Food and literature, or more specifically literary food writing and design are a sub-genre that has always held a fascination for me.
Many decades ago, in an old bookshop in London, I accidentally stumbled upon a beautifully designed and lavishly produced book, Intercourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook (Terrace, $24.95, pp.144) by Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockbridge. What immediately attracted me to it was the stark cover-image, with its fused title — a cleverly-phrased pun. The book still remains for me, a touchstone and an example of high book-art, an object that marries text and food, literature and image, elegantly and with detailed thought. Using soft focus tones and a stylish colour palette, the photographs of food and the human body bring out the rich texture of taste and text, the extreme examples being tantalizingly and poetically erotic. “Ever since Marc Antony first fed Cleopatra grapes, sensual foods have been intertwined with romance. This book follows suit, bringing more than 85 heart-melting dishes to the table, the bed, or wherever one might be entertaining.”
Food and literature, or more specifically literary food writing and design are a sub-genre that has always held a fascination for me. One of the most unusual, albeit very useful food books I treasure as a wordsmith, is titled The Flavour Thesaurus: Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook (Bloomsbury, £18.99, pp.400) by Niki Segnit. The cloth-cover and endpapers are fabulously designed with a pie-chart diagram detailing unique flavour combinations. The book’s insides are unfussy and regimental, and unsurprisingly dictionary-like and efficient as a “thesaurus”. The pie-chart is the perfect model for the way the book is organised under these most unusual chapters (and sub-chapters): ‘Roasted’, ‘Meaty’, ‘Cheesy’, ‘Earthy’, ‘Mustardy’, ‘Sulphurous’, ‘Marine’, ‘Brine & Salt’, ‘Green & Greasy’, ‘Spicy’, ‘Woodland’, ‘Fresh Fruity’, ‘Creamy Fruity’, ‘Citrussy’, ‘Bramble & Hedge’, and ‘Floral Fruity’. Segnit’s writing is precise and unsentimental, lucid and knowledgeable. But ultimately, one of the main takeaways for both the author and the readers is that one should have a “more open-minded approach to [food] combinations”.
Virginia Woolf in her iconic novel, A Room of One’s Own, has written, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” So it isn’t unsurpring that ‘Darjeeling Express’ Asma Khan’s London-based restaurant began life as “a dinner party with friends”. She is the first Indian-British chef to star in Netflix’s award-winning series Chef's Table. Her new book, Asma’s Indian Kitchen (Pavilion, GBP 20, pp.184), is a consequent and natural ally to her achievements as a culinary force. It is primarily a cookbook, but it is simultaneously a storybook, a travel book, a memoir, and a book of exquisite food-photography — all written with familial warmth and passion. The focus is all about family and friends, as borne out by the chapter headings: ‘Feasts for Two’, ‘Family Feasts’, ‘Feasting with Friends’, and ‘Celebratory Feasts’.
Even though she writes that “the food of India is an amalgamation of various cooking traditions and ingredients”, one has to emphasise that this book is not on ‘fusion food’. This handsomely produced volume is book-ended with a beautifully written prefatory essay ‘My Indian Kitchen’, along with useful “menu suggestions” and “index” at the end. You will find all the big hits of Indian cuisine and with lesser-known dishes, but always with a personal twist and flavour — and that is the strength of this very fine book, Asma’s own personal touch.
Talking about a personal signature and style, one cannot not think of Vir Sanghvi and his long-standing column, ‘Rude Food’ in The Hindustan Times weekend Brunch magazine. His new book, The Indian Pantry (Penguin, Rs 399, pp.254) brings together the very best of his columns. It is “a finely curated collection of the most popular food column in India”, one that is updated and made current with an honest introduction and afterword. We learn that Sanghvi became “an accidental food writer”, and that rather than this book being a compilation of his earlier columns, this book focuses on “how the Indian idea of food has changed” over the last few decades. The author was “staggered by the way so many of the ingredients [he] wrote about all those years ago no longer seem exotic or novel”.
