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Best Book Depictions of Indian Food & Cooking

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The thread on food in Indian movies prompted a comment or two on Indian food in books, so let's do a thread on that, too. Both are of interest to me. Here I am asking for novels, memoirs, travel books and such that depict Indian foodways as an important part of the book, rather than cookbooks as such.

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'Fasting, Feasting' by Anita Desai comes to my mind. I read it a long time ago, so I couldn't tell you exactly what was in it. I do have it lying somewhere at the back of my closet. What I do remember is that there are numerous references to food. Meera Syal's 'Anita and Me' and 'Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee' are also good on that account.


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Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer- prize winning book Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of Nine Stories. The Second Story - When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine - revolves around Mr. Pirzada who comes to dine and gets to know an Indian Family living in Boston. He develops a special relationship with a little girl in the house - thereby trying to overcome the pangs of missing his family back in Bangladesh. I don’t remember if the other stories mention food, but they all are worth reading.

In Bengali cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji, Bengal through the seasons come to life on every page. Her other book The Hour of the Goddess weaves a warm, evocative story of food, ritual and women's lives in Bengal.

Monsoon diary by Sobha Narayan is a fascinating food narrative that combines Indian recipes with tales from her life in south India and the US and musings about Indian culture.

Chitra Benerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of spices is the story of an immigrant from India who runs a spice shop in California.

Ammini Ramachandran


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The thread topic has been nagging at me.

If you'd asked me some of the common themes always reliably turned to by Indo-Anglian writers, food would trip off my lips quite early. Yet, when you think a bit harder about it - and I spent a swift two-three minutes walking up and down in front of my shelves - nothing specific jumps out.

Yes, Amitav Ghosh's evocation of Penang cuisine in Glass Palace kind of sticks in my mind. But without actually opening up the books on hand, the sight of only two specific books properly jog my memory. Neither are Indian, per se, but what the hell. There is Ondaatje's odd and lovely 'Running in the Family' which had me salivating for certain unknown and exotic sounding dishes (then I figured out what they were). And also Romesh Gunesekara's poignant first novel, 'Reef' in which one of the main character spends much of his time lovingly preparing meals for the other.

There must be more, certain titles nag at me unspecifically.

But one little, light-hearted, book definitely has some enjoyable food writing. It's a flimsy paperback containing some of the self-consciously humorous English-language essays of the Marathi writer, Gangadhar Gadgil. I know of no one who mentions Gadgil's English writings favorably, and no one (other than me) who particularly likes his writing. He is, putting it mildly, quite unsung (for English, in Marathi letters he's a pillar).

Still, this little Laxman-illustrated paperback, entitled 'Crazy Bombay' has often given me pleasure when I'm in a mopey where-is-my-Bombay mood.

So, for kicks, I reproduce here a lengthy extract from 'Crazy Bombay', on How to Eat Pani Puri.

The bhelpuri stall consists of a low wooden platform draped in red cloth on which are displayed in various pots, pans and jars the puris, sev, puffed rice and several other ingredients. The display not only makes the mouth water but is also aesthetically very satisfying. The piled-up sev has the lustre of broken pieces of gold thread, and the crisp, puffed puris look like exquisite golden brown balloons of edible delight waiting to float lightly out of the jars and into the expectant mouths of discriminating Bombayites.

The dahivadas that lie heavy and somnolent in jars filled with water have the shape, form and feel of primordial contentment which is experienced when teeth sink into them and they melt imperceptibly into nothingness. The ragda – peas cooked in spicy gravy – emits a heady aroma as it simmers gently on a charcoal stove, and the throbbing peas seem to be squealing with delight. Even the boiled potatoes invite admiration for the gold of their bodies, while the red, green and amber-coloured chutneys carry in them a hint of the morbid pleasures secretly enjoyed by the Emperors of Baghdad in the heyday of their medieval glory.

There is nothing mild and subdued about the taste of bhelpuri preparations. They are hot stuff – as hot as a raging prairie fire. Therefore people who are brought up on mashed potatoes (mashing a potato seems to me to be the worst insult to which it can be subjected!) and who have eaten nothing hotter than hot dogs, should not venture to taste them without expert guidance.

But once they learn to enjoy the ecstasy of setting their tongues on fire they will realize that bhelpuri preparations are not merely hot. They are also sour, pungent, peppery, salty, spicy, creamy, crisp, fluffy (and believe it or not) sweet. All these tastes annoy, tease, titillate and soothe the tongue while the fire continues to rage on.

Eating panipuri is an art, an achievement and heavenly bliss. It takes a lot of character, courage and training to eat it. It has to be performed in the company of friends, if for no other reason than to avoid choking oneself to death by eating panipuris in too quick a succession.

