Book Review

A Feast for the Students of India’s Delectable Culinary History

Posted: June 16, 2016 at 3:13 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Feast and Fasts: A History of Food in India

By Colleen Taylor Sen

Speaking Tiger; Rs 699

BEFORE I met Colleen Taylor Sen in Chicago in May, she shared with me several lunch options, but I knew I had to have a sub-continental meal with her, for she is without doubt the most diligent chronicler of the culinary history of our part of the world than anyone else before and after the late K.T. Achaya.

On Colleen’s suggestion, we had lunch at Mishti, a Bangladeshi restaurant on Devon Avenue (Chicago’s Little India), which seemed far more appetising than the competition (notably, Viceroy of India and Sukhadia’s, and many others). We were joined by her husband, Ashish Sen, an acclaimed authority on transportation statistics and an influential Democrat who has served the Clinton Administration and is now the Vice-Chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority.

As we chatted over a hearty meal consisting of Mughlai Paranthas, Mutton Rizala, Mishti Doi and Payesh (kheer), prepared by a cook who had left Dhaka a year and half ago, and served by a painfully slow waiter who did not leave any of us in doubt that he was fresh off the boat, I could not but admire Colleen’s keen understanding of our food culture and how lightly she carries her knowledge.

Only she could have written a book as conversationally written and loaded with delicious facts as Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India (Speaking Tiger; Rs 699) — the depth of her scholarship reveals her abiding interest in the subject, which dates back to her first visit to India in 1972, and her prose is easier to digest than that of Achaya, the Mysore-based food scientist who wrote the benchmark-setting volume, A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, first published in 1998 by Oxford University Press.

Colleen, interestingly, is neither a historian (her Ph.D. from Columbia University is in Slavic Languages), nor a food writer by training. She’s, in fact, a global authority on liquefied natural gas (LNG), having launched and edited the world’s first journal devoted to this esoteric subject for the Gas Technology Institute, where she worked from 1975 to 2013. It was marriage that brought her in touch with Indian food and she developed a lifelong interest in the subject, writing copiously for newspapers and journals across North America, and contributing year after year to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.

I discovered Colleen courtesy of Uncle Google while researching the history of the Bengali sandesh, which in turn drew me to an early article by her on the Portuguese influences on Bengali cuisine, and eventually to her slim but information-rich book, Curry: A Global History (Reaktion; 2010), in whose pages I met the maverick Prince Ranji Smile, self-proclaimed ‘King of Curry Cooks’ who had arrived in America with a fake genealogy and had women in New York eating out of his hand.

It was with great anticipation therefore that I picked up Feasts and Fasts and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s quite a task to piece together India’s culinary history, interweaving it with the wisdom of the traditional schools of medicine and the sometimes garbled accounts of ancient Greek historians and Chinese travellers, because of the sparseness of extant source material.

Colleen has succeeded in surmounting this stupendous challenge by tapping primary texts as varied as the much-quoted Ain-i-Akbari, the medieval recipe book Nimatnama, ascribed to the Mandu ruler Ghiyas-ud-din Shah, and India’s oldest surviving text dedicated to the good life, Manasollasa of Somareswara III. She has also dredged out delectable leads from the obscure yet information-rich Lokopakara by the Jain poet Chavundaraya II, the Supa Shastra by Mangarasa III, and the 16th-century poet Ksemasarma’s Ksemakutuhalam, whose author’s declaration of love for brinjals makes for the most entertaining reading.

From the 11th-century Ayurveda scholar and physician Chakrapanidatta’s advocacy of “wholesome red rice” (a favourite of dieticians today) to Amir Khusro’s ‘Ode to Paan’, to the story about the idlis, sambar and coconut chutney developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation scientist, Dr K. Radhakrishnan, for the astronauts who are likely to be a part of the country’s first manned space mission, the book is scattered with appetisers that will make you hungry for more. Authors do tend to get lost in the multitude of data they collect, but Colleen has been able to piece together the Indian culinary jigsaw puzzle in the most readable manner, breaking up her narrative to accommodate sidebars and recipes, and a carefully curated selection of relevant paintings from the past and pictures of the present.

The tapestry she puts together is of a society that, contrary to the vision of those who view the past from the blinkers of contemporary politics, ate heartily (and a lot of what our ancestors consumed was non-vegetarian) and drank merrily. Contrary to what political hardliners today want us to believe, despite religious proscriptions, Indians have always valued and enjoyed the freedom to eat and drink as they wished.

The is the revised version of the lead article of my bi-monthly column, Fortune Cookie, in Mail Today (June 16, 2016). Copyright: Mail Today Newspaper Pvt. Ltd.