Book Review

With The Penguin Food Guide to India, Charmaine O’Brien Emerges as New Voice of Authority

Posted: January 29, 2014 at 5:31 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

AS A food writer with more than a hundred thousand words to show for all the good meals I have had, I wonder at times why the three most encyclopaedic and readable books on Indian cuisine have been written by foreigners. I am referring to Rick Stein’s India: In Search of the Perfect Curry, Christine Manfield’s Tasting India and now The Penguin Food Guide to India, a most delightful work by Charmaine O’Brien. To this list, the only book by an Indian that I would happily add is Eating India by Chitrita Banerji, a food scholar based in the United States.

Rick Stein is a celebrated English chef, restaurateur and television presenter. Christine Manfield is the chef-owner of Sydney’s acclaimed Universal restaurant (her fifth), which she plans to close down, and she organises food tours for people who pay really serious money. Charmaine O’Brien is an Austalian like Manfield, but from Melbourne, and she’s a writer (her previous books include the slightly skimpy Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lovers’ Guide and Recipes from An Urban Village: A Cookbook from Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti), cookery educator, restaurant consultant and, as she describes herself, a “culinary explorer”. What the three share in common is a passion for India, a magisterial understanding of our country’s culinary traditions, and an abundant gift of expression. As a result, they manage to pack in bundles of information without getting boring.

That’s exactly what Charmaine does in The Penguin Food Guide to India, which she took four years to write without succumbing to the temptation of over-writing. Charmaine’s affair with Indian food started when she first came to this country in 1995, expecting to eat the kind of monocultural tandoori cuisine she was getting back in Melbourne. She did get much of the same stuff in Delhi, which was then truly the Republic of Butter Chicken and travel guides did not know any better. Charmaine’s first meal in India was at Sagar in Defence Colony Market, but it was only after she ate her way through a thali at a highway restaurant in Hospet, the Karnataka town famous for its proximity to Tungabhadra dam, that she got a taste of the depth and diversity of our culinary geography.

Charmaine’s quest to dredge this wealth out of obscurity and showcase it to the world is now about two decades old. I am of the view that Flavours of Delhi was written for the gora crowd interested only in a superficial understanding of India, but the Food Guide to India, which follows her highly acclaimed Flavours of Melbourne: A Culinary Biography, shows the breadth of knowledge she has acquired over the years. And befittingly, the book was released on Wednesday, January 29, by the Australian High Commissioner, Patrick Suckling, who has a post-graduate diploma in Hindi and was last posted in Delhi in 1997-99 — and he got married here as well. Like Charmaine, he’s an “old India hand”.

There’s no superfluity in the book — it’s information-loaded all the way, without the brevity of Lonely Planet, strewn instead with anecdotes to keep the reader hooked to the narrative, which moves gently from Ladakh to Palakkad in Kerala, from Bhuj to Mawlynnong in Meghalaya. Whom does one contact to organise a meal with the Khamti tribe of Arunachal Pradesh? Answer: Antena Monglon, who runs Maunglang Tour & Trade Camp. Which is the restaurant where you can relish authentic Manipuri dishes in Imphal? Answer: The Host at Hotel Anand Continental. Where in Chhattisgarh can one attend cooking classes to master the local cuisine? Answer: At Kanker Palace, Bastar, and the person who holds the classes is none other than Surya Pratap Deo ‘Jolly’, the hotel’s owner and member of the former royal family.

Too exotic? Well, Charmaine is equally well-versed with the more familiar parts. If you wish to buy Kutchi confections from Farsaani Duniya at Bhuj, she will advise you on what to get. Craving for a Kathiawari-style thali? Charmaine advises us to stop at Avantika in Limbdi, on the highway linking Saurashtra and Ahmedabad. Even for Goa, which most Delhiites now treat with a proprietary air, she surprises us with suggestions such as Confeitaria, the sunshine state’s oldest bakery, and Horseshoe, which specialises in Portuguese-Goan food cooked by Vasco Silveria, and Venite, the best place for a Goan breakfast, and my recent discovery, Viva Panjim, where she recommends that you start your meal with the Goan rumba, a cocktail of cashew feni, rum and pineapple juice. These restaurants are in Panjim, but Charmaine also has a fairly useful list for Margao, a town with picture-postcard buildings now known as Madgaon.

I can go on forever. Charmaine, after all, has 240 listings from 25 states and Union terrirotries. This is one book I wouldn’t want you miss for anything in this world.