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This food historian's memoir nourishes the body and soul

Chitrita Banerji's latest work, A Taste of My Life, looks back on the food she's loved over the years, and the people and places connected with them

A plate of Bengali Luchi, a deep-fried flatbread, like puri.
A plate of Bengali Luchi, a deep-fried flatbread, like puri. (Photo by Alexandr Dzyuba on Unsplash)

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Food is a language of love. Every page in Chitrita Banerji's A Taste of My Life: A Memoir in Essays and Recipes serves to reinforce this idea. A great example of this is Banerji's exploration of the relationship between her parents or what she knows and remembers of their connection. Her parents had an arranged marriage, and the union was never completely happy. Yet they never got a divorce. When asked, her mother says, "You've seen many Hindu weddings. You know the ceremony requires couples to feed the fire, and then feed each other. Food is life, and by eating together, the pair bonds for life. We did that. How can you talk to us about getting a divorce?"

Banerji goes on to say, "She spoke of ceremony and bonds. But looking at her face, and listening to her voice, I heard only the word love. I thought back to the long years of conflict, but also to the deep, shared passion for the art of cooking, eating and offering hospitality. That daily tableau of the table, I now saw, was neither duty nor obligation – it was love, but a tormented version that found no expression except through food."

In every chapter, Banerji places a food item in a larger socio-economic and cultural context, but she also finds a personal connection or memory associated with the dish. Each dish becomes more than just a means to fill the stomach. Instead, they are related to events in the author's life or to the people she has met: parents, an ex-husband, a favourite aunt. All the chapters (except the last two) end with a recipe related to the ingredient she is discussing. It sounds like there's too much happening in the book, but the writing flows so smoothly that it never feels overwhelming. Some of the essays were written and published earlier, but they are now bound together by this theme of love and connections.

In this book, Banerji travels from Kolkata to Dhaka to the US as she traces her love for certain dishes – often traditional delicacies of Bengal. Whether it is mocha (banana flower), aloo posto (potatoes cooked with a paste of poppy seed), or paan (betel leaves), she has a story associated with each. She remembers a wedding she saw as a child, where the bride entered, her face hidden behind two large paan leaves. What does it symbolize for the bride, the little child wonders, as she meets her husband and steps into a new life altogether. In a later chapter, Banerji brings up the wedding scene again, but this time, she is an adult and able to view the customs of a Bengali Hindu wedding more analytically. Banerji manages to bring in the symbolic use of food in the wedding ceremony – fruits, ghee, etc., along with the idea of a wedding feast enjoyed by all, and one that the family itself can partake in only after the rituals are over. She views the wedding feast not just as a celebration but also as the first shared experience between two people who will now live their lives together.

A Taste of My Life by Chitrita Banerji, published by PanMacmillan India; 156 pages, Rs. 350
A Taste of My Life by Chitrita Banerji, published by PanMacmillan India; 156 pages, Rs. 350

There are other traditions mentioned too. For example, jamai shoshti, a meal served traditionally to a son-in-law, is described in great detail. It brings out the differences in the cultural upbringing of her parents and her Bengali Muslim husband from Dhaka. It is also used to describe how food can bring people together, is a matter of pride for many – especially for women who are homemakers – and how people find a way to express love and affection through the food they cook. This last is a recurring theme in the book.

Her mother cooks all his favourite foods: begun bhaaja (eggplant fritters), prawn malaikari (prawns cooked in coconut milk), chitol maach (a kind of fish, most commonly found in Bangladesh) for the author's first husband, even though the last involves a painstakingly difficult process, to welcome him into the family and show that she cares about him and his opinion. Her father, who doesn't understand or approve of this match, doesn't speak to his daughter for a long time. Yet all is forgiven, not through a conversation, but by his offer of trying out different kinds of tea. In times of deep sorrow, Banerji finds comfort in food: posto after her father's death, luchi (a deep-fried flatbread, like puri) after her mother's passing.

The book is also an attempt to trace memories, emotions, and often, lost food. Banerji says she still looks for chicken sandwiches the way they used to be made in her childhood every time she is back in the city. Yet, she has to admit, "It might have been wiser to accept right away that just as you can't go home again, nothing can really taste the way you remember it."

She also learns to understand that food means different things to different people- posto might remind her father of his childhood home, but her grandmother might use it as a painkiller. Customs prevalent in her (upper-caste) house might not be understood by others, just as the way food is cooked and served differently even amongst people who live next to each other.

Through the book, we also see Banerji growing up. The book begins with her as a child, admiring mocha leaves, the way it is deftly cooked, and the skilful way paan is made and served. Later, she is a student in Presidency College, enjoying cold coffee in Coffee House; then she is a young bride in Dhaka, trying to make sense of a place that should be familiar but in reality, is totally alien to her. It follows her relationship with her parents, her understanding of them as individuals and as a couple, and finally, her own journey as a divorcee and, ultimately, a widow. In all this, it is food that stays with her, offering comfort and insight into how other people live and love. This comes through even in cases when a specific dish isn’t familiar for the reader – because the emotion always is. After all, each of us has our own version of luchi and begun bhaaja to come home to.

Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education, and relationships. She is based in Mumbai, and posts as @weepli on Instagram and Twitter.

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