The panipuri eaters have to stand in a semi-circle near the stall and strike the proper stance. This means that everybody has to plant his legs wide apart, bend forward a full sixty degrees, raise his chin, half open his mouth and hold his hand ready to snatch the proffered panipuri and shove it into his mouth.

A stranger who happens to see the panipuri-eaters in such a stance may feel puzzled, but a true Bombayite would know how necessary it is to take such a stance and would even advise the persons concerned to roll up their sleeves, tuck up their trousers, unfasten their collar-buttons and bend several degrees more to avoid any mishap.

When the customers are thus ready, the assistant serving panipuris picks up a crisp, puffed puri about the size of a ‘B’ grade egg in a San Francisco supermarket, pokes a hole in it with his thumb, stuffs it with sprouted and cooked moongs, dips it in spiced water and offers it dripping to one of the customers standing in the semi-circle. He then offers the puris in quick succession to all the customers and by the time the first one has managed to swallow his first panipuri, he gets another.

Whatever the state of suffocation of the customer, he cannot afford to wait and waste even a second when the panipuri is offered to him. It must be shoved into the mouth before the precious spiced water oozes, drips or squirts out of it. At the same time care has to be taken to prevent the water from squirting on the shirt front, dripping on the trousers, running down the arm into the shirt sleeve or past the chin and down the throat into the collar.

Not everybody can handle the panipuri with such dexterity as to avoid these mishaps, and one sees at Chowpatty many a shirt and sari telling tales of eventful bouts of eating panipuri.

It is not easy to shove into the mouth a stuffed and dripping puri of the size of a ‘B’ grade American egg. The flexibility of the facial muscles is sorely tried in the process and at that time the parties concerned with their contorted faces look remarkably like characters in a Hitchcock film who are in the process of being murdered. Once the panipuri is securely wedged inside the mouth, there follows a moment of agonizing and tantalizing suspense. The jaw, which is on the verge of being dislocated, refuses to move. The muscles of the throat want to swallow but dare not, and for good reason. An invisible lid is securely fastened on the windpipe and lungs scream for fresh air. The eyes pop out. The temples are about to burst because of loud and incessant knocking from inside, and the spiced water acts on the tongue like vitriol. In other words, one goes through the thrilling experience of being about to be choked to death.

Just when it seems all is lost the puri is pushed into the correct position by automatic muscular movement and then the jaw sets working, the throat starts swallowing, air gushes through the windpipe, the charred tongue is bathed in saliva and happy tears trickle out of the eyes. But the ecstasy is shortlived. For one suddenly becomes aware of the protesting convulsions of shocked intestines, and at the same time one has on hand another dripping puri that brooks no delay.

After partaking of panipuri, there is an instinctive urge to quench the fire in the mouth with several glasses of water. But to do this is really to miss the point. The fire must be kept burning, and in fact must be stoked judiciously by eating other bhelpuri preparations. What should be changed is the intensity of the fire. The initial blaze should be subdued by eating dahivadas or other preparations where dahi (yoghurt) is used; and then in the subdued fire must be released multicoloured flares of varied flavours of the chutneys and other ingredients of bhelpuri. Once this principle is understood, everyone can fix for himself the order in which he would like to eat the varied preparations.

Finally, when the whole spectrum of flavours has been sampled, the bhelpuri addict drinks a glass or two of water. That, however, is not the finale but the prelude to the grand finale that soothes the tongue and lubricates and quietens the exacerbated intestines. The grand finale comes in the form of kulfi,which is, or at least ought to be, creamier than cream itself and cool as cool can be. Two fat luscious cones of this kulfi, allowed slowly to melt in the mouth in all their rich creaminess are just the things to end the orgy of eating fire. As they melt in the mouth the temples stop throbbing, the taut nerves relax, contentment seeps into the intestines and a reflective somnolence spreads over the mental faculties. One enters into a state of beatitude and comes as close to nirvana as is possible in Bombay.

In that state of beatitude, the Maharashtrians stop being surly, the Marwaris look at the millions of stars without being reminded of their own millions, the Sindhis admire the horizon without any intention of selling it, the Gujaratis speculate on the moon instead of the scrips they should have sold, the North Indians dream of things other than Hindi as the official language of the United Nations, and even the Parsi ladies stop nagging their husbands.

Ah, Bombay.

