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Eating India, by Chitrita Banerji
An Indian banquet
Friday 07 March 2008
The British, I read recently, are falling out of love with Indian restaurants. I am not surprised. Over the decade I have spent here, I have found few excellent Indian restaurants. More usually, Indian food means standard curry-houses - greasy, over-spiced and representing (usually inadequately) a tiny segment of the complex landscape of South Asian cuisine. It's a scandal that one of the world's finest culinary traditions is represented by such crude concoctions.
Indian food in India is another matter. Like the country, it is characterised by infinite diversity. The range of flavours, colours and textures is mind-boggling – one could, in theory, eat "Indian" every day without repeating a dish for months.
Few, of course, could hope to taste, let alone master, all these recipes, but Chitrita Banerji, originally from Calcutta and now living in Massachusetts, decided to do just that. An experienced writer on Bengali food, she travelled up and down India to discover new dishes and trawled her memory for details of meals past. The result is a rich and evocative book, the perfect introduction to Indian gastronomy.
A blend of reportage, autobiography and scholarship, Eating India is not just about food. It delves into folklore and history to raise larger questions on tradition and authenticity. For instance, as a Bengali I cannot imagine anything more authentically Bengali than green chillies or sweets made of fresh cottage cheese. Both, however, were introduced by the Portuguese. There are countless examples of very recent indigenisation. Even tea, that ubiquitous beverage, was almost forced upon India by the British.
Nor are regional traditions as isolated as one commonly assumes. Creative interaction is common. The owner of the renowned Bengal Sweet House in Delhi's Bengali Market is from Rajasthan. Apart from traditional Bengali sweets, he also serves "South Indian dosas, French fries, Tibetan momos, Mumbai bhel-puri..." Nobody in India eats everything, but no item is without its devotees.
Some barriers are more enduring. Traditional Hindus not only recoil from beef but many avoid onions and garlic because of their association with Muslim cooking. The substitute – the pungent asafoetida – creates a divine new taste.
Such apartheid is balanced by adaptation. The Jews of India have evolved their own fusion of Middle Eastern and subcontinental styles. The rarity of butchers trained in ritual slaughter has affected their menu – but the losses have been more than compensated by the cornucopia of vegetables.
Every "foreign" community in India has incorporated indigenous food, producing combinations that have become integral to the vast tapestry of subcontinental cuisine. Even the colonial British could not resist Indianised dishes such as kedgeree, rumble-tumble or country-captain chicken. Revealingly, though, this Anglo-Indian cuisine never really made serious inroads into indigenous cuisine – the food of the Raj proved almost as unappetising to Indians as its officials.
"Giving and taking, meeting and uniting," Rabindranath Tagore wrote, was the eternal spirit of India. Tagore's inclusive ideal, sadly, is ignored in many areas of modern Indian life, but not in the kitchen. Eating India celebrates that spirit with warmth, wit and deep understanding. It is a gem of a book that will reveal an unfamiliar world to the beginning epicure, whilst luring the more experienced into wondrous new adventures.
Chandak Sengoopta teaches history at Birkbeck College, London; he is working on a book about Satyajit Ray
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