This summer, where do you stay? Whether your holiday is Birmingham or Bombay, a book should be your constant companion. And it should be so captivating that, come rain or shine, you can’t tear yourself away from each word’s embrace.
Every sense should be submerged in the fluid prose; every sense stimulated. A look at a good book should leave the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. Or maybe that’s just me. But nonetheless, to read is to feed your mind, body and soul. Even if your goal is education, reading should lead to elation.
I like my books like I like my life – with Indian food never more than a few paces (or pages) away. So my selection is understandably a bit of a culinary collection. You can’t cook from all the books whose contents I implore you to ingest this summer, but food is an ever-present and very pleasant part of each and every one.
I just hope you’re hungry. For food, for knowledge, for characters and chapters whose company you’ll crave time and time again. Bon appétit.
The Hundred Foot Journey
Yeah, so you can soon see it on the big screen, but first immerse yourself in Richard C. Morais’s tale of Hassan – a Bombay boy who’s quite the culinary genius. The Hundred-Foot journey charts the protagonist’s path from India to France, via a brief coming-of-age stay in the UK; the book’s first-person prose written in the wistful tone of an older soul than someone of Hassan’s tender years.
The soon-to-be chef’s career begins as a curry cook in the family restaurant, but he’s soon poached by the very masterchef who resents the restaurant trampling on her territory – the formidable Madame Mallory. Under her strict tutelage, Hassan flourishes, pulling together on the plate the many elements that have been vital ingredients in his life experience.
It’s not always a read to relish; Hassan’s restlessness and an ever-present sense of never quite belonging season the story like the spices that season his food. But life, like food, is never universally sweet – and here, it’s the most bitter bits that add meat to the bones and truth to the tale. It shows that where cultures may clash, food fuses – speaking a language we all share.
For more on the film version, released in the UK on 5th September, click here.
Another bittersweet book; ‘Poppadom Preach’ is set in 1970s and told from the perspective of the spirited, rebellious Dilly – the self-appointed Queen of Sharnia, the home that she feels is really rather more of a prison. The Shah family is made up of a motley collection of unusually-monickered members; Dilly’s siblings Monkey, Egg, Poppy and Daisy and crotchety old Auntie Climax. Her parents have their own problems, and the whole family feels the fallout.
In her most defiant moments, Dilly is cracking company – irrepressible, witty, and spirited. She recounts quite horrendous household happenings in such a blase, nonchalant manner that it leaves your head spinning – the sad truth being that the incidents are just ho-hum, everyday occurrences in her reality. As Dilly grows up and gives in where you wish she wouldn’t, you’ll feel her resolve fade (and, quite probably, feel a few years fall as you do so). Powerful and poignant.
Ginger & Ganesh
Nani Power decribes herself as a DESBY – I describe her as a kinda kindred spirit. She might be a white woman born and raised in smalltown America, but Nani nonetheless has ghee and Ganges water running though her veins. It’s something she can’t explain, but the country calls her – first and foremost, its food.
Life has led Nani to a place of discontent. Her cry for help comes in the form of a call for Indian women to teach her to cook as they do in their own homes. She absorbs, assimilates, relates the recipes. There’s navel gazing going on, but not enough to turn the stomach. Or, at least, not mine. If you’re in a meditative mood, this is the one to chew over.
Forget ‘Eating India‘ – I ate up every single word, went straight back for seconds, and regularly return to snack on Chitrita’s endlessly illuminating insights into Indian cuisine. She covers the country top to toe, side to side, using food as a means to explore and understand immigration, religion, cultural roles; mapping the edible geography of a country whose kitchens number many multiple millions.
If it weren’t idiotic to declare a single tome as one’s favourite book, ‘Eating India‘ would be a keen contender. Chitrita is a remarkable companion, the sort who would sit beside you in silent contemplation, simply letting you digest the feast that had been set out so spendidly before you before you’d gobbled up every last scrap. If you’d like to know Indian food, read it. If you think you already know Indian food, read it at least twice.
The wonderful thing about Sandeepa surrogate-Bong-Mom is that she’s so dammed down to earth. To be able to flip the front cover shut, flick on the computer and connect with her friendly face(book) within moments is a wonderful thing. ‘Bong Mom Cookbook‘ the book grew out of a blog, and Sandeepa still shares her not-quite-All American life with Facebook followers on an almost everyday basis.
When she went a bit silent, her excellent excuse was that it was winter, Husband-Man had the cooking covered, and she had Big Bang Theory box sets to catch up on. Her temporary leaving us just left us all more time to cook from the book that teaches you equal amounts about Bengali food and Sandeepa herself; peppering its pages with posto paste and kasundi as you do so and knowing that Sandeepa would do just the same.
When have the urge to savour the regional flavours of a particular Indian state, it’s Bengal that most often calls – the sweet heat of golden mustard oil, the crackle of panch phoron and dried red chillies, the thrifty dishes that literally use every last scrap and peeling to create something spectacular.
And no book has better explained the ceremony and structure of a Bengali meal, or given quite such as real feel for the food as Rinku’s. Coming from the kitchen and the mind of a modern New Yorker, ‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles‘ presents a complex cuisine both authentically and pretty damn practically, without distilling its inimitable essence one drop.