Edited by bhelpuri (log)
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And also Romesh Gunesekara's poignant first novel, 'Reef' in which one of the main character spends much of his time lovingly preparing meals for the other.

i've mentioned "reef" before on similar threads on egullet. you'd think as someone who got a phd in indian literature i'd be able to call up 20 indian titles at a moment's notice but i'll be damned if i can think of a single one. there's saleem sinai, of course, sitting amongst the vats of pickles in "midnight's children", and there's brief descriptions of bengali food being cooked in ghosh's "the calcutta chromosome" (with one memorable rotten ilish, in particular, that is used to deliver a message) and probably also in "shadow lines"--there's some in mahasweta devi's "hajar churashir ma" ("mother of 1084"); and in shrilal shukla's "raag darbari" there's hilarious descriptions of filthy food in the feces-strewn hinterland of uttar-pradesh but by and large indian writers don't seem to go in for food as metaphor very much more than our film-makers do. i haven't read "the god of small things"--does that have some food stuff in it? i seem to recall some such description. of course, the title character of r.k narayan's "the vendor of sweets" is a vendor of sweets but not a whole lot of time in that novel is spent on the cooking and consuming of said sweets. i'll probably remember a whole lot later when i'm not trying so hard.

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in shrilal shukla's "raag darbari

Ah, yes. The loving, lengthy, descriptions on how best to pair bhang with almonds, milk and so on. Rather got my attention, I mean it sounds great - get high and address the munchie issue at the same time.


Phd in Indian lit, eh? Nice going, Dr. Jones.

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The title essay in Sara Suleri's 'Meatless Days' is just brilliant, probably the most outstanding bit of food writing inspired by the subcontinent. Chitrita Banerji is very good as well, the essays in 'The Hour of the Goddess' are required reading.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on the other hand is the opposite of required reading, as are most of the writers unfortunately inspired by her. Shoba Narayanan's book was good, but she sort of irritated me a bit, a bit too smug.

The Bulbul Sharma book I mention in my piece, The Anger of Aubergines, seems to have been written in response to this trend of books with recipes. Its OK, easy reading, or as we'd say in Bombay, timepass.

Bhelpuri I'm quite a fan of Gadgil's book too. I like his piece on catching the ferry to go to the Konkan coast, and also on going to Bombay restaurants. If one includes reprinted magazine and newspaper writing like this, then there's much more food writing on offer, starting with Busybee who often wrote on food (his latest collection is called Jamva-Chaloji) and for a while now Vir Sanghvi has been producing really excellent food writing in his Rude Food column in the Hindustan Times.

But Gadgil is also an indication that there may be more food writing in Indian languages that's yet to be translated or isn't much known. I seem to remember a good piece (in Malayalam) by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer about feasting in the backwaters of Kerala, and Ambai (C.S.Lakshmi) has written well on food (in Tamil).

There is a lovely piece she once wrote about her mother's skill in cooking which she said was because she (her mother) had 'kai manam' or the flavour of the hand, roughly the equivalent of a gardener's green fingers when it comes to cooking. I don't think that has been collected - I read it in a magazine - but I think her collection "A Purple Sea" has an excellent story about a large Indian joint family as seen through their tiny kitchen and the women who work in it.

Ambai runs an interesting oral history project in Bombay that collects womens' narratives and its possible that this may include some interesting stuff on food. I'll ask her perhaps and lets see what she comes up with.


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How very odd, I posted (I thought) something quite lengthy to this thread about Busybee, and then it disappeared.

But I'm kind of glad it did, because when I searched for it I found a whole thread on the deceased gent.

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Ambai's story is called 'A Kitchen in the Corner of the House' ('Veetin Mulaiyil Oru Samayalarai', which is also the title of her first collection of stories). I've been rereading it and its excellent - get your hands on it (in her collection of stories in translation, 'A Purple Sea'). Its all about how kitchens and the preparation of food instill in women their position in the social hierarchy and also with relation to each other.

Here's an extract that shows this in the context of that perennial Indian family battle between mothers in law and daughters in law. Bari-Jiji is the former, Jiji the latter, and Amba is the family deity. What's interesting is that this shows how women were bound by the traditional customs (regarding widows in this case) and how sometimes they could use those same traditions to get around the bounds:

It was a food war. The chief protagonists were: Jiji, Bari-Jiji. When grandfather was alive, Bari-Jiji ruled absolutely and tyrannically. Jiji kneaded mountains of chappati dough, She sliced baskets of onions and kilos of meat. She roasted papads in the evening while Bari-Jiji drank her Kesar Kasturi. She made the pakoras. Then grandfather died. Within ten days Jiji was sworn into power. Bari-Jiji lost her rights to kumkumam, betel leaves, meat and spirits. Everyday there was meat cooked in the kitchen. In a more democratic spirit, the vegetarians in the family (actually only Bari-Jiji) were served potatoes. Bari-Jiji celebrated her loss in the battlefield with loud belching all night, by breaking wind as if her whole body was tearing her apart, and then whimpering in the toilet. Before she could be attacked again, she then started a second offensive of her own. Once in six months, Bari-Jiji began to be possessed by Amba.

