We thought it time to write a little on Indian food books here at theindiaphile. We’re not talking about recipe books per se, but books celebrating the history, cultural significance and sheer magic of India’s culinary heritage. In many ways this is a remarkably slim genre compared to the food writing of many countries, but growing fast. There’s even a Slow Food movement burgeoning in India, thanks to the pioneering work of environmentalist Vandana Shiva…
Anyway, here’s our selection of five superb introductions to the magical foods of India. Do let us know what else you’ve been reading on the subject, or if there’s some classic we’ve missed. Indian food is so much more complex than curries and rice, and contains innumerable delicate, fragrant creations of sweet, sour and salt. One notable omission here is something on Indian sweets… but we’ve yet to find something on that venerable subject worth including…
(1) First on the list is: The Table Is Laid: An Anthology of South Asian Food Writing which brings together a wide range of literary and non-literary texts from South Asia. It draws on writing in English from the subcontinent, as well as the diaspora. It includes extracts from works by V. S. Naipaul, Romesh Gunesekera, Salman Rushdie, Sara Suleri, Kamila Shamsie, Githa Hariharan, and Kiran Desai, among others, alongside translations from regional Indian languages. The volume covers a broad range of areas: scholarly, narrative, philosophical, literary, anthropological, and cultural.
‘He put sown two hundred dollars on the brass plate and, before he rose, whispered to Ganesh, “Remember you promise, sahib. Eat, boy; eat, son; eat, sahib; eat pundit sahib. I bet you, eat.”
– V. S. Naipaul, from The Mystic Masseur
‘His stomach growled and he took the fruit into his hands. He was cross and grumpy. The guava was cool and green and calm-looking?. Guavas are tasty and refreshing and should be eaten whenever possible. He stared at the fruit, wished he could absorb all its coolness, all its quiet and stillness into him.’
– Kiran Desai, from Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
‘All of a sudden he felt a wave of love come over him. Poovan Bananas. It was the first thing Jameela had asked of him. God in heaven, what things other women would have demanded of their husbands. Gold, silk, bangles, cars, aeroplanes.’
–Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, from ‘Poovan Banana’
(2)Second the list is a book by perhaps the most interesting contemporary writer on Indian food, Colleen Taylor Sen, a font of interesting culinary knowledge and a great writer to boot. Food Culture in India (Food Culture Around the World), to quote from the Chicago Tribune, is ‘not a cookbook but an invaluable source of the “why” of Indian cooking. Sen does an admirable job sketching out the history of India and its myriad food cultures. She manages to remain clear and accessible while trying not to overlook any one region, ethnicity or economic class. Dishes or foods that may seem strange or unfamiliar to the average reader suddenly make sense when placed in the broader societal and historical context. Ingredients are explained, cooking techniques explored, everyday and holiday eating defined. The book even offers a few representative recipes. This is a work that belongs in the kitchen library of any serious lover or preparer of Indian foods.”
(3) Eating India: Exploring the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices takes us on a thrilling journey through a national food formed by generations of arrivals, assimilations and conquests. In her mouth-watering prose, she explores how each wave of newcomers – ancient Aryan tribes, Persians, Middle Eastern Jews, Mongols, Arabs, Europeans – brought innovating new ways to combine the country’s rich native spices, poppy seeds, saffron and mustard to the vegetables, fish, grains and pulses that are the staples of the Indian kitchen.She travels across the country, visiting traditional weddings, tiffin rooms, city markets, roadside teaspoon cafes, tribal villages and an industrial size temple kitchen, to find out how India’s turbulent history has shaped its people, in particular its cuisine. As well as delving into the country’s culinary roots, Chitrita also investigates an India in current flux, and asks how a food culture’s ‘authenticity’ can survive in an ever-changing, young-old, immigrant nation. Beautifully presented and illustrated throughout, “Eating India” will stand as an authority on Indian food for years to come.
(4) Fourth the list is a masterpiece by the father of Indian food writing, the late K.T Achaya. A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food (Oxford India Collection) in A-Z format, a huge amount of information on the food, the food culture, recipes, and cuisine of India. It covers areas such as history, literature, botany, genetics, and archaeology and places Indian food in time and context. The country’s oldest accounts in Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil, and Kannada, have been drawn upon extensively, as have the writings of visitors to India. Details covered include migration of food plants from the New World to India through European influences and their rapid integration into Indian cuisine. The text is extensively cross-referenced allowing readers to browse entries. This is a fascinating, meticulously researched book that you’ll find yourself dipping into again and again. A must for any Indian food lover!
(5) It would be tragic to speak of Indian food without making reference to the glorious, perhaps unsurpassed traditions of Indian street food, where some of the nation’s most unforgettable foods are available from soot-encrusted pans laden with enough spice to melt the most chilli-tolerant tastebuds. Street Food of India: The 50 Greatest Indian Snacks – Complete with Recipes does a great job of describing some of the most important dishes in the genre, like Meetha Lassi and Bhel Puri; Paneer Tikka and masalas; chutneys, biryanis and samosas. . The acclaimed photographer Sephi Bergerson, a resident of India for the past seven years, adds stunning images and the resulting book is a visual celebration of this splendid everyday cuisine. With nearly 50 authentic and detailed recipes for the simplest and tastiest dishes in the repertoire, using ingredients easily sourced in the West, this serving will inspire and intoxicate in equal measure.