book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food

Nilanjana S. Roy

Roy, Nilanjana S.;

A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food

Penguin Books, 2004, 363 pages

ISBN 0143031481, 9780143031482

topics: |  food | india | fiction | essays | urban | anthology

A diffuse collection of literary essays, stories, and extracts from novels that in some way (often rather stretchily) relate to food. Some are about eating food, like Rushdie on bread from the nun's of Karachi, or Vir Sanghi's nostalgic take on old time restaurants in Bombay, and a few about the sourcing, processes and social interactions in cooking; of these last, the best by far is Anuradha Roy's Cooking Women. Sudha Koul's evocation of the food culture of Karhmiri Pandits, in an extract from "The Tiger Ladies: A memoir of Kashmir", is straightforward writing, at times even awkward, but the narrative survives on its directness and colour. Other pieces that work include Vir Sanghi's squishelicious tale of the Bhelpuri, Jhumpa Lahiri on Mrs. Sen's hilarious machinations to get fish, Davidar expiating on the variety of mangos.

More than than half the stories are at best peripheral to food: Gandhi's trauma on first eating meat is not about the food, Rajkamal Jha's worries about feeding a baby (from Blue Bedspread), Geetha Hariharan's Remains of the Feast, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's Mahesh (a buffalo dying of hunger), R.K. Narayan' Fasting (from Guide), or P. Sainath's completely sociopolitical "Everybody Loves a Good Drought". These are collected under rubrics like "Deprivation",

Much of it is rather good writing, though. I thoroughly enjoyed Ruchir Joshi's story about sex and shrikhand; Naipaul's extract on Mr. Biswas rejecting his traditional rice and curried potatoes. Saadat Hasan Manto's Jelly (a story I remembered from school days) and Mahasweta Devi's Salt make important social commentaries. While otherwise excellent narratives, the point of these stories is so far from food that one is left wondering if indeed there has been so little of food writing in India that one has to scrape the barrel thus.

Some pieces start before things become food, like Rohinton Mistry on
raising a chicken for food.  A few articles are indeed well-written yet
informative - like advertising legend Frank Simoes describing the art of
making and drinking Feni, and Davidar on the mangoes of India.

Manjula padmanabhan on "dieting" is again not about food, but the writing
is powerful:
	[about nude pictures of a particularly successful client]
	her breasts were like used tea bags.  As the weight loss progressed,
	the sachets deflated gradually, becoming little more than flaps of

A larger question looming over this book is whether there is anything that
may be called "Indian" in food?   India is as culturally diverse as Europe
(or China), and the Appam is as alien to much of north India as mashed
potatoes or Yorkshire pudding.  Buddhadev Bose once commented on how
the Tamil Brahmin might feel on entering the fish-stained Bengali kitchen:
    There is nothing called "Indian literature," - as I have been saying in
    so many forums - similarly, there is nothing called "Indian food".

So what is really "Indian" about our food?  The last page of the intro
talks about the diversity of food described here, but the key question of
what constitutes "Indian food" is never really addressed...

Partly, the answer lies in the fact that there has been much osmosis of
culinary tradition - and the walls are breaking down rapidly with the
pan-Indian (if not global) ethic developing in the cities.  We find a hint
of this in Vir Sanghvi's story (from Rude Food) on the pan-Indian nature
of chaat:

     In Calcutta where phuchkas (a cousin of the golgappa) are a civic
     obsession, the men who make them frequently speak no Bengali, have no
     idea who Rabindranath Tagore is and smile tolerantly as their customers
     address them as 'bhaiyya'.  As proud as Calcutta is of the phuchka, it
     is as Bengali as N.D. Tiwari.

Ultimately, when we open a book named "Indian food", we want to read more
stories like this, more about food, how it is cooked, how it is sought, and
how it affects us socially.  We don't want mere good literature.  This is
why Sudha Koul works, although it is really not exceptional writing.  While
it is still welcome for what it does have, I do wish the editor would have
excerpted some aspects from KT Achaya (yes, a bit of scholarliness), and
perhaps a bit from Buddhadev Basu would not hurt, say this rumination
on the varieties of cooking Hilsa:

	As for hilsa, that noble and most versatile of fish, the hilsa alone
	is capable of yielding as many as five courses with delectable
	gradations in taste. You begin with the cool tender gourd seasoned
	with the head of the fish, the spare bones have gone into your mungh
	dal which comes with the meaty neck-bone fried brown and crunchy;
	then follow a mild jhol with slices of the green pumpkin and dotted
	with seeds of the black cumin, and a pungent "bhate" or "paturi"
	steamed in a sealed jar or braised in a covering of banana-leaf,
	thickened with oil and mustard-paste. And finally, just for "cleaning
	your mouth", comes the tail-end of the fish--the least appealing part
	but made most pleasant with sweetened lime-juice and the green
	chili. And to get the best out of it all, you must make the slices
	triangular and never allow onions or ginger or potatoes to approach
	this queen of fishes, for cooking hilsa with any of them is a worse
	offence than cooking rohit-kalia without them.
		- Buddhadeva Basu, bhojonshilpi bAMAlI