Amba always chose the moments when Jiji and Papaji were seated at evening times with their papads and their drinks. At first there would be a deep “Hé” sound which came from the pit of her stomach. When they came running to her, panting with fear, she would yell in anger, “Have you forgotten me?” The instant Jiji bent low and asked reverently, “Command us, Ambé,” the orders would come. “Give me the drink that is due to me. I was Kesar Kasturi. I want a kilo of barfi. I was fried meat... ah... ah.” When she was given all these things, she would say, “Go away, all of you.” And for a while there would be loud celebratory noises emerging from Bari-Jiji’s room.

The next morning Bari-Jiji would appear in the kitchen lifting her alcohol-heavy eyelids with difficulty and smiling her toothless smile. “Amba tormented me very much,” she said.

It might have been possible to bandy words with Bari-Jiji, but Jiji did not have the courage to question Amba.

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Good news on this topic - a friend at Penguin India tells me that an anthology of writings on Indian food is in the works and, even better, the person working on it is another friend, Nilanjana Roy (who was one of the semi-finalists in the Outlook competition about which SKChai has posted on the forum sometime back). Nilanjana is an excellent writer, one of the best read people I know and an avid cook and lover of food, so this should really be a book to look forward to.


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puff,pant.so much reading to catch up on -and that's just on egullet!i loved 'meatless days'and am hoping for more in'boys will be boys'.some others that come to mind are ardashir vakils''beach boy','the jam fruit tree'by carl muller(sri lankan again)and oddly enough'a house for mr biswas'by naipaul.also think it's time to read alan sealys' 'trotternama' again.look forward to that anthology.

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Penguin India has just come out with a collection of Vir Sanghvi's Rude Food columns, which I've occasionally posted to this list. (I'm not sure if its on the shelves yet, since the one I've seen is a review copy sent to my mother, but I guess it'll be there soon).

Columns rarely reproduce well in book format (Busybee is, just, an exception), and I don't think these entirely escape that problem, but that being said, the book is a very welcome addition to the rather meagre corpus of Indian food writing. Because that's what is really to Sanghvi's credit - he recognised writing on food, as opposed to restaurant reviews or the text that accompanies recipes, was a distinct category and that he was in a particularly good position to provide it.

Obviously he was interested in food, but even more, he was interested both in its preparation and its eating. He travels a lot and has lived in different places so he's had the opportunity to sample much local food. He had the money to spend on good, but again to his credit, he doesn't do an Asit Chandmal and only write on expensive foods (with someone else picking up the tab), but also on really ordinary and inexpensive foods (though he doesn't seem to be much in street foods).

Above all though, I think Sanghvi brings two big advantages to the table. As an op/ed writer and TV interviewer, he's not afraid to have opinions and to state them, but he's not dogmatic about things either. One of the biggest damp squibs in writing of any kind is when the writer can't bring himself or herself to take stands on anything - when everything is good, everything acceptable, everything just a matter of taste. That's not good, its just spineless. On the other hand, carried to excess, being opinionated turns into boring. Sanghvi knows how to strike the balance (and he writes in clear and readable prose).

The second advantage was that as editor in chief of the Hindustan Times Sanghvi was able to give himself the space and freedom to develop his column to its best. Food writing really isn't taken that seriously in India and it can be pretty tough to get editors to really give you space for it - despite the fact that food writing gets responses like nothing else does! (This is not a personal complaint BTW since I have a lovely and appreciative editor in Sunday ET who generally gives me leeway and is usually right when she protests I'm going too far (the biscuits piece was one possible example)).

But Sanghvi was able to give himself the space and he made the best use of it. The book will offer lots of good reading and lots to discuss, so do your best to get it if you can.


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the one by Vir Sanghvi called?

"rude food" published may 1 2004.

My Dad has been sending me Vir's articles for a long time. I have a huge collection in a binder.. so maybe I have the book :biggrin: . He is a well travelled writer and writes with great authority. I always enjoy reading his pieces

Monica Bhide

A Life of Spice

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December was the month of family. I returned home in late November from boarding school in Nainital in the Himalayas to a packing of best clothes, letting out of seams of what I had outgrown, my mother and the cook in the kitchen all day, for every relative we were to visit on our odyssey across India from small town Jamshedpur in the north to Bombay and Mangalore down south was given at least one box of homemade sweets which had to be our very best--fudge and milk toffee, coconut halva, guava halva, beetroot halva, and rock chicki , chewy, caramelly, and peanutty. All week, we sneaked tastes while my mother concentrated on the fiddly stuff she made "with her own hands," gooseberry jam, mulberry wine, and shrimp and pork pickle

hungry yet? :smile:

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'video' -short stories by meera nair(not that one)'the curry leaf tree' in particular.

i think i might seriously have to consider this quote from sara suleri for a sig.!

"sometimes i wake in the night with a strange craving and can only whisper to myself'chicken patties,chicken patties.' " :laugh:

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