Memory of food is a funny thing. A simple meal or dish can set off such a frenzy of thoughts – of people, places, time, tingling all your senses at once - taking the form of a kind of soul stirring carnival in your head. In fact, so soul stirring it is for some that a “food memoir” begs to be written. Perhaps that’s why they are being written copiously across the world. In the publishing world, the food memoir is now a thing.
A snazzy update on conventional style cookbooks, these are bathed in nostalgia, stirring together heady life experiences with the motif of culinary memories – written by chefs, home cooks, and even reluctant food-makers. Some are sweet. Some are bitter.
There’s Australian food critic Larissa Dubicki’s Prick With a Fork, that bares all about her 10-year horror-filled waitressing adventures. There’s British journalist Graham Holliday’s book about traversing a new country in Eating Viet Nam. There’s chef and model Padma Lakshmi’s Love, Loss and What We Ate, unravelling the bittersweet truths of her high-profile marriage, interspersed with reminiscences about the kind of cooking that saw her through bleak times.
For Those Who Live To Read and Eat, a food memoir makes a seriously intimate bedside companion. Your day will likely end on a spicy note, you’ll almost certainly have delectable dreams, and may even have the next day’s menu sorted! Lucky for us, Indian food memoirs are having their moment in the sun, and the last couple of years has thrown up quite a variety. Here’s a guide, pick your flavour.
Crumbs! Bread Stories and Recipes for the Indian Kitchen, Saee Koranne-Khandekar
Bread-lovers will see sense in a book about both Indian and foreign bread, written for Indian climate conditions, using our very own chakki flours, and locally available yeast. Scores of international cookbooks will tell you how to knead that bread dough deftly and list the exotic toppings that go with it, but few Indian bread-makers have attempted an exploration of bread-making that is inherently and traditional Indian. Think Akki roti, Thalipeeth, Kulcha, Fugiya.
Koranne-Khandekar, who is a food writer and consultant, has put together a comprehensive guide to the art of baking bread. In Crumbs, you will learn the origins of bread, how to pick your flour, get down to kneading, watch for temperature and the bread’s rise, play with recipes, and figure out the science behind it all. A series of photographs of beautifully risen bread – from bajra bhakri to all variety of sourdough – lies sandwiched between the author’s own adventures making bread and some very handy bits on bread-making tools, a thick collection of recipes (of chutneys and nut butters too) and troubleshooting.
Particularly palatable are Koranne-Khandekar’s anecdotes about her visits to the Irani bakery Yazdani, a Goan bread-maker’s crash course in making the local Poee, and her memories of what goes on in modern artisanal bakeries in India as well as in the kitchens of the best paratha- and kulcha-makers around town.
Love, Loss, and What We Ate, Padma Lakshmi
This memoir, thick with tender and spicy details from the former model, Top Chef host and cookbook author, has been the talk of town since it was released this summer. It’s got great pulpy value, but it’s endearing too, as Lakshmi spills the beans about her relationships with her mother, stepfather, Salman Rushdie, and other partners – all of this with a generous helping of honesty.
She writes in a tone that is raw but not unpolished, about both the great moments of ecstasy and darkness. You’re captivated by her struggles – of being overwhelmingly conscious of her brown skin in an America full of whites, of feeling the desperate need to find credibility away from the world of modelling and glamour, of trying to stay afloat in a sea of crumbling relationships. You’re captivated equally by her highs – the breathless romance with Rushdie, the making of Padma Lakshmi the celebrity, her organic rise in the culinary scene.
She threads the motif of comfort food through many of her life-changing experiences, and here the book soars. She learnt to make her first sandwich at four, when she could hardly have known that a few decades later, a bunch of kumquats lying in her kitchen would pull her up into citrusy glory from days of greyness at the end of her marriage. A handful of recipes – Chaatipati Chutney, tinged with memories of Delhi visits filled with chaat and aam paapad; Krishna’s Pickled Peppers, recalling her young daughter’s fascination with the ceremony of pickling; Egg in a hole, flavoured with memories of her tricky pregnancy and comfort food – lift a book that ever so often slips sadly into casteist and classist tones.
Mrs LC’s Kitchen: Stories about Kayastha Food and Culture, Anoothi Vishal
With a rather dreamy illustration of a table full of (presumably) Kayastha delights, this memoir's cover is an instant mood-lifter. Anoothi Vishal, food writer and consultant, has dug deep into her family’s legacy and emerged with a fascinating map of the Kayastha universe in the states of Delhi and UP, regions familiar to her. This is the world of Takey Paise, Yakhni Pulao, Dum Kia Kathal, or Makhane Ki Kheer, told through tales of the culinary expertise of the author's grandmother, Mrs LC, whom she calls a reluctant gourmet.
Kayastha food, as many cuisines tend to be, is a mix of several identities, held up by “inventiveness and adaptability” over the ages. As we read of its robust and Nawabi traits, we see a pretty picture taking shape, much like the cover illustration, of a satisfying meal highlighted by proud red meat dishes, and preparations like pasanda, kofta, or shami kebab. As far as community-centric books go, this one scores with self-awareness, of the Kayastha identity in a larger socio-political landscape, of the matter of caste and food habits even in a global, modern world.
