Regional Indian Cookbooks: An Incomplete Guide

Earlier this week I enjoyed reading Bettina Makalintal’s piece for Munchies on American food media’s tendency to flatten and collapse heterogeneous culinary traditions into national ones. Late in the piece the owner of a culinary bookstore, Ken Concepcion, is quoted as follows: “I’m sure there are amazing regional books about Chinese food, about China, or regional Pakistani books, but they’re not written in English”. On Twitter I noted that in the case of Indian cuisines, at least, a number of excellent regional cookbooks exist, many written in English, others translated into it. The problem, I noted, is that American food media has no interest—for the most part—in these books. Then I thought that I should put my money where my mouth is and actually list some of these books for interested parties. Global ecommerce means we aren’t limited to what American publishers choose to put out: most of the books that follow are easily available online for less than you would pay for some overpriced restaurant or cooking show host’s cookbook that you will never actually cook anything from. You’re welcome. Continue reading

“It’s Time to Find a Place” (More Poems About Food and Drink)

Here is the third entry in my occasional series on poems about food and drink. In introducing the series—two weeks before I actually got around to posting the first entry—I noted that these poems “may centrally be about food, drink or hunger/starvation; they may make passing reference to food/drink; they may employ food/drink/eating/drinking//hunger/starvation etc. entirely as metaphors.” The first two poems I wrote briefly about in the series—Imtiaz Dharker’s “At the Lahore Karhai” and Arun Kolatkar’s “Irani Restaurant Bombay” were indeed centrally about restaurants as particular kinds of spaces; spaces that in the one case allow for a provisional declaration of community and in the other are the stage for a kind of public solitude. The poem I have for you today, Eunice De Souza’s “It’s Time to Find a Place” only glancingly mentions restaurants, as one in a list of spaces where endless prattling happens. Still fits the theme of the series though and is also roundly a poem I like a lot. Continue reading

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Mike)

Here is the fourth entry in the occasional series of book’ish posts that I’ve outsourced to a few old friends: A Reading Journal of the Plague Year. Well, considering this is the third entry in as many weeks it’s at risk of becoming a regular series. I hope you’ve all read the third entry—Aparna’s piece on reading Agatha Christie while on lockdown in Delhi; the second entry—Mahmud’s review of Clancy Sigal’s early 1960s road novel, Going Away; and the first—Peter’s recap of a few false starts and then a few things he’s enjoyed getting into since all of this began.

This week’s entry is from my deplorable friend, Mike. Like Peter, Mike also posted a piece earlier this year on some of his favourite reads of 2019. Mike is one of the most voracious and wide-ranging readers I know, someone who pays no heed to the usual fences of genre that hierarchically divide the literary landscape. He is also one of the most generous readers I know, attuned always to the pleasures of reading. I expect that if you haven’t already read all the books he talks about below, he’ll have you ordering at least one of them. Continue reading

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Aparna)

A month goes by between the first two entries in A Reading Journal of the Plague Year and then two come at once. If you haven’t read those first two entries you should do so right after you read this one: the first by Peter Stokes and the second by Mahmud Rahman. This third entry is by another old friend, Aparna Balachandran. I first met Aparna on an Indian culture forum I used to run a long time ago. She was then finishing up her PhD in Indian history in New York. I can’t remember if we ever met in person while she was in the US. But we’ve been meeting and hanging out on all our trips to India ever since she went back to start teaching at Delhi University. A number of my meal reports from Delhi over the years have been of meals in her company—and it’s very good company indeed. We are also in a small WhatsApp group together. For the last two months our primary topics of conversation, like everyone else’s, have been the pandemic and our coping strategies. Aparna kept talking about the books she was reading and so I began working on her to make a contribution to this occasional series. After giving a lot of what in Delhi University we call “pricey ones” she finally agreed—though she refused to make public the genre that is her true primary reading and threatened me with violence if I disclosed it. Instead she said she would write a piece on Agatha Christie. Continue reading

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Mahmud)

Here is the second entry in the occasional series I’m running on the blog called A Reading Journal of the Plague Year. (See here for the first, by my friend Pete whose title I appropriated for the series; and see here for my other occasional series on poems about food and drink.)

