants to be a rapper yesterday, and I was like, “This is the best stage. Remember this, where you’re just recording to send it to your friends, and you have no goals or anything.” That’s when creating is a lot of fun.