A weighty historical perspective – of the cuisine's genesis in the Indo-Islamic Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, of colonial influences, of the ever-adapting ways of the community to changing times – add much heft to this memoir. What brings it all together are Vishal's memories of a childhood spent getting acquainted with Kayastha music and culture under the watchful eyes of her grandmother, of being repelled by this identity for many years, and then, coming full circle to acknowledge and revive the community's food in the world and in her life.
Korma, Kheer & Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi, Pamela Timms
You have got to admire a foreigner who makes the maze of Old Delhi her playground with the determination that it takes to write a memoir like this. You are constantly taken by surprise at how keenly Timms, food writer and enthusiastic cook, immerses herself in the local milieu, ever curious, ever the gentle stranger, diligently prodding old time culinary guardians of the old city to spill their secrets.
She manages to find her way around in remarkably good spirit, come pelting rain or sunshine, and these innumerable visits to the overflowing gallis leave her with enough fodder to charm us with a book that's a melting pot of street-style flavours and raw, bizarre human connections over Delhi's changing seasons and grand festivals. As Timms breaks bread with old Delhi residents on various important festivals like Eid and Navratri, we see traditions old and new, up close and personal.
The memoir, written in her vivid, punchy style, with all journalistic tools at work, follows a rich, nuanced socio-cultural flow. The small black and white photographs sadly don't do justice to what we know to be mouthwatering stuff that lend themselves to glorious photography. Still, she transports us, with more than a touch of Scot humour, to spaces even locals wouldn't have thought to venture into.
Particularly amusing is Timms's search for the secrets to what makes Ashok and Ashok's mutton korma as fantastic as it is. This includes devouring many plates of the korma and several excursions, including one to one Goggia Uncle's cupboard-sized kitchen in Sadar Bazaar where the dish is recreated for her. For fans of street food, this is a treat indeed, and the recipes here – Sita Ram Diwan Chand's Chana Bhatura, Pandit Kuremal's Kulfi, Daulat Ki Chaat, oh, and the mutton curry, too – among others, are worth preserving.
Tiffin, Rukmini Srinivas
A seasoned, wrinkled hand on the cover of Tiffin lifts a brass cloche to reveal steaming hot Pidi Kozhukattai, plump, round rice and lentil dumplings resting on banana leaves, encased in a brass tiffin. It evokes aroma of a different time. This is what Tiffin is all about – stringing together family vignettes involving tiffin, retreating more than a century to 1892, when her father was born in Tanjore.
Rukmini Srinivas, a TV chef and author based in Bangalore and Boston, takes us through a whirlwind life spent between Poona, Madras, Delhi, Berkeley, Stanford, and Boston – and her efforts to keep the authentic, homemade tiffin tradition alive, and pass it on to her daughters. It’s a tradition inherited from her mother, who would put her soul into making special tiffin day after day – one savoury, one sweet – for her eight daughters when they came home from school at 4.30 pm, absolutely ravenous, having survived on little more than some milkshake and a few bites of a sandwich until then.
Rukka, as she is called, recreates the glory of this tiffin, helped along by atmospheric photographs bursting with culinary glamour, cooking demo shots, and full-page illustrations. The recipes that thicken the pages of this weighty memoir are droolworthy, and thankfully plentiful – cheese bondas, pea samosa, coconut chocolate mounds, kuzhi appam, banana halwa…and chutneys, chutneys, chutneys. The silver-haired Rukka with her smiling eyes, a no-fuss cotton sari draped around her, is the kind of cook who swears by her granite mortar and pestle and flat stone grinder over any kitchen modern equipment. Her memoir is just as earthy.
Cooking for Happiness, Kornelia Santoro
There are few places than didn't inspire thoughts of good eating in Kornelia Santoro. Atop her Enfield thundering through remote corners of the country, different parts of the world with their culinary wisdom, even the comforts of her kitchen in Goa. Santoro, a home cook and cookbook author, struggled for years with eating disorders and depression before she surfaced to a lifestyle of healthy eating, joyful kitchen experiments and plentiful scientific literature on the connection between the food you eat and your state of mind.
If combining the pleasures of comfort food with the right kind of nutrition is what you crave, thumbing through Santoro’s 100-something recipes in this memoir may be rewarding. She kicks off with what she calls Vitamin Bombs, a series of vitamin-rich salads, soups, greens and meat, only mildly cooked, that will keep the brain ticking and less prone to mood swings. She will prod you toward a high-fibre diet. She will tell you to balance your blood sugar by eating complex carbs, and she will indulge your sweet cravings too – brown rice pudding, creamy (paneer) cheesecake , key lime pie, vegetarian panna cotta…there are plenty of sweet treats to be had in here.
In between comfort food recipes, you will see snippets of wisdom, admittedly somewhat clunkily inserted: “Healthy approaches to worries” (especially when it comes to your kids), or ‘Be body-wise’ (about managing your appetite and cravings through her personal experiences), ‘Trust your judgement’ (about going with your gut when it comes to eating healthy). For a reality check, she encourages readers to regard what “health experts” say with a pinch of salt, since the word on what’s supposedly good for you changes every year.