If Sri Lanka qualifies, perhaps one could consider the servant-boy Triton's
musings from the kitchen in Gunesekera's Reef:
	Boning in itself is a kind of rest: soothing.  One can lose all sense
	of one's surroundings and become as one with the knife teasing out
	little scraps of flesh from cartilage and soft bone.  The whole point
	of being alive becomes simplified: consciousness concentrated into
	doing this one thing.  105

Despite all my negativity on the selection, the book does manage to keep
one reading, not quite a knife cutting through cartilage, but visceral


Acknowledgements							ix
Introduction: Setting the Table						xi

Individual Portions

  Salman Rushdie:     On Leavened Bread                               3
  Busybee:            My First Buffet Lunch                           6
  Vir Sanghvi:        Past Times: First Tastes That Lasted Forever    8
  Rohinton Mistry:    Gustad's Chicken                                14
  	     		 [after Sohrab gets into IIT, dad Gustad decides to
  	     		 go back to his childhood ways, and raise a chicken
  	     		 at home for a feast. ]
  M. K. Gandhi:       Eating Meat                                     28
  Frank Simoes:       Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Feni
                      but Were Too Drunk to Ask                       34
			  [fact-filled, and well-written]
  Sudha Koul:         Flesh in the Valley                             41
			  [nostalgic piece with many interesting details]
  Githa Hariharan:    The Remains of the Feast                        54
			  [short story: widow's hunger; very poignant]

History on a platter

  Mukul Kesavan:      Banquet Nationalism                             65
  E.M. Forster:       The Outsider's Thali                            67
  I. Allan Sealy:     Trotter Laws                                    69
  Geoffrey C. Ward and Diane R. Ward: English Soup                    71
  Saadat Hasan Manto: Jelly                                           75
  Salman Rushdie:     Chutnification                                  76
  Amitav Ghosh:       Tibetan Dinner                                  79
  Raj Kamal Jha:      Baby Food                                       87
  Anuradha Roy:       Cooking Women                                   89
  Busybee:            Charms of Life                                  98
  Radhika Jha:        Initiation                                      100
  Ruchir Joshi:       Shrikhand                                       107
                        [colourful story, where sex mixes into the shrikand]

Line of control

  Mulk Raj Anand:     Bread for the Sweeper                           127
  Suketu Mehta:       Black-Collar Workers                            134
  Sarat Chandra Chatterjee: Mahesh                                    142
  Purabi Basu:        French Leave                                    154
  Abdul Bismillah:    Guest is God                                    160
  P. Sainath:         Everybody Loves a Good Drought                  168

Masala Mix

  Vir Sanghvi:        Bhelpuri: It's All about Texture                183
  Bulbul Sharma:      The Anger of Aubergines                         187
  David Davidar:      The Great Mango Yatra                           193
  Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: The Secrets of Spices                   199
  	   	    	  [sensuous encounter at an indian store in the US]
  I. Allan Sealy:     Just Desserts                                   213


  Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyaya: Apu's Trials                          219
  R.K. Narayan:       Fasting                                         227
  Manjula Padmanabhan: The Diet                                       236
  Anjana Appachana:   Leftovers                                       246
  Mahasweta Devi:     Salt                                            259

Across the seven seas

  Jhumpa Lahiri:      Mrs Sen's                                       279
  V.S. Naipaul:       Mr. Biswas Rebels                               302
  Anita Desai:        Shopping for More                               313
  Chitrita Banerji:   A Barisal Winter                                320
  Atul Gawande:       The Man Who Couldn't Stop Eating                326


* review by Anita Nair: a buffet of writing
* review lululovesbombay: good for nibbling on
* Daily Star review by Farhad Ahmed : very positive review. copies
	large chunks from blurb - not sure how much of the book he read.
* Nilanjana Roy blog:  akhondofswat


Sudha Koul: Flesh in the Valley : 41

Recreates the ancient world of wood fires heat up the waters in a man-tall
vessel, and a specialist cook who never touches the gas range, and cooks
using earthenware vessels with concave lids, which he lines with coal.

