This Nobel laureate cooks everyday. And he believes you should too.
A professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Abhijit Banerjee, shared the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Esther Duflo and Michael Kemer for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty. (Esther, also an MIT economist, is married to Abhijit.)
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His latest project, a whimsical cookbook titled Cooking to Save Your Life (published by Juggernaut) is punctuated with humour and exuberant drawings by Cheyenne Olivier. It seems like a dramatic departure from his work as an economist and social scientist. He does not think so.
In an interview from Delhi — he and Cheyenne are cooking up imaginative multi-course meals in India as part of the book tour — Abhijit explains how the book is connected to his work as an economist. “We are exploring the social dimension of cooking. I thought it would be boring to just write recipes, to be honest. I wanted to spice it up for myself. So every chapter has an introduction, which is more social science...”
The book introduces dishes tailored for specific occasions — from raspberry ceviche for when “you invite the boss home” to masala chips, tossed with minced onions, green chillies and chaat masala, for “the kind of enemy you have to invite home from time to time.” Abhijit adds, “ You are cooking for a reason: because you have someone you want to impress, or someone you are scared of...”
In an age of restaurant dinners and takeaway, he is hoping to convince readers, especially kitchen novices, to discover the satisfaction of creating delicious meals for friends and family. “I cook every single day,” he says, “We don’t really go out. We just eat at home. It is my relaxation when I return from work.” Describing their weekly menus, he says, “We get back from work by about 6.30 pm, then I start cooking. Three days a week, I make Indian food, a vegetable, dal and meat. Otherwise its pasta, some soup and salad, or Asian food, like stir fries.”
Abhijit started cooking when he was about 15 years old, in Kolkata. “My mother would often travel on work, and then the choice was between the cook, who was very nice and competent but unwilling to experiment, or me making different things.”
When he took over the kitchen, the dining table was laid with “lots of roasts, cakes and pastries. Some learnt from watching my mother, some from recipe books.”
Decades later, he has developed a fresh appreciation for simple Indian food. “I consider dal to be India’s greatest contribution yet to human civilisation. Ahead of chess and zero... often also the tastiest dish in a meal, a tribute to the creativity of a billion cash-strapped cooks,” he says in the book, giving the recipe for his favourite comfort food, Bengali mung dal spiked with lemon.
Cooking amidst chaos
The recipes are charming and irreverent, a collection of tweaked classics and innovative staples, focussing on practical ways to get impressive results, in the midst of the chaos of everyday life. Cheyenne, who was Abhijit and Esther’s au pair and lived with the couple for three years, chuckles about how cooking on the book tour was simple in comparison to their meals at home. “Most of the time we do the cooking between giving the kids a bath, answering calls...This was easy. We actually had way too much time!”
Her illustrations are deliberately light, playful and accessible. “Photographs are too idealistic. The reality is you are coming home from work, the kids are around, you are tired... you are cooking in the middle of all that,” she says.
The recipes are cleverly constructed, using everyday as well as exotic ingredients and simple techniques. Charred avocados with tahini and pomegranate molasses for instance. Or Ambur biryani, which the book promises takes less than 40 minutes to assemble, with a pressure cooker. And that pandemic staple, made in Abhijit’s home almost once a week: banana bread, but with almond flour.
“We were in France, in Provence though the pandemic, and there was nothing much to do. Though most things were closed, the vegetable markets, butchers and fish mongers were open. We took advantage of that,” says Abhijit. Cheyenne adds, “It cheered us up through the pandemic.”
Abhijit has a lot more recipes up his sleeve, but is non-committal about writing a sequel, because, “this book is not just about the recipes. It is the whole structure around it that makes it a book. Putting down recipes is easy, the hard part is to think of the arc...”