Inside Piya Malik's Fridge

Jeff Mao

"Inside Piya Malik's Fridge" was published in Active Cultures' Digest, Issue 10, July 2021.

Images: Pictures of Piya Malik's Fridge Content. Photos by Piya Malik.


Jeff "Chairman" Mao
is an author, music journalist, DJ, and curator. A former staff writer at Vibe and XXL magazines, he is a long-time member of the creative collective, ego trip, with which he has co-authored two books—ego trip's Book of Rap Lists, and ego trip's Big Book of Racism!—and co-created the VH1 television series, ego trip's "The (White) Rapper Show." Between 2003-2019 he worked extensively with Red Bull Music Academy as a lecture/radio host and radio and documentary film producer, and served as an associate curator for the Red Bull Arts exhibition, RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing For Thunder. He resides in Harlem with his family and his record collection.

Singer Piya Malik's vocals are an intoxicating ingredient for a variety of musical recipes, whether nestled within the femme soul harmonies of her current and former bands, Say She She and 79.5, respectively, or featured upfront, as on the South Asian-seasoned, psyche-funk excursions of El Michels Affair's acclaimed album Yeti Season. Piya's foundational passion, however, is food, having spent countless hours in the chaotic kitchens of her family's restaurants while growing up in London. This culinary tutelage continues to serve her well in New York City as she balances both music and cooking gigs, the latter via Conjure Kitchen, the catering service she co-founded.

For Piya, the comparative processes of making music and making meals are distinct yet equally invaluable exercises: "I just find both of them extremely relaxing and cathartic. When I sing, my voice is the vessel that allows me to express myself and afterwards there's this release, then I can relax. With cooking the actual process for me is the relaxing part. You're not thinking about all the millions of things on your to-do list, you're just thinking about this one beautiful meal that you're gonna create for other people." Recently, she was gracious enough to allow a peek into the contents of her apartment's fridge, housed appropriately enough within a 19th-century Brooklyn building that's seen past lives as a "singing society" HQ and catering hall.

Microgreens and Fresh Produce
I've been getting really into the microgreens recently. If I open up my fridge drawers here, you'll see there's Norwich [Meadow] Farm pea shoots and mizuna. [...] They're growing all kinds of delicious shoots and it's just so amazing because these just elevate every dish and plate to the point that you think, "How did I ever live without these small bursts of flavor?" They have really amazing kale and this butter lettuce came from there as well. And I love it because they stay integral. I just love this crunch [snaps lettuce]—that sound!

When is that sound going to appear in your music?
Exactly! It's percussive isn't it! [laughs] When I sing I like to do a lot of "ha!" sometimes.

Your phrasing is clearly inspired by these very crisp lettuce leaves. Exactly. Actually one of the reasons I've been getting more and more into the microgreens and shoots and fresh organic produce is because a friend of mine has cancer and I've been cooking for them and doing all the meal designs. So it's been a process of helping inspire somebody to still enjoy food when they're trying to get better, and also use nutrition to heal people. And I think that fresh raw foods and the smallest things that pack the most flavor punch is a good place to start rebuilding your diet. Everything just tastes so delicious. All the heirloom tomatoes that you can just cut and they don't need any dressing they're so juicy and so flavorful. They just don't compare to the things that are grown as hydroponics—like the tomatoes that I grew up with in Tesco's and supermarkets in England.

Prepped Basics
I think in the fridge you always have to have some basics. For me, basics that I can prep enable me to throw a meal together. When people say, "Oh I can't cook at home because it takes too long"—well, if you make time during one or two days out of the week to do your prep, your meal times are far less time-consuming than ordering or going to a restaurant and waiting for someone else to cook for you. I always like to start the week by roasting some vegetables. We roast a lot of cauliflower and butternut squash in our house. It keeps really well and it's so colorful; you can add it to so many dishes. I like to throw them in my frittatas in the morning and it just packs a little sweet nugget in there for you, a little surprise in the egg. And here we have some other types of prep that you can make: Lebanese couscous, which is made of polenta and is thicker, more robust. You can throw that in your salads and it makes the salad last just a bit longer until dinnertime.

