The fourth edition of The Hindu MetroPlus Pookkalam contest drew droves of visitors, Indian and foreigners, who were enchanted by the heady fragrance and spectrum of colours, as 49 floral carpets turned the auditorium of the Government College of Women into a veritable garden.
Among the many visitors who dropped in to see the pookkalam was author and food and travel writer Shoba Narayan who declared that she had never seen anything so spectacular. Author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes, the foodie and food writer confessed that this time she was not on a gastronomic adventure but to visit her in-laws (former bureaucrats Ramachandran and Padma Ramachandran) who live in the city.
Taste of success
As she sits down for an interview, Shoba recounts how she tasted success with her first article on food in 1999. “I had participated in a competition in the food section of The New York Times. I had to describe an occasion when I cooked a memorable meal,” recalls Shoba.
Her essay on how she curried favour with her family by cooking a typical South Indian vegetarian meal to get her family's permission to study in the United States (U.S.) won the prize and caught the attention of then editor Ruth Reichl.
In 2001, Ruth, by then the editor of Gourmet magazine, requested Shoba to write an article on food. That article (‘The God of Small Feasts') eventually went on to win the M.F.K. Fisher Award for Distinguished writing and in the process, as Shoba's website gleefully points out, piped Jhumpa Lahiri for the top prize.
Soon afterwards, Shoba's literary agent informed her that Random house had accepted her proposal to write a food memoir. “That was how Monsoon Dairy… happened. In the U.S., most writers work through literary agents. One had to write three chapters and then the agents would do the rounds to market the book. Writing the book though was not an easy task because not many in New York were then familiar with our ingredients and food. This was way back in 2000,” adds Shoba.
Monsoon Diary..., published in 2003, was one of the first (on Indian food) in this genre of writing that blended nostalgia and food. Beginning from her childhood, the book describes how Shoba, a psychology graduate from Chennai, gains admission as a foreign fellow at Mount Holyoke College in the U.S. where she majored in fine arts. Her culinary and academic adventures follow and each chapter is rounded off with a recipe.
“By the time, I completed my first book, I had become a mother and so I never got around to writing my second book. It has been held up as we set up home and shifted from the U.S. to Singapore and then to India,” says Shoba. In the meantime, Shoba completed her masters in journalism from the Columbia School of Journalism in New York and also won the Pulitzer Travelling Fellowship. As her daughters were still young, Shoba decided to freelance and her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Time, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Saveur, Newsweek and so on. However, Shoba says it is not an easy task to write a book on food in India. “There are so many cuisines. Each State, region, community and religion has their own cuisine. So unless there is a thread to connect the cuisines of the food, it would not make sense to write a book on food.”
She says there is a tentative plan to write a book on the food that is made in the temples of India. A novel is also in the offing. But food is where her heart is. “I also have an idea to explore the food in small-town India. If we travel by rail from one state to another, the range of food one discovers is amazing. Each station throws up something new. Yes, the range of cuisines we have is amazing though food writers are still a small group in India. I think it is best to begin with a kind of food one is familiar with before venturing into other cuisines,” she says.
Then it is her turn for questions as she wants to know of eateries in the city to explore. “Where can I get to eat kappa? What are the interesting places to go hunting for food?” Sadly, most of the parotta-beef thatukadas café are a no-no as she is a veggie. So Shoba, decides to explore the vegetarian joints in the city on her next trip.