The upper crust

Livemint, 19 November 2010

The upper crust

An indulgent food memoir about family rituals and recipes, which lacks universality

Sumana Mukherjee

Food is one of the fastest growing industries in India, pegged variably between 20% and 40% growth per year, depending on who you believe. As with much of the positives in our country, though, the growth is aspirational, restricted to the upper and middle-classes, manifested by the proliferation of specialty restaurants, the availability of an ever-widening range of packaged and fresh produce, and promoted by food shows (as opposed to cookery shows) on television.

The F-Word: HarperCollins India, 231 pages, Rs. 599.

Mita Kapur’s The F-Word jumps on to the bandwagon a tad late—family memoirs-cum-recipe collections spearheaded Penguin India’s rediscovery of the food genre in the mid-1990s—but aims to ride the food-as-sex wave so conspicuous across media today. The title is an obvious pointer in that direction, but the novelty—such as it is—wears off quickly through an amateurish emphasis on adjectives and adverbs.

Consider this: “There is something deeply sensuous about the aromas that rise as masalas roast. I always inhale deeply as cloves combined with nutmeg send out their warm woody vapours, clearing the nostrils. Cardamom smoke gently curling around wisps of delicate javitri, seducing and teasing… ” A few pages later, “Watermelon adds grace to the luscious sweetness of mangoes, apricots mellow down the peaches, bananas weigh down the textures, melon lifts the tone and the grapes release their juices. To feel each fruit as it teases the tongue, to taste its oneness, is to taste nectar…” In the last page, a Valrhona chocolate cake is described as “an orgasmic explosion on the tongue”.

In between, we are treated to accounts of her visits to Delhi and Mumbai restaurants, many stories of kitchen successes—including the creation of a Thai dinner for 60 people in Jaipur, for which every ingredient, from lemon grass to bell pepper, had to be carted from Delhi—spa resort trips, holidays in the fiefdom of Deogarh (no less than three times) and street food in Lucknow: You get the idea.

Food is obviously a fulcrum of Kapur’s life, and her passion shows: She knows what she’s talking about when quizzing old kebab-sellers in Lucknow and royal retainers in Rajasthan about the food they have known for centuries or relating the story of Jaipur’s legendary Niro’s as told by its founder, “Ved Uncle”. Unfortunately, there are too few of such passages in the book; for the most part, it centres around the author’s own kitchen and recipes.

Not unexpected, in a food memoir, but they appear laboured and often incoherent (most disconcerting is the practice of contextualizing a recipe after the ingredients and method) next to sections that deal with the other F in the book, the family. When focusing on her large joint family of in-laws, children and nephews, all fixated on their particular food idiosyncrasies, Kapur demonstrates a fluency and felicity that rises above the ego. This strand of the book plays out well—if without surprises—as she traces her own growth from her birth-family of small eaters to marriage into one that prides itself on its groaning table. Food fashions her relationship with every family member, from the youngest to the oldest, and it speaks a potent language.

Between braggadocio and bedroom secrets, however, the reader may find himself asking existentialist questions: Like, why is he reading the book at all. Or why it needs to be available in the public domain. I’m not sure I have an answer. The period 40-something Kapur covers through her life has seen some of the most dramatic changes in the urban Indian home-kitchen. The F-Word captures none of that. Well-travelled, worldly (and wordly) wise and wealthy as Kapur is, she does not universalize her story in any way that grips a reader who is not a member of the north Indian upper crust. Pick upThe F-Word for the recipes, but the text is strictly for family and friends: The good life doesn’t always translate into a good book.

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