Today’s entry is by another old friend, the Bangladeshi writer, translator and all-around cool person, Mahmud Rahman. I’ve known Mahmud online since the mid-90s and have hung out with him a few times, in Colorado and in Minnesota, while he was on cross-country drives; and I’ve separately hosted him at my college where he gave a wonderful reading from his collection, Killing the Water (available from Penguin India). He has also translated Mahmudul Haque’s novel Black Ice from Bengali, and is currently putting the finishing touches on his own novel. I have been waiting a long time to read this novel and am hoping it won’t be too much longer before I’ll have it in my hands. Those who know Mahmud know of his long history of driving across the United States—he’s mostly lived here since the early 1970s—and it’s no surprise then that he’s chosen to write about a road book, Clancy Sigal’s Going Away (helpfully out of print but available from libraries and Alibris). Continue reading

“Irani Restaurant Bombay” (More Poems About Food and Drink)

Here is the second entry in my occasional series on poems that deal passingly or centrally with themes, locations and/or images of food/eating/hunger etc. (See here for the first entry, on Imtiaz Dharker’s, “At the Lahore Karhai.) This week’s poem takes on a very different geography than Dharker’s poem (Bombay rather than London) and is formally more…well, formal and forbidding: in place of free verse, a set rhyme scheme—though not meter—and in place of declaration, elliptical, almost opaque observation.

But I’ve started in on the poem itself without telling you anything about the poet. Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004) was and is by any measure one of the most significant writers of the 20th century and a giant particularly in the world of Indian poetry, specifically Indian poetry in English. He was one of the central figures in the modernist flowering in the little magazines published in Bombay in the 1960s and 1970s and influential despite the fact that very few collections of his poetry were published  when he was most active as a poet. His first English collection, Jejuri, only came out in 1975 (when it won the Commonwealth Prize for poetry) and two others only emerged in 2004 after his cancer diagnosis. Continue reading

“At the Lahore Karhai” (More Poems About Food and Drink)

It’s been two weeks since I said I’d soon be inaugurating a new occasional series of posts on the blog on poems about food and drink and so I guess I’d better get on with it. As I said in that first post, these will be poems either directly about food, drink, eating, drinking, hunger, thirst etc. or poems that use related metaphors to talk about other things or poems that mention food or drink just in passing. To begin the series I have a poem I have posted on social media a number of times over the years: Imtiaz Dharker’s “At the Lahore Karhai”. Dharker is a poet with a background/biography that drives a certain kind of South Asian nativist insane with rage: she was born in Pakistan, raised in the UK and now spends her time between the UK and India (as far as I know). She was a candidate for the poet laureateship of the UK in 2019 before withdrawing her name from consideration.

This poem is from one of her earlier collections, I Speak for the Devil published by Bloodaxe in the UK in 2001 and Penguin India in 2003. The poem itself is from 1999. I decided to begin this series with it not only because I do like it so much but also because its setting is a restaurant and an experience of conviviality that we are currently denied by the pandemic. I have no restaurant review for you but here is a restaurant poem.

Continue reading

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Pete)

I recently promised that I’d be starting a series of posts on poems about food and drink and that the first entry would be coming soon. It has not yet arrived. But I bring to you instead the first installment in another book-ish series: A Reading Journal of the Plague Year. I had not thought to give it that title but quickly stole it from the author of this first installment, my old friend, Peter. You may remember him from such previous guest posts as “2019: A Year in Books (Pete)” and…well, that’s the lazy bastard’s only previous contribution. I asked Pete and the rest of the crew that had contributed to that series earlier in the year if they’d be interested in writing a bit about what they’re reading in isolation/quarantine. Not all were into it but I have roped in a new contributor (maybe two) and this time around I might get around to writing an entry myself. One a week probably until I run out of contributions. Here, to start with, is Pete. Continue reading

