Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > How To Lounge> Books > A book that allows you to rediscover the joys of old school travel writing

A book that allows you to rediscover the joys of old school travel writing

Zac O’Yeah’s new book, Digesting India, harks back to the good old times when travel writing was about slow journeys, memorable encounters, subtle observations, tongue-in-cheek humour, deep dives into a destination, and more

'Digesting India' encapsulates the journeys of the author through the cultural and culinary landscapes of India. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
'Digesting India' encapsulates the journeys of the author through the cultural and culinary landscapes of India. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

In a world of social media, where you are bombarded with images from people’s travels, and where the only writing seems to be confined to hashtags and captions, there is something rather soothing about reading Zac O’Yeah’s latest book,Digesting India: A Travel Writer’s Sub-continental Adventures with the Tummy.It harks back to the good old times when travel writing was about slow journeys, memorable encounters, subtle observations, tongue-in-cheek humour, deep dives into a destination, and more. The book, published by Speaking Tiger, is essentially about discovery—the essence of a good travel memoir and a rare commodity in writing these days. An extremely engaging read,Digesting India encapsulates the journeys of the Indian novelist of Scandinavian origin, through the cultural and culinary landscapes of India.

The different chapters—A Town called Beershop, Looking for Malgudi, Where Teatime is Anytime—are populated with quotes and anecdotes about O’Yeah’s favourite novelists, whose books act as companions on his many adventures. It’s interesting how you end up looking at a destination not just through his perspective but through the various authors’ lenses as well. For instance, inRegal Repasts and Partaking of the Past,he walks the roads of Ujjain, perhaps, taken by E.M. Forster in a horse-pulled tonga in the winter of 1912-13. By juxtaposing the past—ancient and mediaeval cooking practices, Mahatma Gandhi’s version of food asceticism, emergence of coffee houses—with the present, O’Yeah adds a new dimension to the way we view travel. In an interview withLounge,the author talks about his favourite meals at railway stations, the wonders of the Kongunadu dish—mutton Pallipalayam, and more. Edited excerpts:

How has the experience of writing on travel and food changed in the age of social media?

When I started travel writing, it was as far from instant as it could get. One travelled with a typewriter, mostly by train, as these cheap flights by low-cost carriers hadn’t been invented. So, one flew only if one needed to shift to another continent, then sat down on a beach with a gin and tonic at hand to reflect on the journey so far, and then wrote one’s story, one sheet of paper at a time. When mobile phones arrived I was okay with them. The GPS is useful so there’s less of a chance that one gets lost, and typing on a tablet is fine as one can back up the texts on the cloud, and then download when the trip is over.

However, on the other hand, I began missing that feeling of arriving in a new place and trying to figure out where to go—to actually getphysicallylost in a town and, perhaps, discover something unexpected in an alley one wasn’t meant to walk down, or to just ask locals for advice instead of Googling, and get tips on their favourite restaurants rather than what guidebooks tried to sell you.

Also read: Travel: A walk through Baku is a lesson in Azerbaijan's history

But these days, when one is supposed to tell one’s story as it unfolds on social media, without thought or reflection, except that one’s selfies are supposed to look picturesque. I find it difficult as much of the current travel stories seem more about being mentallylost. Increasingly in the last ten years, or since “antisocial” media came along, even travel magazines started focusing more on images while the text is nowadays something that is merely used to fill up the spaces between glossy snaps.

How did the covid-19 pandemic change your flow of travel?

When the pandemic struck, with its lockdowns, it wasn’t possible to move forward and travel to the next destination on the list. I decided this would be the perfect time to look backwards and investigate what I’ve been doing over the last three decades. And the “red thread”, which I saw running through it all, was Indian food, about finding new favourite dishes to order at bars, and therefore I decided to write a book about Indian restaurant culture and all the wonderful things one can eat and drink here. That developed naturally intoDigesting India, and its length of over 300 pages allowed me to really meditate on the subjects I enjoyed discussing. I feel it’s the kind of book I would buy myself, take with me to an Irani café in Mumbai, order a mild beer and some fried brain, and spend the afternoon in the best company possible. And I wouldn’t Instagram any of it.

Indian train rides ought to be marketed to tourists as real food adventures because the next station down the line will generally offer up some astonishing new treat. Photo: Unsplash
Indian train rides ought to be marketed to tourists as real food adventures because the next station down the line will generally offer up some astonishing new treat. Photo: Unsplash

Mentions of E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling and Rabindranath Tagore occur quite often in the book. If you could talk about the writers, whose words have kept you company through your many journeys? And what is it like to view a destination through their lens?

