Charmaine O’Brien’s newest release – her third book, Eating the Present, Tasting the Future with the subtext, Exploring India through her changing food—had me smiling right from her introduction. She says when she landed in Delhi in 1995 to travel the subcontinent, her knowledge of India was limited to curry, cricket (the handsome Kapil Dev of course), the Taj Mahal, and elephants. I smiled because, though we are a long way from 1995, I did not find this summation of India strange. I was asked as recently as 2019 on a media junket in Europe whether we have elephants roaming the streets and if is there any food that we don’t add chilli to.
The smile stayed because O’Brien’s book, that releases today, chronicles the change in her understanding of India, its culture and food over several years of subsequent visits. It tells the story of how she experienced the nuances and vastness of Indian regional food in far flung places.
Indian food books written by authors of non-Indian origin have always fascinated me for the unique perspective they bring to the reader and the passion with which they research. Whether it is suffering through a Rishikesh version of Delhi Belly and bravely coming back for more, doing 40-hour train journeys to observe how snacks change in a rail route, or sampling the upmarket Indian Accent version of Cheeni Malai Toast, O’Brien has first-hand tasting experience through her research.
The vastness of Indian regional food makes researching it a daunting task even for the most passionate of food chroniclers—both of Indian and non-Indian origins. The idea to write a book on India’s regional cuisine took shape a little after O’Brien’s first visit to India in 1995 and the ‘Rishikesh Belly’ she suffered through. A thali at Hospet served as further motivation. The book was to be a historical, socio-cultural and practical guide to exploring India’s food cultures – and it is.
Landing back in India in early 2000 to work on the book made her realise what a Herculean task it was to do without the right resources. And the process of finding these resources and laying the groundwork led to the creation of her first two books – Flavours of Delhi (2003) and the other The Penguin Food Guide to India (2013).
Across O’Brien’s 392-pager, you become part of her journey – of going past the notion that Indian food can be encapsulated in the generic term “curry”. Every chapter is a deep dive into the exploration of Indian food, from the pre-liberalisation era to the current more globally influenced scenario. For the reader, new to Indian food, the book is a comprehensive look at where it stands today and its evolution to getting here. It makes for a solid base from which to take off on personal journeys of regional food discovery. For those well-versed in the Indian food scenario, the book is a well-sequenced summation of all that has been observed and discussed over the years.
From the rise of cloud kitchens and home chefs to Artificial Intelligence in food automation, the many influences on Indian food, the way India drinks and more – the book discusses it all. O’Brien writes with the confidence of an insider with a ringside view of this evolution. She appreciates the fact, that unlike her own country Australia, India continues to have a deeply rooted food culture, which she calls a “magnificent living heritage”.
This book is partly a memoir interspersing the author’s experiences over her many visits to India over the years.
The inclusion of viewpoints from well-known names in the food world is a reaffirmation of O’Brien’s dedication to finding the right resources and voices. The book is peppered with inputs from names like Marryam Reshii, Antoine Lewis, Rushina Ghildiyal, A D Singh, Hemamalini Maiya, chef Manish Mehrotra and the work done by restaurants like The Bombay Canteen and Bengaluru Oota Company, among others in placing regional Indian food on the map.
I smile once again when I read about how the Internet has facilitated and helped open up the “inside” nature of domestic cookery knowledge to a world eager to discover it. I am currently cooking my way through the states of India with my weekly menus at home and the Internet is how I find my recipes. And, as O’Brien observes, factors like nostalgia and the idea of comfort food when moving away from home have led to conversations around Indian regional food.
Alongside podcasts and television, OTT too has had an impact on the rise of Indian regional food. The show MasterChef Australia is a case in point. What she first thought was a polite mention owing to her Australian nationality, was in fact, an opinion echoed many times over by food professionals she spoke with. Kishwar Chowdhury’s Macher Jhol had judges and audiences sit in attention and opened up the world to a side of Indian food not seen before. This show, she found, was also responsible for a change in the way Indians viewed the visual appeal of food, baking and desserts and imbued home cooks with a sense of glamour to their everyday work. I was nodding my way all through.
As a working mother, for me, reading about the evolving roles of women in society and how this has altered the way families eat, resonated strongly. The change that convenience in cooking, from technology to commercial food products, is undeniable. I order pre-cut vegetables and that’s just one of the conveniences I use. O’Brien also writes of how several men in the current generation are keen on being hands-on in the kitchen.
O’Brien switches comfortably between styles of long-form, hard facts, reporting and opinions. While the book is quite extensive in its coverage, it misses out on any substantial inputs from food experts in south India, focussing primarily on those from Mumbai and Delhi. What you will admire, however, is the author’s doggedness in getting the information she wants. The book is a good read and one that must find space on your shelf.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a Bengaluru-based journalist.
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