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A culinary library of love, longing and life

  • To be obsessed with food as merely taste and flavour is to be ignorant of its relationship with the larger human condition
  • Here’s a culinary bookshelf of about 100 books that reflect the complexity of this relationship

‘The Settler’s Cookbook’ is an evocative memoir of love, migration and food.
‘The Settler’s Cookbook’ is an evocative memoir of love, migration and food. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

In 1971, about the time we were papering over the large wooden windows of our stone house on 99 Broadway Road in chilly old Bengaluru as a precaution against Pakistani air raids, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown—then a college student in Kampala, East Africa—was living through considerably greater upheaval.

His excellency, Field Marshal General Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSCO, MC, “President for Life of Uganda, Al Hajj, member of the excellent order of the source of the Nile, conqueror of the British Empire in Africa, last king of Scotland (and doctor of political science)" had just deposed the president.

Alibhai—of Indian, Pakistani and Ugandan heritage—happened to be acquainted with one of Amin’s concubines, Susana. She lived in Alibhai’s college hostel and hoped to become mother of the nation when she married the sadistic Amin, who, she believed, “loved her truly". Instead, she died mysteriously, writes Alibhai, with some saying Amin—a former cook in the imperial British army—had her mutilated and stuffed into a bag, even as he stroked her younger sister. In the event, Amin did love Susana’s “Exeter Stew", the recipe of which she wrote down in pencil in January 1972 and which is recorded for posterity in Alibhai’s evocative memoir of love, migration and food, The Settler’s Cookbook.

I have not yet tried making Susana’s “Exeter Stew"—of goat meat with many bones (otherwise Amin threw a fit)—because Alibhai’s book is one of those in my collection that I treasure for its narrative more than its recipes. At any rate, I think it somewhat gruesome to recreate the favourite stew of a sadist—Amin put about half a million to death—who was rumoured to have cannibalistic tendencies, which he did not deny outright, only saying he found human flesh “too salty".

I may cook to feed my family and write this column, but my relationship with food is deeper. In the course of more than half a century, I have been variously fascinated, encouraged and inspired by food and its intense relationship with humanity. Food is a vehicle for the expression of human emotion—passion, joy and sorrow. Cooking constitutes a small part of my fascination with food, the larger allure lying in its legacies. To be obsessed with food as merely taste and flavour is to be ignorant of its relationship with the larger human condition.

My culinary bookshelf of about 100 books reflects the complexity of this relationship. I am fascinated by memoirs, such as Alibhai’s, records of life, longing, love and great journeys. There is Jasmine And Jinns, Sadia Dehlvi’s memories of a quieter, slower Delhi, and Our Syria: Recipes From Home, a poignant collection of recipes from refugee women, who recall lost cities, lost families and lost lives, memories kept alive through food.

There are books that have helped me learn of specific geographies, countless culinary records of our vast and diverse subcontinent: Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Nagaland, Kashmir and my home cuisines of Goa, Maharashtra and Sindh. There are recent, remarkable works that chronicle India’s largely unknown culinary biodiversity. First Food, an anthology published by the not-for-profit Centre for Science and Environment, for instance, first acquainted me with dried pods and fruits—kumatiya, ker, sangri, gunda—that form a significant portion of the Rajasthani diet; the Arabic, South American and African provenance of the trees that bear them; and the poems they inspire (even the gods, we hear, pine for them). Lathika George’s Mother Earth, Sister Seed is similarly enthralling for the unknown richness it reveals from India’s farmlands.

You can learn, too, of India’s clashing histories, manifest in the food we ate and eat. Salma Husain’s The Emperor’s Table is a meticulously researched compendium of Mughal cuisine. She tells us how emperor Akbar’s kitchen was run by a mir baqawal, master of the kitchen, he who held the rank of 600 horses, commanded an army of cooks, tasters, bearers (and a special officer for paan or betel) and reported directly to the prime minister. Few spices were used and dry fruits streamed in through the new roads that ran from Central Asia and Persia to Hindustan. Those legacies are now part of our food, and not even Mughal-hating nationalists can do anything about that. A special place on my shelf is reserved for Indian Food, the late K.T. Achaya’s masterpiece and the most extensive record of subcontinental food practices, including how Vedic Indians ate everything from bear to horse to beef.

I am interested in the evolution and science of food and deep, journalistic investigations into what we eat, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which told Americans the terrifying secrets of sesame-seed buns and the horrors of fries. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma masterfully dissects America’s “national eating disorder", and I greatly recommend all his books.

Two of my most treasured books are painstakingly handwritten, reflections of love transferred from kitchens and memories. They were presented to me when I got married in 1999: Kairali aunty’s record of Kerala and continental cuisine—derived from a lifetime as a diplomat’s wife—and Raju aunty’s collection of Sindhi recipes.

I take inspiration from many books, too numerous to mention, from across the world, ranging in style from the poetic to the sarcastic. The Supper Of The Lamb, by amateur cook and Episcopalian priest Robert Farrar Capon, is a lyrical ode to old-fashioned home cooking, as is Nigel Slater’s A Year Of Good Eating. It is in Slater’s book that I found the rationale for my experiments with food.

“We are not here for long," he writes. “So let’s at least make ourselves something good to eat."

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

Twitter - @samar11

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