I’ve always thought that rather than using a travel handbook, or limiting oneself to just reading travel guides about what to see and eat, a great way to approach a new place is to find literature by writers who live there— or at least authors, whose novels have been inspired by that particular place, even if they may not be native to it. So when I went to China, I tried to find as many translated books by Chinese writers, from detective novels to serious realism, just to get a glimpse into how people might be thinking there. And if one is lucky, the story might describe a meal too. And the same goes for India. Take Kipling, who was the first Indian-born Nobel laureate. He spent years in north India and that experience inspired his future authorial career. So, on a holiday in Shimla, I read his gossipy stories about colonial life there to make the town come alive. I even went to look at his house, which is a private home now, but the family living there invited me in for some tea. Great fun!

Tagore and other Bengali writers are perfect substitutes if one can’t find anaddain Kolkata. Spending an afternoon alone in the Coffee House with a translated Bangla novel is as fun as going to any museum. And Forster’sPassage to India is a good read when one is in Patna, although he doesn’t call the town Patna in the book, while Jeet Thayil’sThe Book of Chocolate Saints makes for excellent company to bring to a bar in Mumbai. And so, in my book, Digesting India, which is hopefully a suitable buddy in any dive, or café, I try to mention things to read wherever one goes—whether it’s a place in Kerala where Somerset Maugham spent time while working onThe Razor’s Edge or a palace in Rajasthan in which Bruce Chatwin wrote one of his masterpieces, or the home of RK Narayan in Mysuru, which, by the way, was finally turned into a museum just a couple of years back. And across the street one can have a dosa at a hotel he used to eat at! I enjoy collecting such details and sharing them with my readers, who I presume to be a little like me in that regard!

Also read: Travel: 5 farms to visit for a taste of English lavender

To me, one of the fascinating mentions was of Kongu food. How is the food there distinctive from the rest of Tamil Nadu's culinary repertoire?

Somebody once told me that in India, if you travel a hundred kilometres, the food will be completely different from the previous town. So, in my book, I look at just this. I travel, and then I eat, and I’m in a new paradise. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, everybody will go to Chettinad, which is getting pretty famous for its cuisine in recent decades. But you can also travel virtually next-door to any place in the Kongunad region, which seems to be the heartland of the state, and find gourmet dishes that are probably cooked the same way today as millennia ago. A favourite dish, I stumbled upon there, is the mutton pallipalayam, which one only finds in Kongunadu-restaurants—though Kongunadu-restaurants are quite rare, and the only one I know of is Junior Kuppanna, which is a small local chain that has branches here and there in south India. Otherwise, I believe it is mostly home-cooked and not yet as popular as Chettinad cooking. I believe the mutton pallipalayam is actually cooked without adding oil at all, but just the fat of the meat itself. And then the spicing is very subtle, apparently the meat isn’t marinated before-hand, so here we have an ancient Indian dish that could give French “nouvelle cuisine” a run for its money!

Banana fritters, sold at most stations in Kerala, are must-have gourmet train snacks. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
Banana fritters, sold at most stations in Kerala, are must-have gourmet train snacks. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

You have written, over time, about train journeys. If you had to pick a set of five most memorable dishes that you mostly get around train stations?

As far as I have counted, there are in all 7,325 train stations in India and, as you know, the most typical feature of any station is the chai stall. The smaller ones have at least one that serves some tasty items on the platform, while the larger are almost foodie destinations in themselves. Say, like Chennai Central, which has so many eateries I can’t even count them. As one’s train stops there, and usually they stand for some 20 minutes, one can enjoy the most wonderful Madrasi masala dosa before continuing the journey. So, railway food is an underappreciated phenomenon. One of the best meals I’ve had was after a long tiring journey— a delicious fish curry— in the canteen at Jamshedpur station, which isn’t even near the ocean, but the experience was a completely unexpected treat that instantly made me love Jamshedpur. A thrilling snack I had on a train ride in Andhra Pradesh, was a plate of miniature samosas sold at Guntur station and served with hot red chillies. The spiciness was almost unbearable and yet so deeply satisfying. I mean, talk about literally biting the bullet!

Another gourmet train snack I’d recommend to everybody is banana fritters, sold at most stations in Kerala. And if one’s sweet tooth doesn’t cave in there and then, one can just continue the train journey from there to West Bengal where mishti-doi is served in those charming clay cups like in olden times. Actually, Indian train rides ought to be marketed to tourists as real food adventures because the next station down the line will generally offer up some astonishing new treat, if one has time to alight for a moment. I know this for a fact, because I once wrote a story about crossing the country from one end to the other by train, and it’s really astonishing, the variety of things one can eat during a train ride. And that's why I would rather go by train, if I can, instead of flying. Compare that with other countries, where there’s a standardised bistro menu of plastic-wrapped sandwiches. No country can beat India when it comes to eating while travelling!

We live in a time, when food extremism has taken over the country, and there are vehement clashes of ideas around whether the ancient Indians ate meat or not. Time and time again in your book, you seek to debunk such myths—take, for instance, the mention of Buddhist cuisine in 'Where Teatime is Anytime'...

