• Online food newsletters are highlighting what's great to eat. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Online food newsletters are worth consuming for their hyper-individual focus and charm that's often missing in regular media.
By
Lee Tran Lam

1 Dec 2020 - 10:59 PM  UPDATED 3 Dec 2020 - 7:09 PM

My inbox is often a dumping ground of things I'd rather avoid: bills, marketing newsletters, spam that broke free of the junk-mail filter.

But the rise of food newsletters has changed that for me.

You know when your computer recovers a lost file and you feel instant relief? These newsletters spark a similar lost-and-found magic for me – they've restored these long-forgotten reserves of enthusiasm and excitement; that sense of discovery that used to instantly activate whenever I opened up my mail browser.

The surge in food newsletters has been powered by several factors: the attention-spike around mailing list platforms such as Substack; the shaky foundations of food media, which has caused journalists to seek more stable outlets for their work; and the keenness of writers to cover topics that don't otherwise get the spotlight. Newsletters are as hyper-individual as the people who make them – and that's the appeal.

London-based newsletter Vittles, which was created by Eater journalist Jonathan Nunn in a whirlwind 48 hours at the start of the March lockdown, has gained an impressive number of readers, and demonstrated that you can have thoughtful, diverse and politically engaged coverage that has a strong following. Instead of empty trend-chasing, it has covered personal accounts on food from around the world – from pupusas (griddle cakes that originate from El Salvador) to the sambals of Indonesia.

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It's also vocally (and vitally) questioned the lack of diversity in food criticism. "There were more pasta restaurants reviewed in the UK this year than Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, east African, west African, and Caribbean restaurants put together," Nunn wrote in August.

Food newsletters aptly have something for every taste, whether you're into sourdough baking or in-depth cookbook news (like the brilliant Stained Pages, which gives equal time to the Cheetos cookbook and Meera Sodha's East).

One of my favourite international food newsletters is Unsnackable, run by a self-described "American home cook and snack obsessive" named Folu Akinkuotu.

"Starting a newsletter felt like a good way to get more comfortable with my voice as a writer, and snacks were a perfect topic because I was always researching them in my free time," she says.

Thanks to Unsnackable, I've learnt about mung-bean ice-cream from Vietnam, Smurf soda from Finland (which is weirdly green and not Smurf blue), peri peri banana chips from Kerala, Pão de Queijo waffles from Brazil and Ukrainian energy drink ice-cream cones. I'm impressed by Akinkuotu's international snack-discovering abilities.

"Instagram is my best resource for finding snacks, but I also read a ton of trade blogs and websites devoted to different subsets of the packaged food and beverage industry around the world," she says. "Google Translate has become my best friend."

I also enjoy seeing the Australian food newsletters that land in my inbox, too. 

The Wonderful World of B-Kyu lives up to its name, with its border-crossing round-up of food news. It's run by Alison Byrne and Shawn Gowans, from Sydney's B-kyu food blog.

Like Vittles, it has a lockdown origin story. With restaurants shutting and travel plans cancelled, the newsletter was a way to cope.

"Reading about food around the world helped us to stay entertained and ready for reopening," says Byrne. They turned their reading list into an excellent Substack newsletter, which singles out the best food reads of the week.

Their reading diet is clearly huge, because their well-edited list of links and recaps covers everything from the medieval origins of Hong Kong egg tarts to Najibeh Jafari, the Afghani refugee working as Hobart's Zafira Foods' multicultural officer.

I especially love this quote they highlighted in a recent newsletter, from an article on British-Chinese chef Andrew Wong.

"We chefs spend our days treating food as if it belongs under a microscope, pleating dumplings as if it is an art only for rock stars, when the reality of the situation is that through­out China dumplings are usually pleated by 80-year-old grandmothers squatting on street corners while they simultaneously smoke and watch television. To this day, I have yet to meet a chef in any professional kitchen who can stir-fry rice faster than the street vendors in Chengdu, who serve 50-cent dishes cooked on their gas-fired grills."

Every week, the B-Kyu crew scroll through more than 70 sites and newsfeeds to create their newsletter. I always look forward to its Sunday-night arrival in my inbox.

"I have yet to meet a chef in any professional kitchen who can stir-fry rice faster than the street vendors in Chengdu."

Two local newsletters I love are by Australian journalists – and their work is shaped by dissatisfaction with restrictive media formats.

Freelance writer and consultant Jess Ho tells SBS Food, "I was sick of writing formulaic, click-oriented content and wanted to make writing about food fun (and inclusive) again. I also think it is important to have content out there that isn't just for the perceived white majority who are consuming digital media.

"We have kind of lost the art of storytelling and I wanted to do something for me rather than an invoice."

Ho's self-titled newsletter is knife-sharp – and so are her whipsmart words.

For example, see her tofu newsletter: "Don't trash talk tofu. It's not because the brick of soybean wronged you, it's because you wronged it. I'm even going to do something I never do and give you a recipe using fermented tofu because I want you to challenge yourself. I also can't believe I'm giving you a recipe because Canto people don't cook with measurements, we just season until our ancestors tell us to stop."

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The Melbourne-based writer has received some memorable responses to her writing.

"I've had everything from people telling me that I've made them cry in self-reflection (in a happy way), to people in South Africa saying that they will reassess how they treat immigrants," she says. People also send her snaps of their instant noodle collection and her fermented tofu dish. 

Sofia Levin's Seasoned Traveller newsletter is another quarantine-inspired creation, highlighting Melbourne's international flavours – and how to access them during lockdown.

"Melburnians can still travel with their tastebuds without leaving the country (or at one point, without driving more than five kilometres from home) and no one was supporting the 'little guys' during the world’s strictest lockdown," Levin says.

"Many of these first and second-generation migrant-run restaurants cater for their communities and aren't on the radar of mainstream media. None of them have expensive public relations companies to help them 'get discovered'. The only way to share these lesser-known places with a broader audience was for to first seek them out myself.

"It seems so obvious to me that the world is a much more interesting, delicious and tolerant place if we all eat each other’s food – but you can apply that same logic to your own city and neighbourhood, too."

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This helped inspire Seasoned Traveller, which highlights everything from House of Mandi's masoob (a Yemeni dessert that resembles rice pudding, and consists of mashed banana, ground bread, a sweet hit of honey and cream) to New Somali Kitchen's basta: a type of lamb and tomato spaghetti.

Her 5km World Food Tour series was a culinary lifeline for many people during lockdown.

"One reader, a frequent traveller to Sri Lanka, sent me an ecstatic email from a small Sri Lankan restaurant I'd recommended in Braybrook, some 20km from her home in St Kilda. It was just after restrictions were lifted to allow for travel 25 kilometres away from home," says Levin. Another reader created a Google Map of Levin's 5km World Tour, which spanned more than 80 restaurants. "During that series, it was also a joy to have messages from people who were discovering restaurants around the corner from home that they never knew existed."

It's the same feeling I get when I open a newsletter: whether it's clueing me onto an international snack I'd never heard of, or something much closer. It's boarding pass into somewhere new – and an experience that I don't want to delete. 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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