	"Real food can only be prepared in traditional equipment."  old-timer
	cook, Sudarshan, p. 42

	In Kashmiri, excellent, worthwhile, and real are the same word.
	   [in Hindi, "asli" has some of this connotation but maybe not as
	   broad]  p. 42

[Excerpted from Sudha Koul, Tiger Ladies: A memoir of Kashmir, 2002_)

Busybee: My first buffet lunch : 6

	Completely hilarious take on the big buffet meals at top restaurants.
	an elegantly dressed waiter comes up and asks if he would like some
	mussels that "were served yesterday at a wedding party."  Or the
	Russian salad, "made last week for our residents' dining room, and
	has been taken out from the cold storage only three times."  Has
	anything much changed, since 1983?

[Excerpted from  Busybee: Best of 36 years, 2002)

Anuradha Roy: Cooking Women

[This piece works because of the excellent child narrative, and its intense
food focus.  Reading the piece, I wonder what has happened to this author. ]

Our sectioned-off, make-do food room was a rebellion.  The real kitchens in
the house were on the ground floor, alongside the dining room and the formal
sitting room, which we seemed to enter only when a compounder came to dot
forearms with smallpox vaccine.  91

[excellent description of the fish being scaled and gutted by Dollyr mA.
Dollyr mA's daughter, it turns out is not Dolly but Kamala!]

For the banana flower she would coat her hands with oil so its black ooze
slid off under hot water.  92

[about her widowed aunt] My aunt's skin had become translucent by her
fifties.  ... Crumpled map-paper covered the knotted green veins that went up
and down her emaciated arms. 93

[the making of boris 94]

Like papaya, the bel has an unmistakable memory of vomit in its smell.  You
have to grow into it.  95
[This works for me when it comes to bel, but not at all for papaya!]

Shanti [another aunt in the joint family] came from an affluent family.  At
times I would notice her slide extra bowls across to her son and her
husband.  Usually it was something covetable, like lobster or crab, and we
would try to look away.  One afternoon, as I pretended to nap, I overheard my
parents arguing,...  "I won't sit there and watch that boy getting fed what
our children can't have." 96

No one in Calcutta would know where our house is any longer.   Its wrought
iron grills must be part of some fake antique villa, its venetian shutters
pulped to plywood.  Termite tunnels had consumed the walls.  It was scorched
sooty by the wet sea wind and the heat, an aubergine ready to be crumbled by
the property-hungry.  Only its floor remained untouched by time and our
indigence, shining redder and cooler than watermelon juice. 97

[this essay was the winning entry in the Outlook-Picador non-fiction

Manjula Padmanabhan : The diet : 236

    [about nude pictures of a particularly successful client]
    her breasts were like used tea bags.  As the weight loss progressed, the
    sachets deflated gradually, becoming little more than flaps of skin.
    [a flap that covers her pubic area] like an apron.  [MP wonders if she
    pinches that flap while having a bath. ...
    Those who had had plastic surgery, were left with livid pink zippers,
    running across their abdomens. ]

    [during a psychometric test, an interaction with the F analyst]
       "I don't want to get married"
       "You mean, you've never had an opportunity to marry..."
    [she then goes on to marriage as an "instrument of patriarchy"
    etc. and is finally relieved to say yes when asked if she is a
    feminist.  ]
       "Ah - but I don't like children..."
       "For how long, would you say, you've not liked children?"
       "When I was small, I didn't like children younger than myself, I
    thought they were sort of ... squirmy.  And wet.  Little children
    always seemed to be sort of damp."  240

       "I don't cook. Never go near the kitchen."
       "Do you have any feminine interests?"

       "Oh - yes! I like jewellery and perfume!"  The moment the words
    were out of my mouth, I knew I had failed the encounter.  The correct
    answer, following the feminist canon, would have been that 'masculine'
    and 'feminine' were outmoded concepts.

    [as she leaves, she is feeling "profoundly diminished":]
        I saw a taxi stand 10 yards from where I stood.  I willed it tto
    remain in place till I could reach it.  I willed the driver to be
    compliant, to be eager to please, to be agreeable to take me in any
    direction... I willed the shadowy figure hurrying towards the vehicle
    to be stricken with doubts about the validity of his claim to the
        And my will prevailed on all counts.
        I leaned back on the plastic covers of the taxi's seat.  The
    despair of a few moments ago had been wiped clear, like water from a
    car's windscreen. 244-5

[Excerpted from Getting There, 2002]

Githa Hariharan : Remains of the Feast

Here the narrator Ratna's great-grandmother, widowed early on, has lived
her long life under sharp social restrictions - her hair must be shorn, she
can wear only very plain saris.  (These laws for widows have not changed
for nearly a millennium; (see the 17th c. text Tryambakayajvan's
The perfect wife,strIdharmapaddhati, a compilation of norms for women going
back to the apastamba sutras, c. 400BCE).

