My best friend came visiting last week. There is a ritual to her annual visit, on the first day we meet – there’s an exchange of (predictable) gifts, a lot of hugs and kisses, and at least one round of tea and snacks (which may or may not be followed by dinner). While I was making the tea this time, she sounded quieter than usual in the drawing room with my daughter, and once I came in with the beverage, she said abruptly: “Rits, will you gift this book to me?”
I was taken aback; I couldn’t recall the last time, or if ever, she had “asked” for a gift. The book she was holding a copy of was Move-able Feasts by Kunal Basu and Susmita Basu, which has been gracing the top of a bookshelf of mine these two months. So engrossed was she in it that our personal conversation took a back seat and focused itself on the book.
Spoilt for choice
It is a lavish spread. And like any culinary one, you are spoilt for choice – it has so much to offer. For here is a gorgeous book of recipes, culled over a lifetime of travel – effortlessly weaving anecdotes and photographs into its stories. I realised you can never take away the storyteller from a novelist, even if he is co-writing a book on food.
In the book launch at the Tollygunge Club, Kolkata, on May 1 this year, Kunal Basu, in conversation with Rita Bhimani, had said unequivocally that cookbooks “bored” him – since just an iteration of ingredients left him invariably dissatisfied. No wonder then that he and his wife successfully turned the tables on the conventional idea of the cookbook.
It is indeed difficult to define the book, to pigeonhole it into any of the established categories of publishing. I, for one, am mesmerised by the photographs. Spread over its 482 pages, there are no less than 575 photographs (mostly in colour), 61 of them two-page spreads. It’s difficult to name favourites from such a huge collection, but the ones of Mongolia (in “Bruce Lee Chilli Pork”) and specially those of Machu Pichhu, the medieval Inca Citadel in Peru (in “Viva Zapata!”) took my breath away.
If you are someone like me – who cooks well but has never enjoyed cooking, and does so only when she has to – there are plenty of other things to admire, as well: like the containers, both of the ingredients and final dishes, of every single recipe that has been shared. Not to mention the wide array of mats (in wood and fabric, and in one case stone) that they are spread on. The “Fish of Friendship” menu spread (brass tray on a kantha mat) and fried green peppers served on a bamboo kulo resting on a bamboo mat (in “NRI Goat Curry”) were winning combinations for me.
One can’t help but admire the design and layout by Pinaki De here: it must have been tough to do justice to both the travel and the food.
The twelve chapter names are all intriguing and initially left me undecided where to start – “Keema Rumistani” or “Chicken Unspeakable”, “Hokusai Dreams” or “Dona Flor’s Crab”. But then I fell back to the dictum I have always sworn by as a reader, that the “beginning… is a very good place to start”. And was immediately hooked. The Basus make a compelling case for the book very early on:
It is true that we have tasted a number of outstanding meals in our lifetime. But, only a few have made that sacred transition to a feast – gone beyond a good recipe and found a nook in memory; offered a lens through which we can glimpse our life in terms of things we have known, seen, felt and desired. Only the feasts are worth remembering, as (they are as much about cooking and eating as they are about sharing, telling the story of our life, a little bit of it at least). And as Hemingway described, since they end up inside, they are moveable – wherever you go, they go with you.
A life in food
The story of their life together is ultimately what gives the book its special flavour. And in them, some anecdotes stand out – like the disaster of a “chingri malaikari” (coconut prawns) on an anniversary dinner in Montreal, where the fabled speciality of his mother was unwittingly ruined by mistakenly adding Isobgol powder instead of mustard to the dish.
The feast – of which coconut prawns is the “modhyomoni” (star attraction, in this case the main dish) – is complete, the couple believe, only when it’s served with corn cakes, green mango pickle and banana fritters. The corn cakes were inspired by a travel to Bagan, Myanmar; the green mango pickle was a recreation “in the image of som tam” which they were familiar with over two decades of travelling to Thailand; and the banana fritters a nod to a popular Bengali sweet dish.
I am partial to this feast, just as I am to the hilarious anecdote that accompanies it. And I found the “mantras” of cooking enumerated at the end of this chapter “Sepia Prawns” worth noting:
In conceiving each of the four - the main course and the sides – we observed a few simple rules, our mantras, if you wish. First, we believed, less is better. While there are close to three thousand spaces and herbs on this planet, human receptors can take in no more than three or four in a gulp. Like perfume, the high and low notes make the most serious impression. So, we resisted adding any more than a leading and a railing condiment to the main item in any dish. Second, we trusted that easiest is best when it comes to technique, and finally, opted to break down some rules – including our own – and tried something new in each rendition of a recipe in the hope of unexpected discoveries.
The tenderest of chapters is “The Reclining Nude”. Though the title takes after Modigliani’s famed “Nude on a Blue Cushion”, it is a tribute to all the European artist and writer friends that the Basus have held dear throughout their four decades together – friends they have never met in person – Amedeo Modigliani, Vincent Van Gogh, Bertolt Brecht, Franz Kafka, and Guillaume Apollinaire.
After recounting when and how these friends came into their lives at various times, and their travels to some of the native cities of these masters – Berlin, Prague, Paris – they curate a feast to pay tribute to them. It is the ultimate example, to my mind, of playful imagination meeting e pathy.
When we thought to celebrate our friendships with European artists and authors with a feast, we zeroed in on the Hungarian Goulash as the main course. Given their erratic dietary habits, it’d be wise to offer something meaty and substantial, with paprika to stir their imagination yet filling enough to neutrali e the alcohol that they would’ve consumed in copious amounts. For the rest of the dishes, we followed an artist’s instinct for colours; the sap green of cabbages filled with rice and vegetables that made up the poilish Gumpki, a dashing red Vivegret salad of Russian heriatage and the Dutch potato Hutspot to soothe Van Gogh’s tender stomach. Finally, there’s be the Tiramisu desert from Modi’s own Tuscany – richly textured with chocolate and cheese, and a very large splash of brandy.
Travel, art and food come together in Move-able Feasts in twelve different and memorable iterations. But ultimately, what it celebrates is a remarkable partnership of four-decades – of a love that has strengthened and deepened through multiple shared interests. The back cover photograph, taken by their daughter Ajlai – to whom the book is dedicated – somehow captures that very well.
The front cover of the book is no less arresting. It is, interestingly, not of food, but flowers – dried rose petals strewn on the ground, photographed in a Marrakech souk. It is impossible not to respond to the beauty of that image; and the same image is replicated both on the dust-jacket and the cover of the hardback. Usually, only the dust jacket is done this way, with the board covers beneath being mostly wrapped in cloth or paper of solid colours. In a personal conversation the author had explained why they went for the exception:
It’s likely that the book will find a place in the drawing room, dining room or even the kitchen of a household, if there is space for one. The dust jacket is bound to undergo wear and tear over a period of time… the image will still last on the hard-bound cover then.
This book is meant to last. To be a part of one’s life and an accompaniment to its good times. It made for the perfect gift for my best friend and her husband (also a friend) for their 25th anniversary early next year. On a rare evening out together, I bought it for them.
Move-able Feasts, Kunal Basu and Susmita Basu, Starmark.