See, cuisine is something that has evolved over centuries and millennia, so it can never be static—it has to change as people’s preferences change. Today, if there is a trend towards vegetarianism, and even extreme veganism across the world, it can become a good thing if the food is healthy and it keeps people healthy. But that’s a health aspect. What I have some doubts about is whether one should force one’s own eating habits on others. I understand the deeper meaning of your question, and of course I get it that some people in India find it offensive if other people eat, say, beef or pork, and personally I have severe doubts whether also chicken should not be banned. I mean, consider how chickens are brought up in jail-like conditions, just fattened as quickly as possible until they can be slaughtered, and not allowed to exercise because if they build up muscles their meat may get tough. I saw a recent report that this is the fate of 50 billion chickens every year! I was shocked.

Also read: As extreme weather changes tourism, travel industry plays catch-up

While we debate carbon footprints and the need to curtail travel and tourism, all these billions of chickens don’t even go out for a walk in the park! Mind you, climate issues are important, but I think travelling is also important so that people can get to know the world and expand their worldviews. Anyway, coming back to the question, it is interesting to take a look at Lord Buddha’s diet which I write about in my book. As a matter of fact, Buddhist literature contains some of India’s earliest food writings. We learn, for example, that they ate lots of pulses like chickpeas withchapatis. They ate an early version of peaspulao and weren’t averse to condiments like mustard seeds and asafoetida but enjoyed their food tasty. It was generally a healthy diet with seasonal fruits but also sweets such as barley-honey balls, which must’ve been a kind of laddu. But they also ate non veg! They cooked pigeons, fish, and generally the Buddhist theory of ingredients has, since those days, remained the same—that when they go out in the morning with their alms bowls, they eat whatever they are given. Statistical experts have concluded, after studying the meals described in Buddhist literature, that Lord Buddha himself was 40 per cent vegan, 54 per cent vegetarian and 6 per cent non vegetarian including the last meal in his life, which is said to have been pork. And which unfortunately gave him a tummy upset he didn’t survive.

Then there is the chapter on Mahatma Gandhi's ideas of vegetarianism, which links food with health and calmness of spirit. If you could talk about how you view this idea of food asceticism?

It was never really about asceticism for its own sake, but he was highly interested in food as a subject, as we can see from his collected writings. It’s a topic almost as close to his heart as politics. Mahatma Gandhi liked to point out, if we read all his articles and speeches on health matters, that meals can be eaten like medicine. And if one follows the right diet, one will have no need of hospitals and medical treatments, which is a very important point. It’s only now, a hundred years later, that we’ve started accepting this as a general truth. He was a pioneer in that area. But then, on the other hand, he never forced people to follow his diets. It was just that if one went to stay at his ashram, one wasn’t supposed to have non veg or drink alcohol. This is something I found out in practice when I spent a few nights at Sevagram in the 1990s, where ashramites still continue living the way it happened back in the 1930s when that ashram was founded. It was like a complete detox, one might say, though today one would perhaps check into a spa and pay one lakh rupees for an Ayurvedic package with health foods thrown in. But there at Sevagram ,I think I was charged probably less than a hundred rupees per night, including meals. Diet needn’t be complicated.

Also read: Travel: A taste of Rome in central Germany

Both in Guwahati and Shillong, you have mentioned about the rise of eateries dedicated to ethnic cuisines, be it of the Khasi or the Mishing communities. How has the eating out experience changed in some of the major cities across the north east?

A general trend across the world, I’d say, and not just in the northeast, is an appreciation of the local. This was something that tended to be forgotten when restaurant culture spread in the 1900s, and restaurants became places where you went to taste foreign flavours. In India, similarly, when I visited the northeast back in the 1990s, it was really tricky to sample local food. Whenever I went out to eat with people, the food was inevitably either Chinese or Punjabi, sometimes perhaps continental. And it was the same thing in Bengaluru, where I settled down around that time. Local dishes were only served in humble canteens. For instance, in Shillong, you’d go to ajadoh stall to enjoy a non veg tribal Khasi meal. But now, increasingly, I find people rediscovering their own traditions.

In the northeast, when I went to Guwahati, suddenly there were popular restaurants showcasing the dishes of the various tribes, which was a delight. I went around town trying all these unique foods without having to trek through a jungle to do it. It’s a wonderful thing: that sense of cooking becoming a culture. On the other hand, in the Garo Hills, just last year, I did go deep into the countryside and found a family that welcomed visitors. On an open fire, they cooked their homestyle tribal dishes for me against a voluntary donation, which was also a great way to sample traditional eats while also supporting the local economy. That was again a new thing that they thought some tourist like me might enjoy eating this way, sitting by a stream in a jungle. No tablecloths, no cutlery… but absolutely beautiful.

Next Story