The book is organised under the following sections (each containing further sub-sections): ‘Vegetables’, ‘Fruit’, ‘Meat’, ‘Seafood’, ‘Dairy’, ‘Eggs’, ‘Spices’, ‘Staples’, and ‘Sweet’ — and written “in his distinctive, no-holds-barred style”. The best aspect of The Indian Pantry — apart from many wonderful food trivia and their sidelight recommendations — is the fact that it is ultimately opinionated and well-written, two ingredients crucial for a serious reader and food connoisseur in order to take the contents seriously, whether or not they agree or disagree. I am glad that a new, updated, and selected avatar of Sanghvi’s food journalism is back in the market for people to savour and taste.
Food (Bloomsbury, £45.00, pp.520) by Anissa Helou is an appropriately-titled, sumptuously-illustrated, tome of recipes and stories. A large format hardback — it journeys through the cuisines and stories of the Islamic world. From the way she describes the recipes, one can tell that the writer has the elegance of a seasoned cook where the sense of taste is subtle, the aroma just a hint, and the aftertaste electric. “Her range of knowledge and unparalleled authority make her just the kind of cook you want by your side,” writes the celebrity chef, Yotam Ottolenghi. Spread longingly over seven chapters — ‘Bread’, ‘The Whole Beast’, ‘Rice, Grains, Pasta & Legumes’, ‘The Sea’, ‘Spice, Spices Mixtures & Spice Pastes’, ‘Fresh Produce’, and ‘Sweet Tooth’ — this extraordinary omnibus is not only a must for every culinary aficionado, but for anyone who enjoys eating. Two short poems of mine find space in this stunning book — 1. ‘Eating Rice’: “Delicately sheathed, / wrapped in papery husk —// I love the feel and / elegance of long slender / rice grains — // their seduction / and charm, / their aroma and shape —// their fine flavour / and / the deep virgin taste.” — 2. ‘Eating Fish’: “I use my finger-tips / to pry open, / feel, and sense // the hidden taste / of fish - / its flesh and scales, // its coarseness / and gloss, / its geometry, // its muscle-bone / and tone — / Gently, I relish it all.”
There are three other books of food and food-writing I'd like to recommend. The first is Sadia Dehlvi’s Jasmine & Jinns (HarperCollins, Rs 699, pp.212) that contain “memories and recipes of [her] Delhi.” Like Asma Khan’s book, this is simultaneously a memoir, a family history of people and food, and of course recipes. Dehlvi writes in a warm and engaging style that is fitting to the nature and content of this book. One of the unusual aspects and guiding logic of this book is that it is ordered and divided by seasons and festivals. For an Indian reader, the connect is immediate; but its appeal should be far and wide, even beyond the South Asian shores.
Boria Majumdar is well known as a sports historian, writer and broadcaster — but his book Cooking on the Run: An Average Man’s Encounter with Food (HarperCollins, Rs 250, pp.180) explores his fascination with the culinary. The word “run” in the title is a nod to his favourite sport of cricket of course, but more accurately it alludes to people who are on the “run” and do not have the time, but wish to cook. The chapters are titled and styled on the T20 cricket format: ‘Powerplay’, ‘'Mid-innings Consolidations’, ‘Signature Shots’, ‘Slog Overs’, ‘Winning Moment’, and others. The recipes are succinct and uncluttered, one that will appeal to both an amateur and a veteran — and its appeal is far beyond just a cricket aficionado, a Bengali, an Indian or a foreigner. Additionally, the book does not fail to include the chutzpah of coloured-clothing, bright-lights, and cheer-leaders.
Monish Gujral is the man behind the new generation Moti Mahal restaurant, and his two books: On the Butter Chicken Trail and On the Kebab Trail (both Penguin, `299, pp.200) are a delight. Awarded the ‘Best in the World Gourmand’ these books not only include the fascinating history of the restaurant's origins with Kundan Lal Gujral, but focus on classic mouth-watering North Indian and Mughlai recipes without any fuss. Unlike many cookbooks, these do not lean on design and food photography - the formula is simple: written simply and precisely, to be eaten and savoured heartily. I am reminded of Orson Welles who said: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” But it is J.R.R. Tolkein’s comment that cannot be more apt in our current political climes: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
The writer is an award-winning poet, translator, editor and photographer