EATING INDIA — Exploring a Nation’s Cuisine: Chitrita Banerji; Penguin Books, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017.
India’s a challenge to describe. Everything changes every 100 km. Terrain, language, communities, beliefs. But, most of all food. In a country where every household has an individual recipe for dal, it’s almost impossible to map food patterns, or even make definitive statements on cuisine styles. Constantly changing, drawing from a repertoire that’s a thousand years old, while being influenced by strong, cheerful gusts of globalisation, food in India cannot be pinned down. The best a writer can do is record meals and the traditions that accompany them, at a particular time. Before they change yet again.
Chitrita Banerji’s latest book Eating India – Exploring a Nation’s Cuisine attempts to do just that. The Bengali writer, who is clearly enamoured by her state’s cuisine, judging by the enthusiasm and expertise with which she talks of meals in Kolkata, before moving on to the rest of the country, has already proved her mettle as a talented food writer with her books Life and Food in Bengal and Food and Ritual in Bengal. Its easy to see why she’s a two-time winner of the Sophie Coe awards in food and history: she has a way of gently leading the reader though a meal, describing it in such colourful detail that you can almost taste it, all the while unobtrusively sliding in the facts, figures and historical data that inevitably comes with most Indian meals, ingredients and recipes. Take posto, the seed of the opium poppy, which is immensely popular in Bengal. Around since the 11th century, she says it was discovered by Indians who learnt about it from Arab traders who, in turn, learnt about it from the Greeks. “Whipped together with coconut and chopped green chillies, it is the raw material for crisp fritters that go down well with afternoon tea… An added bonus is its slightly soporific effect, which deepens the post-lunch siesta for an ease loving Bengali.”
The book begins with Chitrita at a traditional Bengali wedding, after which she starts out on a culinary voyage of India, admitting, “During all my years as a food writer I have never stepped out of the well defined territory of my native Bengal.” Even without the disclaimer, that becomes obvious soon enough. Unfortunately the writer’s knowledge of India’s other cuisines is woefully inadequate. Which is quite understandable, really, considering how complex India is. Her mistake has been to write a book on India, without doing enough research on the one dozen or so cuisines she chooses to discuss.
The book is fashioned like a travelogue, an interesting way to approach the subject, since traditional dishes really do need to be examined in the atmosphere and region wherein they were created. It also means readers get the chance to peep into a kaleidoscope of venues, all of which Chitrita brings alive with her flamboyant prose, bristling with colour and rich in detail. So you get to examine the lunch of labourers on the road, spooning up noodles, (“gleaming in oil and streaked with a reddish brown sauce” with “bits of chopped vegetables and even rarer shreds of omelette”) as well as a meal at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, with its bread “a cross between a homemade chapatti and naan bread” and dal “that amazed me with its fragrance and taste… (with) a faint echo of ginger.” Or street food in Benares: “In one undistinguished backstreet I came across a preparation of cubed potatoes seasoned with hot, molten clarified butter, a dollop of yoghurt, chopped fresh cilantro and a dash of syrup.”
However, since the writer seems to have just taken a random journey around India, she tends to use individual meals and opinions to generalise about entire cuisines, making some rather obvious blunders in the process.
In Kerala, for example, she says cakes don’t figure on the Syrian Christian menu. They do. In fact women in Kottayam are legendary cake-makers, and every family has its own recipes, ranging from spice cakes, redolent with cardamom, to chocolate cakes blended with curd. In Cochin’s Jew Town, she arrives on the Sabbath and does not get an interview with a single inhabitant, but moves on anyway, keeping the chapter in.
While this micro view does result in a book that is fascinating in parts, because it tells us much we do not know, it also means there can be some annoying glossing over areas where she is not sure about the details. In many ways this is clearly a book written by a Non-Resident Indian. (Chitrita is based in Boston).
“Championing the cause of regional cuisine as the only authentic identity,” she says, is important to her. With this very readable book on the food of real India, which seems to be designed keeping foreign audiences in mind, her one biggest achievement will be proving — for once and for all — that India has dazzling variety and chicken tikka masala simply can’t define Indian food.