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Pickles / Preserves


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sounds yummy. quick question: how ripe do the tomatoes have to be? by the way, this is not unlike a salsa.



I prefer to use as ripe tomatoes as I can get. Though the tomato has to be firm enough - this way it would have a great bite to it...

Unlike a salsa, this pickle has gravy to it. The tomato 'juices', spices and oil all come together & surprisingly, makes enough gravy.

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Reading this thread on Indians and pickling reminds me of this story I wrote recently which is somewhat rude on the subject.... I hope a certain San Francisco based writer isn't on eGullet, but honestly has anyone READ her work?! Have people read Monsoon Diary? Any comments?


Indian Food Writing

Vikram Doctor

There was a time when Indian women who married and went abroad would make pickles to sell to other Indian immigrants. These days Indian women who marry and go abroad enrol in creative writing programmes to write impassioned narratives about making pickles. Pickle making seems to be the hidden subtext in modern Indian writing (it even features in its ur-narrative: in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children the hero, Salim Sinai, ends up in a picklemaking factory). Somewhere in the US, in a midwestern University a Ph.D. student must surely be doing a thesis on the analytical aspects of aam-ka-achar as an attribute of alienation among Americanised Indian authors.

These narratives come in different forms, fiction, autobiography, poetry, even film, but share a numbing sameness. Idyllic childhoods spent watching grandmothers cook slide into the confusions of school and college where for the first time people from other communities are encountered, then comes the journey abroad which may or may not be preceded by marriages, arranged or unwise, then the culture shock, the unfamiliar shops, new temptations, new tastes... all in an ultra lush prose style brimming with bathos and basmati rice. Here’s a typical extract from Preeti Nair’s recent novel One Hundred Shades of White. The narrator, Nalini, is, naturally, making pickle:

"Day by day, I let feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness burn with peppercorns and chilli. The peppercorns and chilli would sizzle in the boiling hot oil and expand until they could grow no further and then they exploded, releasing a suffocating smell that choked. Freshly squeezed lemon juice and the ginger would calm and soothe the aroma, evaporating the stench, bringing it back to a neutral place. To this mixture was added a sweet ripe mango, bursting with so many dreams, and lightly fried onions that grounded and made things safe and possible. All were bottled until the man became a shadow of a memory."

The doyenne of this heartburn inducing school has to be Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a San Francisco based writer whose double jobs of teaching creative writing and running a helpline for South Asian women seem almost to guarantee the steady stream of anguish and asafoetida laden novels she’s come up with, starting with The Mistress of Spices, best described as Tarla Dalal meets Harlequin Romances: “I put on the white dress Raven gave me, all foam and flower-scent falling over slimness of waist and hip, all whisper and glide around my bare legs. I fill a small silk sachet with lotus root, herb of long loving. Tie it on a silk cord around my neck so the sachet lies between my breasts that smell of ripe mangoes.” (In this genre breasts evidently can’t be like anything other than mangoes).

Despite all this prose, purple as eggplants, there is something to be said for these books. They are, at least, expanding the scope of food writing that in India has otherwise stuck stubbornly to cookbooks. Abroad food writing is a broad field, also including anthologies, anthropology, articles, fiction, film, guides, history (the latest trend is for the histories of particular ingredients: potatoes, apples, caviar, codfish), humour, memoirs, poetry, travelogues, even culinary crime fiction. Indian equivalents are still rare and little read. For example, many Indian chefs and food fans haven’t heard of K.T.Achaya’s pioneering work in Indian food history, and despite all the media coverage given to food, his death last year went almost entirely unacknowledged.

Achaya’s work has been followed up by a few scholars like R.S.Khare, Arjun Appadurai and A.K.Sinha (author of an interesting Anthropology of Indian Sweetmeats). With more general food writing though one pioneer, as with much else to do with popularising Indian food, is Madhur Jaffrey whose first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Food, had stories of her Delhi based family woven in. Another pioneer (from a Pakistani background) is the Yale based writer, Sara Suleri whose luminous book, Meatless Days, with its wonderful title essay with stories of meaty meals in pre-dawn Ramzaan mornings, sets the model for such books of cross cultural memoirs. Its just as well the memoir field is strong since on the evidence of Divakaruni, Nair or even Bulbul Sharma’s pleasant enough The Anger of Aubergines, we’re far from getting an Indian equivalent of Joanne Harris (Chocolat, Five Quarters of the Orange) in food fiction.

Oddly enough, the best contender in memoirs is confusingly closely named to Divakaruni: Chitrita Banerji, an American based writer of Calcutta origin, has written outstandingly on the place of food in Bengali culture. Her first book, Life and Food in Bengal is simply the best book on any Indian regional cuisine, combining seasonal descriptions of Bengali cooking with a fictionalised telling of her own life. Her more recent book The Hour of the Goddess: Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal, is a meditation on key aspects of Bengali cooking: the importance of fish, the difference between East and West Bengali cooking, on the Bengali love of bitterness, of cheese based sweets and panchphoron, the typical Bengali five spice mix.

Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes, is the most recent entrant in this field. The New York based has written of growing up in a family from Kerala, living in Coimbatore and Chennai, and then going to study in the US. Its a well written book, lively in its characterisations and descriptions of the frustrations of negotiating across cultures. At times the tone is a bit simpering: the author is too aware of always being the perfect daughter, sister, foreign student, budding artist - perfect even in her (carefully contained) rebellions - until she ends as the perfect Indian wife. Still, if one can stomach this, (and the excellent recipes make it easier) Monsoon Diary is engaging reading, and hopefully might serve as more of a model than Divakaruni for all those Indian women on creative writing courses.

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Thanks for sharing this article Vikram. Great read. I have never been able to go past a few pages of the SF based writer you speak of. I always felt I was not adventurous and open enough.... Glad to see I am not alone in not getting the hype that follows that writers work. :smile:

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I haven't read "Monsoon Diary", but I have and love "Life and Food in Bengal" (isn't there two different versions of this?). I was given "The Mistress of Spices" by someone and dutifully read it, rolling my eyes and snorting all the way through.



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