(For the Hindustan Times, March 2006)
Pushpesh Pant: Food Path: Cuisine Along The Grand Trunk Road (Lustre Press, Roli Books)
Esther David: Book of Rachel (Penguin India, Rs 295)
Dr Aakash Singh Rathore: The Complete Indian Wine Guide (Lotus: Roli, price not given)
Wine Wisdom: Buying and Drinking Wine in India: Magandeep Singh (Penguin, Rs 250)
Chitrita Banerji: The Hour of the Goddess (Penguin, Rs 295)
Climbing the Mango Trees: Madhur Jaffrey (Ebury Press, POUNDS 18.99)
To understand the really great food writers, test them out in the kitchen and the drawing room. The kitchen is where Escoffier’s recipes or MFK Fisher’s strictures on salad, or even Jiggs Kalra’s more complex prescriptions, offer amateur cooks like me something to aspire to, however distant. The drawing room is where you can use the quirks of food writers as fodder for conversation.
And the best food writers are very strange human beings. Escoffier’s Ma Cuisine is a modern Bible of food, even if most of us will never need to know how to prepare Corsican blackbirds or acacia blossom fritters. But he was also an expert on the use of artificial flowers made of wax, and wrote a book on the subject. Ruth Reichl’s recipe for American-style coconut shrimp curry is as comfortably utilitarian as the lessons she learns, and passes on, about marriage, adultery and divorce in her food memoirs.
Anthony Bourdain may have opened up the strange and (in his case) machismo-saturated world of the chef’s art in Kitchen Confidential , but he also has a passion for writing fast-paced thrillers. And not so long ago, more people were talking about David Foster Wallace’s marathon essay on the lobster, commissioned by Gourmet magazine, than were discussing the top ten bestsellers on the NYT list.
Indian food writing has been cramped by a lack of space, not talent. We have the chefs, we have the passionate gourmets; we have a handful, at least, of talented columnists, from Marryam Reshi and Vikram Doctor to the Grand Fromage of the HT himself. We have more foodies than food snobs these days (it’s easy to spot the difference, the foodie loves cooking and eating; the food snob loves the sound of his voice holding forth about cooking and eating). But it’s only recently that we’ve begun to have the kind of writing about food—intelligent, open-minded and well-informed—that we deserve.
If you look at food memoirs, part of the problem becomes apparent. Madhur Jaffrey’s Climbing The Mango Trees draws on her childhood in India, and she evokes the experience of growing up in a large joint family in a Delhi that no longer exists through taste and recipes. Chitrita Banerji’s reissued Hour of the Goddess explores the complexities of food in Bengal, from the clashes between the Bangal and Ghoti approach to fish to Potoler Ma, the kitchen maid who will rarely, if ever, taste the rich delights she helps to prepare. Jaffrey and Banerji both know how to mine childhood memories; but for both of them, the introduction to a wider world of culinary experience began only when they left India. From Jaffrey and Banerji to Sudha Kaul and Shobha Narayan, all these writers found publishers abroad before they found an audience in India.
Esther David’s Book of Rachel (Penguin, Rs 295) is a novel that puts the Laura Esquivel-Chitra Banerji Divakaruni format to good use. As Rachel tries to save a synagogue of symbolic importance for the dwindling Indian community of Bene Israel Jews, her daughter Zephra looks for love in some of the wrong places. Each chapter starts with a recipe (Sown Kadhi, Indian matzo, Malida) that shines light on some of the history of the community—it would, as with Esquivel’s original romance-inna-recipe potboiler, be gimmicky if the recipes weren’t so good. (Trust me. I tried them.)
More typical of Indian food writing is Pushpesh Pant’s quirky exploration of the Grand Trunk Road via the food served at its dhabas, langars and shrines. This coffee-table book blends great pictures with a history served in easily digestible dollops. Pant is good at reminding us, for instance, that the popularity of tandoori cooking came from the sanjha chulha set up by the thousands of refugees who were displaced by Partition; the clay oven could be easily constructed and dismantled, perfect for a population forced onto the road. And while not all of his recipes are easily replicated, they provide an illustration of how subtle changes in cooking styles and ingredients can create entirely new dishes that still carry a faintly familiar feel.
What makes Pant’s book interesting is that it departs from the standard coffee-table food book format—glorious pictures, no information to speak of—and from the no-frills, versatile cookbook or food guide. Speaking of guides, we have two wine guides out in the market, both hampered despite the best intentions of the authors by the peculiarities governing the Indian wine industry and the slightly bizarre selection of foreign wines that are legally available. Magandeep Singh has the chattier, more approachable Bluffer’s Guide-style handbook in Wine Wisdom (Penguin, Rs 250). Dr Aakash Singh Rathore’s The Complete Indian Wine Guide is ponderous but painstaking (Lotus: Roli Books). All I have to say is that men who are prepared to drink Bosca and Golconda for the sake of their readers are far better men than I am, Gunga Din.