Thursday, September 18, 2003

food for thought

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in September 2003).

Monsoon Diary: A Memoir With Recipes, by Shoba Narayan. Villard. $24.95

Western publishers' love of "ethnic" material has prompted a wave of new writing about food, much of it by Asian expatriates and first-generation Americans and Britons who've used food as a touchstone to evoke memory and reclaim their heritage. In her first book, Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes, the transplanted Indian food and travel writer Shoba Narayan has added her reflections.

Narayan writes about the test her family puts her through to decide whether she would be allowed to go to the United States to attend college, a test that involved cooking an elaborate meal for her extended family. "'America is full of muggers and rapists.' Nalla-pa said. 'Why did you apply there? No unmarried girl should venture into such a promiscuous society,' Nalla-ma added." Then her uncle says, "Cook us a vegetarian feast like this one. If we like it, you can go to America. If we don't, you stay here." Narayan passed and was allowed to go.

But she is too quick to accept the disturbing prejudice that is entangled in her relationship with food. In the same way, she engages in little soul-searching about her arranged marriage, which she once opposed but has grown happy in, or her observation that she learned to cook traditional south Indian food because she wanted to "dazzle" her husband. The same acquiescence is more disturbing in her throwaway mentions of India's noxious caste system, which she says is "an important part of the way Indians define themselves." These observations lack the one element that would lend the writing more philosophical muscle: a critical eye.

Monsoon Diary is light, fluffy and tasty just like the idlis--or rice cakes--that Narayan writes about. To be sure, her descriptions of the food, the smells and the characters of India are as delectable as the recipes that accompany the chapters. "Almost every station in India sells a regional specialty that causes passengers to dart in and out of trains. My parents have woken me up at 3 a.m. just to taste the hot milk at Erode Station in Tamil Nadu. North of Delhi we could buy thick yogurt in tiny terracotta pots. The earthenware pots sucked the moisture from the yogurt, leaving it creamy enough to be cut with a knife. Kerala, where my father spent his childhood and still leaves his heart, is where I've eaten the best banana appams, fried in coconut oil on the platform."

Some of the characters in the book are instantly endearing and identifiable to anyone who grew up in India: Raju, the milkman who has named his cows after his various wives (he calls one Tiger); Chinnapan, the ironing man who could pick up red hot coals with his bare hands; and Natesan, the garbage collector, who Narayan (in another instance of willful blindness) reveals was invited into the house for coffee but always drank it "in a cup that was not used by anyone else." Narayan does not mention the reason: he was from a once "untouchable" caste.

Monsoon Diary is at its best when its realm is the India of Narayan's childhood. The latter half of the book, which is set in America, is unfortunately filled with cornball anecdotes and descriptions that could have used some judicious editing.

About America, she writes, "Everyone was moving, searching, asking for more. People were changing spouses, changing jobs, changing homes, changing sexes. It seemed like the more choices people had, the more they searched for something else, something new, something different." So don't expect any insightful commentary in this light memoir, but make sure you do not read it on an empty stomach, as Narayan's culinary writing will give you an attack of the munchies.