Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Chitrita Banerji's Eating India

This piece appeared yesterday in Mint.

It could be said of good food writing that no matter how far afield the writer ventures, he or she always has one foot set at home. That is, food writing is always less interesting when the writer goes out only to look, taste, describe what is out there, and more interesting when the writer brings to the encounter a distinct point of view rooted in his or her family hearth, in a formative tradition that becomes everywhere a standard of comparison and calibration.

A powerful sense of just this kind of dialogue is communicated at every step by Chitrita Banerji’s marvellous survey of Indian cuisine Eating India. Banerji begins with a sumptuous chapter on the culinary traditions of her native Bengal—also the subject of her two previous books Hour of the Goddess and Life and Food in Bengal—and then sets out across the country to taste and think about its enormously variegated food, from the predominantly vegetarian diet of Gujarat to the sharper flavours of the south, the rich synthesis of north Indian cuisines to the enclaves of Parsi and Jewish cooking.

Tracing spheres of influence, establishing patterns of continuity and innovation, and foregrounding subtle variations in cooking methods and the use of ingredients, Banerji connects food to customs, culture, religion, folklore, climate and even architecture. This is important because reading the newspapers these days, and noting the density of detail in the pieces about “eating right” and the contrasting insipidity of restaurant reviews, it is possible to come to the conclusion that eating knowledgeably in our times has come to mean understanding the place of various food groups in a balanced diet, keeping track of calories and portion sizes, and eating no carbs after dark.

There is no question that these are urgent issues in a populace traditionally affected by obesity and heart disease and newly stirred by the idea of the beautiful body as ours, but Banerji’s idea of food appreciation as a series of concentric circles that engage not just the senses but also mind and memory is an incomparably more sophisticated model. Among the implicit points made by her book is the importance of the human encounter to the enjoyment of food, even fast food—she is rarely found eating alone, and there are beautiful passages describing meals at the residences of writer Khushwant Singh and painter Jehangir Sabavala.

While Banerji’s researches are by no means comprehensive—often she stays in a place no more than a day or two, sampling food idiosyncratically with some help from local contacts—her zest is infectious and her eye for points of connection and contrast excellent. Among the things, big and small, I learnt from her book was the influence of the Portuguese not just on Goan cooking but possibly on the Bengali tradition of sweets made with cottage cheese (milk was traditionally never “split” in India); details of the parallel culinary Hindu, Muslim and Christian culinary traditions of Kerala; why meat-eating Hindus until recently looked down on eating chicken; and why Parsis never cook prawns at wedding feasts.

Banerji notes the startling continuity of traditions of Indian temple food (a meal at Amritsar’s Golden Temple or Puri’s Jagannath Temple is limited to the same ingredients and tastes much the same as 500 years ago) as also the incongruity of the sight of workers on a construction site eating chowmein for lunch and the sudden popularity of butter chicken in a country where the preferred cooking medium for centuries has been ghee.

But the element that really binds Eating India into a whole larger than the sum of its parts is the intriguing personality and complicated life story of the author, glimpses of which appear at several points in the text. The voice that speaks throughout with such a distinctive tone—cultivated, empathetic, wise, yet sometimes oddly wistful and vulnerable—reveals itself to be that of a woman now based in a country (America) halfway across the world from where she was brought up, unable to abide by religious belief, and without a secure place in the perception of people after a failed marriage to a Muslim. This paradoxical mélange of rootedness in food and itinerancy in life and in thought gives Eating India a totally unforgettable flavour.

An excerpt from Eating India can be found here. And an older post: On the Oxford Anthology of South Asian Food Writing.

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