Now at ninety and on the verge of death from cancer, Rukmini suddenly feels
the urge to taste all that is forbidden.  She conspires with Ratna to eat
cakes with egg in it.

   I smuggled cakes and ice cream, biscuits and samosas ... to the deathbed
   of a brahmin widow who had never eaten anything but pure, home-cooked food
   for nearly a century...
      "And does it really have egg in it?" she would ask again, as if she
   needed the password for her to bite into it with her gums.
Her repressed desire for food, and in the end, for the colourful saris worn
by married women, becomes the focal point of the very effective narrative.

Again, the relevance to food is rather peripheral - but the story is very

Excerpted from The Art of Dying and Other Stories, by Githa Hariharan. (this
is my second strongest collection of Indian short stories; the top spot going
to Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay)

Vir Sanghvi: Bhelpuri: It's All about Texture : 183

  	A paean to the multi-cultural mix that is at the heart of much
  	"indian" food.  the idea of bhelpuris originated in the N Indian
  	chaat, but then it was transformed in Mumbai, partly under Gujarati
  	influence.  And you can feel the food "squish as you bite into them."

	Creativity thrives on diversity.  Perhaps the bhelpuri is a good
  	example of how diversity leads to creativity in food.  My own choice
  	for another subject would be the groundnuts of gujarat, that are
  	salted and shelled and sold with skins - this is a Chinese import
  	from a few hundred years ago (again, see Achaya) - that has somehow
  	become ingrained into the Gujarati rural culture - now every village
  	along a long coastline makes these exceptionally prepared peanuts.

In Calcutta where phuchkas (a cousin of the golgappa) are a civic
obsession, the men who make them frequently speak no Bengali, have no idea
who Rabindranath Tagore is and smile tolerantly as their customers address
them as 'bhaiyya'.  As proud as Calcutta is of the phuchka, it is as
Bengali as N.D. Tiwari. - V. Sanghvi, p.183 [NDT was perhaps then the
governor of WB]

[Excerpted from Rude Food: Collected food writings of Vir Sanghvi, 2004]

Bulbul Sharma: The Anger of Aubergines : 187

 [Mr. and Mrs. Kumar have separated. ]

     But come Sunday, Mr. Kumar, like a murderer drawn irresistibly to the
     spot where he had killed his victim, headed home to lunch with his
     wife.  189

     [after a meal rich in chilli] And as he lay awake all night, tossing and
     turning in agony, chewing antacid tablets, he felt justified in leaving
     his wife. 191

[from The anger of aubergines, 1998]

Mahasweta Devi : Salt 259

One of the most powerful stories here.  in a tribal region, after a
rebellion by the villagers against moneylenders, suddenly salt becomes
unavailable in the shops.  The reason is not known, but salt deprivation
becomes severe.  when some tribals decide to go to a salt lick in the
jungle favoured by elephants, tragedy ensues.

  Not by hand, or by bread, nimak se marega -- I'll kill you by salt,
  Uttamchand Bania had said.  259

  Smashed, trampled human bodies cannot give evidence or bear witness. 275

[from Bitter Soil, tr. Ipsita Chanda, 1998]


A delectable collection of writing on food and its place in our lives that
brings together some of the most significant Indian voices over the last

From lavish meals, modern diets and cooking lessons that serve as a rite of
passage to fake fasts and real ones, fish and fiery meals that smack of
revenge, this book has something to satisfy every palace.

Gandhi's gift-ridden[sic] account of his failed flirtation with eating meat
starkly complements Ruchir Joshi's toast to the senses as he describes his
characters discovering a truly alternative use for some perfectly innocent
shrikhant. In unique gastronomic takes on history, Salman Rushdie, Amitav
Ghosh and Saadat Hasan Manto ensure that we will never look at chutney, a
Tibetan momo or jelly in quite the same way again. Food becomes the les
appetizing religious 'line of control' for Abdul Bismillah's 'guest' when a
simple meal illustrates the rather thin divide between guest and host, while
subtler shades of deprivation mark Anjana Appachana's Anu as she keeps a fast
that reeks of prejudice. And in faraway lands, 'across the seven seas', the
search for fresh fish accentuates the loneliness of a life without familiar
moorings for Jhumpa Lahiri's Mrs Sen even as Anita Desai's Arun learns from
his American hosts the importance of 'keeping the freezer full'.

As much about food as it is about good writing. A Matter of Taste serves up a
veritable feast for the senses and food for thought to sample or devour, as
one pleases.

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2012 Apr 20