Korma, Kheer & Kismet
The author may hail from Edinburgh, but she’s lived, breathed and devoured Delhi long enough to have penned a sense-pleasing portrait of Old Delhi’s street food culture; chatting about the chaat the city is famed for, yes, but also its endless other excellent edibles. The book takes its title from two of Pamela’s favourite items; Ashok and Ashok’s mutton korma, and Bade Mian’s kheer.
Pamela’s evocative tome comes highly recommended by my friend (and soon-to-be author) Kalyan Karmakar, aka Finely Chopped – and that’s endorsement enough to have me doing a big jig in anticipation of receiving the copy currently winging its way to me. Kalyan even went so far as to call ‘Korma, Kheer & Kismet’ the book he wished he’d written… well, tough, K, Pamela beat you to it!
Eat Pray Eat
This is on my own must-read list, so join me. I fell in love with Michael reading ‘Sushi and Beyond‘ and continued the affair with ‘Doing Without Delia’. The spark dies somewhat with the whole ‘history of Hans Christian Anderson’ episode, but I so wanted our beautiful relationship to continue a few chapters longer that I battled on to the bitter end, dammit!
And now – or, not now, some time ago actually – he’s written about India. And I, inexcusably, have yet to read it. Perhaps I’ve put it off on purpose – the Unread Michael acting as a sliver of hard-backed hope on the horizon. Because once I read it and our Indian summer comes to an end, where does that leave us? Write more, and soon, Michael; or I’m leaving you once and for all.
Made in India
Miss Meera Sodha has a way with a word and skills with a saucepan. Or a tawa, a velan, or any other bit of Indian cooking kit you could care to throw her way. That’s not to say it will be designated for use in a Desi recipe, mind. As it says on the gloriously gaudy jacket, the food, like the lady, is a product of a happily haphazard heritage.
A little bit Gujarati, a little bit East African, spoken in a broad Lincolnshire accent and cooked in a London kitchen. It’s a delicious mix and, by all accounts, a recipe for success. Miss Sodha’s star has not so much risen as shot into the stratosphere faster than you can say ‘samosa’. She’s totally taken the mystery out of Indian food, but none of the marvel.
Spices & Seasons
In ‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles‘, Rinku revealed the secrets of the cooking of that state. ‘Spices & Seasons’ is all about how she cooks now – in that same ‘modern magpie’ manner as so many of us, albeit perhaps slightly more skillfully. She suggests substitutions and swaps; combining ingredients from different countries’ cuisines so that they fit together like a jigsaw.
The technique is not unique, but it is rare to find dishes where the pieces work together as well as in Rinku’s recipes. Fusion; never confusion. ‘Spices & Seasons’ comes from the kitchen of a seasoned cook who cares about produce, provenance and seasonality. The book’s recipes are often Indian-influenced, but its approach to food can be applied universally.
‘Tasty‘ is just the ticket for exuberant summer eating. Tony’s a tiger when it comes to blinging up the breakfast table, adding punch to lunch, or delivering dinners that will spice up everyone’s summer. And, what’s more, he does it all with such joy you can’t help but break into a smile that’s as broad as those eponymous summer beans as you take a look through his book.
To that end, it does exactly what it says on the cover, just as you’d expect from truth-talking, turbaned Tony. The tone is lighthearted, but the recipes are seriously good. It’s not about creating the ‘ultimate Indian’ anything; the only authenticity this author is concerned with is staying true to his tummy.
You say Mumbai, Cyrus says Bombay. However vigorously you argue the nomenclature, there’s no debate over the quality of Mr. Todiwala’s tip-top tome. As a Parsi, Cyrus ascribes to the mantra parlayed by Prophet Zoroaster: ‘good thoughts, good words, good deeds’. A good deal of all of those have gone into this book, not to mention a good amount of very good recipes for banging Bombay dishes.
‘Mr Todiwala’s Bombay‘ is a collage and an homage; a colourful celebration of all the edible joys that make that city so pretty; an ode to the gourmet gems in its glittering crown. Cyrus is on the page as he is in the flesh – a warm host and a generous guide, helping you get to the beating heart of Bombay’s culinary culture.
I mentioned my bent towards Bengali fare, and ‘The Calcutta Cookbook’ only feeds the need. My battered old book was send to me by fellow Bong food-lover Angus Denoon after his most recent trip to eat the streets of that cosmopolitan city, and has been read cover to cover.
Written in that oh-so-rare academic-yet-accessible tone by a trio of Indian authors, it relates the shape of the state’s plate right from the spartan-spiced specialities that made up meals for the areas initial inhabitants to the richly-diverse dishes of today’s Kolkata kitchen. Makes the eyes open and the belly rumble.
Words to build an appetite for…
Arun Kapil’s ‘Fresh Spice: Vibrant Recipes for Bringing Flavour, Depth and Colour to Home Cooking‘ (out 23rd Oct 2014)
Maunika Gowardhan’s ‘Indian Kitchen‘, photographed by Helen Cathcart (out 15th March 2015)
Kalyan Karmakar‘s foodie memoir – whose text the ‘Finely Chopped’ food blogger has just finished writing in the very same place in which he started it – Mumbai’s Candies cafe. (date TBA)