India’s First Anthology of Gastronomic Writing Underscores Appetising Possibilities of the Infant Genre

Mail Today and Indian Restaurant Spy, December 27, 2016


By Mita Kapur
HarperCollins India; Rs 499

MOST people pigeonhole food writing into restaurant reviews and cookbooks, even as the latter stare into obsolescence because of the mushrooming of cookery websites and recipe-sharing groups on Facebook. There’s however a “distinguished strand of literature”, not so much from India as from Europe and North America, that explores food experiences, food history, food personalities and, increasingly, food chemistry (not in the soporific textbook style, but in the footsteps of the eloquent Harold McGee, whose descriptions of molecular mutations that take place in the process of cooking are priceless dollops of literature).

The seeds of ‘gastronomic literature’ were planted by the French lawyer and politician, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), who defined the genre with his ground-breaking book, The Physiology of Taste, which was translated into English by M.F.K. Fisher, another brilliant pioneer of the art, about whom the poet W.H. Auden had commented: “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.”

Fisher believed that eating well was one of the “arts of life” and it is this conviction that has inspired many a writer to tip-toe into gastronomy — A.J. Liebling, one of the greatest sports journalists, is best remembered for Between Meals, a hilarious compendium of essays on his dining companions and famous guests at restaurants; Charles Perry moved from writing on rock music to becoming the world’s authority on Middle Eastern cookery; Jane Grigson pursued a career in art history and publishing before she became one of the most revered names in the world of food writing; Alan Davidson, a career diplomat and former ambassador, left behind the most comprehensive food encyclopaedia ever written, the majestic Oxford Companion to Food; and Paul Levy, who had dropped out of college to become a book reviewer for The Observer, decided to write on food for a primarily male audience that had very little time for cookbooks, and though he wrote on art subsequently for the European edition of the Wall Street Journal, food continues to be his consuming passion (it was he who invented the now-disparaged word ‘foodie’ with Ann Barr in 1984).

India has had cookbook writers in plenty, from the formative days of Mrs Balbir Singh, but the tradition of gastronomic writing is in its infancy (although glimmers of it are present in Abdul Halim Sharar‘s description of Wajid Ali Shah’s culinary exploits in Guzishta Lucknow) — and I can only count Vir Sanghvi, Vikram Doctor, Shoba Narayan, Kaveri Ponnapa and Gautam Anand as the flag-bearers of this art. Sadly, none of them is present in the volume under review.

These omissions however do not detract from the value of this anthology as the first-of-its-kind compilation of Indian gastronomic literature. In Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture (2010), Anita Mannur stays within the perimeter of literature. So does Nilanjana Ray in what I would describe as the misleadingly titled A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food (2004).

Mita Kapur, author of the acclaimed food-themed book, The F-Word, sought-after literary agent, and diva of literature festivals — from Jaipur to Mountain Voices and the Crime Writers’ Festival — has bravely ventured into a new literary frontier: Indian gastronomic writing. The results are mixed (a mish-mash of styles and themes, like the porridge alluded to in the title), but for a first attempt, definitely very encouraging.

The contribution that stands out, as much for its luminous style as for the wave of emotions it sets off, is chef-restaurateur Manu Chandra‘s nostalgic account of his growing-up years, ‘Coming Full Circle’. I will find it hard to forget his description of Rohtas, the samosawallah outside College (St Stephen’s for outsiders). Thank God he’s in the restaurant business, otherwise he would have put us food writers out of business! Giving him competition for the reader’s fleeting attention span is Naintara Maya Oberoi‘s ‘Inheritance’, redolent of the aroma of tandoori rotis, and Janice Pariat‘s ‘Porridge’, which comes closest to The New Yorker school of gastronomic literature with the way it intertwines the porridge that the writer’s grandmother made with the works of a host of authors, from Enid Blyton to Charlotte Bronte.

Jhampan Mookerjee‘s ‘The Sound of Flowers’ is good old-fashioned journalism at work to piece together the story of the inebriating mohua. Nilanjana Roy‘s ‘Unseen Food’ is a must-read for a journalist/blogger/aspiring author looking for the next big food story — she touches upon a host of them, from ragi (or foxtail millet, the new rage in the world of fad diets) to the foraging practices of our adivasi communities, who’d make Noma’s Rene Redzepi seem oh-so yesterday.  Then there’s the most delectably informative conversation among three journalists (and old friends) — Jayaditya Gupta, Sumana Mukherjee and Bikramjit Ray — that transports readers from Ahmedabad to Cape Town and Sao Paulo via Bangalore, Baroda, Chandigarh, Delhi, Kolkata and Madhupur in Jharkhand.

Fans of Bachi Karkaria, Rocky and Mayur, Kai Friese, and Sidin Vadukut will also get to read them, for the anthology has a meal for every kind of hunger, and as Anita Nair puts it so memorably, amplifying her mother’s homespun wisdom, “Hunger is the only appetite that you can ever appease.”

This book review first appeared in Mail Today on December 27, 2016. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers

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