Amber Yolk Eggs
I love these amber yolk eggs, which I like to poach. I find them to be richer in taste and they're so beautiful. The visual element stimulates my imagination more. I love the amber yolk when it's cracked over my salad and it's dripping down, it just looks so pretty. It contributes to the philosophy that I have—to try to eat as many rainbow colored foods as you can, and you'll probably be good.

Fresh Salmon
The salmon comes from Essex Market, where I'd shop when I first moved to New York. They moved their premises to this fancy new building and it does look a lot more bourgeois, but I hope people realize that it's still many of the same old vendors and the same old prices. I think they fixed their rates for them for 10 years or something. So while they are there we really must go and support them. They are still very much run as a co-op in some of the stalls as well. So always support mutuals. As you can see on my fridge, there is a "cultivate mutualism" sticker—a legacy from my days working in the [UK] Co-operative Party.

Harissa, Chutney & Lots of Other Condiments
Yes, the condiments! Spice is always the key to any good dish in my household. I love to get this harissa from Tanoreen's, which is this Palestinian shop down in Bay Ridge. And next to that is the other harissa that I like. It's actually not a pure harissa. It's a harissa hot sauce and it's from this company Pain Is Good, and it is absolutely delicious. It's not homemade but it doesn't matter. A few dabs of that in some plain yogurt go a long way.

I think the chutneys from Best Farms Kitchen are definitely worth a mention. The madras peach chutney and the hot plum jam are my two favorites. I love the fruity spicy pickles the most because they already have this kind of fusion flavor packed in them. So if I'm putting them on my plate with traditional Indian food that just brings in something new—a little twist, as it were. What's the twist in the dish?—that's always the fun thing to think about. Like music too, in the song: what's the twist when making melodies or when finishing songs? I think a dish can be like that too, for sure.

Stonyfield Plain Yogurt
Growing up I was always forced to make yogurt at home. It's a process; we'd wrap it up in the blankets and put it in the water heater cupboard in our old house. I'm traumatized from years of having to make the yogurt. So now if I can I'll pick it up in a packet premade. That's terrible but it's the truth. It doesn't taste as good but it is really handy. And I'm Indian, you know, so there's always basmati in the store cupboard and yogurt in the fridge.

What conjures perhaps a better food memory from childhood?
Maggi's Hot & Sweet Ketchup
It's full of sugar and additives but I will say it's definitely a childhood treat of mine and I still love to indulge. Ask any second generation Indian about Maggi's. You could never get it anywhere else outside of India, but recently we discovered it at Kalustyan's, which is the best world food store that I know of anyway, in New York. I remember we would eat this with French fries at the old British Officer's Club where somehow my grandfather, being a judge, was able to get in occasionally and dump us kids while he'd go for meetings. And we'd sit and eat Maggi's Ketchup with French fries and wait for him to finish his meetings.

Cremeux des Citeaux
Ooh, this is my pride and joy and my prize. This is probably gonna be my last meal if I ever get a choice or say in the matter. Here we have Cremeux des Citeaux and it is the most delicate, beautiful white cheese. It's just melty, very salty, creamy, and delicious. I don't like to eat the rind because I just like to dive in and scoop out all the goo, as you can see. There is what we call in French un trou béant, which means a gaping hole [laughs], where la petite grignoteuse has gone in and sculpted it. That's another good word in French that doesn't quite exist in English. Grignoteuse is someone who likes to graze all day long, little bites all day long, constantly nibbling. So that's what they used to call me in the family restaurant in the kitchens. The price is not for the fainthearted. It's $14.50. But I will say that if you can afford to get this cheese or go in halves with a friend you probably will not regret it!

Active Cultures is a cultural organization that explores the convergence of food and art in contemporary life.