EATING INDIA: AN ODYSSEY INTO THE FOOD AND CULTURE OF THE LAND OF SPICES by Chitrita Banerji. Bloomsbury USA: New York. July 2007. Hardcover. 304 pages. $24.95. www.bloomsburyusa.com
This book should carry a warning: Caution! Do not read while hungry! It hardly matters, however, because even if you aren’t hungry, you will be once you sink your teeth into Chitrita Banerji’s latest offering, Eating India: An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices . Starting from her native Bengal, U.S.-based Banerji documents her journey to find the meaning of “authenticity” in Indian food. This proves to be futile, for the author encounters innumerable exceptions to each culture-identifying rule as she travels through India, quizzing local food critics, chefs, friends, and natives who happily educate her about their food.
On her quest, Banerji meticulously includes all the various regions of India and is dedicated to seeking out as many religious communities as possible. The spirit of her search is to discover the culinary practices of not only the most predominant regions and religions, but also of many lesser-known communities. Aside from Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, Banerji seeks out the dwindling Jewish communities, the Parsis, the Anglo-Indians, the East Indians, the Syrian Christians, the Jains, the Sikhs, and even a vast array of tribal communities in order to find delectable new tastes and surprising combinations of familiar and not-so-familiar foods.
Banerji’s Bengali preferences are evident, and her overall biases are clear, but she exhibits a natural curiosity about cultures and cuisines that are not within her general sphere of knowledge and experience. This allows her to conduct her research not only as a culinary writer, but also as an inquisitive tourist. Banerji’s greatest challenge in the book is to figure out how best to balance the regional cuisines, cultures, and histories without favoring one at the expense of another. “Food first” is her philosophy, with history serving as basis and culture as explanation, and more often than not, Banerji manages to adhere to that approach. There are, however, times when the history becomes as dry as flour and times when personal narrative becomes the primary spice of the chapter. Nevertheless, the reader soon learns that there are countless variations of any given food item in India, and there always seems to be a catalyst for some degree of change by adoption or fusion.
The lengthier discourses on the origins of the foods are less entertaining than the personal anecdotes, but the history is essential in most cases. While the British may have ruled the majority of the subcontinent for decades, it was the Portuguese whose influence on India’s dietary intake made the greatest impact. For example, the Portuguese brought to India what is commonly known as vindaloo (from the Portuguese vinho [wine] and alhos [garlic]). The casual reader might not have guessed, though, that the Portuguese also introduced the chili pepper and influenced the confections of Bengal. Alternately, while the British infused India with the craze for tea, who would have guessed that Catherine of Braganza, a member of the Portuguese royal family, impressed the power of tea on the British? Eventually, Banerji relies less on history than on comparisons of how the cuisines of various religions and events (weddings, rites, holidays, etc.) differ from region to region.
The biggest shortcoming of the book is that there are no recipes to celebrate the flavors, the fusions, or the history of some of the world’s most intriguing cuisines. Banerji’s previous books focus on Bengali cooking and offer recipes for the reader to try. So the question must be asked: Why did she fail to include recipes in this book to complement her findings? Writing about food without sharing recipes is like hosting a travel show set in a studio rather than on location, and without so much as the courtesy of images or video. There are some things in this world that cannot be satisfactorily presented by words alone. Food is one of them.
The lone item resembling a recipe is for samosa pilaf in “Banquets of the Imperial Palace,” a chapter dealing with the time-honored contributions of the Mughal cuisine and written based on the author’s visit to Delhi:
One evening, shortly after the call for Maghreb prayers had died away under a blue-black sky, I found myself in a lane near the Jama Masjid, reliving my schoolgirl fantasies about the emperor and empress sitting down to dinner in the fort’s zenana (women’s quarters). I visualized all the different pilafs being served on the dastarkhwan, the medieval Islamic equivalent of a tablecloth. Samosa pilaf might have been one of them. Like all fancy pilafs, it consisted of rice, meat, stock, ghee, and spices, but the distinctive touch came from tiny, delicate meat-filled samosas that were strewn over the pilaf just before serving. A recipe for samosa pilaf, outlined in a Persian cookbook called Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, translated into English by Salma Husain, includes instructions for samosa-making that require both finesse and patience:
Make a mince of the remaining meat. Cook with ginger, onion, and garam masala. When cooked, cool and grind to a fine paste. Knead flour with roasted gram flour, white of an egg, and a little ghee. Roll pooris as thin as a betel leaf. Put cooked minced meat in the center, cover with another poori, place a betel leaf on the top. Repeat the process ten times. Seal [samosas] from all sides. Boil water in a pan, cover the pan with a muslin cloth, place samosas over it and steam. Make small cuts on three sides, leave one side intact, remove betel leaf from samosas, and deep fry them.
I tried to imagine rolling out a sheet of dough to the fineness of a betel leaf in my own kitchen and decided it should remain in the domain of fantasy.
One thing the author learns and admirably presents to the reader is that because of so many region-specific traditions, as well as an increasingly-mobile and open society, India never sits still when it comes to food. India is a country of change and variety. “Food, like race and ethnicity, can be all too easily stereotyped,” admits Banerji when “authenticity” no longer figures into the equation. And with lip-smacking, mouthwatering evidence, the author proves her case on that point.
|Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.|