More Poems About Food and Drink

I will not be posting any/many restaurant reviews for the foreseeable future (though I will have a few takeout reports in support of some of our favourite small establishments). In place of that usual weekly delivery I offer to you a new series: poems about food and drink. Because if there’s anything people like more than reading my restaurant reviews, it’s poetry. Don’t worry: the poems will not be by me. They may centrally be about food, drink or hunger/starvation; they may make passing reference to food/drink; they may employ food/drink/eating/drinking//hunger/starvation etc. entirely as metaphors. But they will all be poems I like. They will also all be relatively brief poems—by which I mean that none will be as long as The Canterbury Tales. Think of this as a slow-motion anthology of poems about food and drink—who knows, maybe I’ll even pitch it to a press [I won’t].

The first entry will be coming soon. Contain your excitement.

2019, A Year in Books IV (Nikki)

Here now is the last in my “2019, A Year in Books” series. I say “my series” but, of course, I have outsourced this task to friends. Here once again is the premise:

“I asked four old friends from graduate school who read more than anyone else I know to make a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 and would recommend to people for any reason. It doesn’t have to be a list of books published in 2019 and it doesn’t need to be a “Favourite Books of 2019” or “Best Books of 2019” list. I asked them to avoid making their lists heavy on usual suspects but left the rest entirely up to them.”

Here are the first three lists again: Gio, Pete and Mike. The last list is by my friend Nikki, who I’ve also known from my earliest days in the US. In fact, Gio, Mike, Nikki and I were in a seminar on contemporary American fiction in my first term in graduate school. I’m not going to say anything smart alecky about Nikki because I’ve been terrified of her ever since I met her. In fact, let’s just agree her list is best. Continue reading

2019, A Year in Books III (Mike)

Here is the third entry in my “2019, A Year in Books” series, a series I have very cleverly outsourced to friends. Here again is what I said about this series when introducing Gio and Pete’s lists last week and the week before last:

“I asked four old friends from graduate school who read more than anyone else I know to make a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 and would recommend to people for any reason. It doesn’t have to be a list of books published in 2019 and it doesn’t need to be a “Favourite Books of 2019” or “Best Books of 2019” list. I asked them to avoid making their lists heavy on usual suspects but left the rest entirely up to them.”

And so to the third list, from my friend Mike, who I’ve known pretty much since my first days in the US in 1993. There’s a story I could tell you about Mike and me and a beef curry, a story which could be read allegorically; but I will leave that for another day. Mike is one of the funniest and most evil people I know. He’s also one of the kindest people I know. Continue reading

2019, A Year In Books II (Pete)

Here is the second entry in the year-end miniseries on books that began last week. A quick reminder of what this is: I asked four old friends from graduate school who read more than anyone else I know to make a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 and would recommend to people for any reason. It doesn’t have to be a list of books published in 2019 and it doesn’t need to be a “Favourite Books of 2019” or “Best Books of 2019” list. I asked them to avoid making their lists heavy on usual suspects but left the rest entirely up to them. If you missed the first one last week, please go and read Giovanna’s excellent list featuring fiction and poetry. Today’s list comes to us from my friend Peter, a dour Englishman, across a page of whose dissertation our beloved friend, teacher, mentor and now tormentor, Jim Kincaid once wrote the terrible sentence, “You write like the Rev. Mr. Collins”. You might think this should disqualify him from making aesthetic judgments but if you’ve read much of this blog you know standards are low here. Continue reading

2019, A Year in Books I (Gio)

A while ago I’d said that I’d write more about books on the blog and then, as is my wont with things I promise to do, I didn’t really do it. But now I’ve found the perfect solution: farm that task out to friends who read a lot and like to talk about books a lot. In particular, to four friends from graduate school—people I’ve known since 1993—who are among the most voracious readers I know. I asked them to annotate a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 that they found compelling for some reason and would like to recommend to others. They don’t have to be books published in 2019, I said, and they don’t have to be a list of favourite/best books of the year; and I asked that the list not be dominated by “usual suspects”. Beyond that I’ve left it up to them. First up is a list from my friend Giovanna. Gio grew up following the Italian national football team and so her aesthetic sense is a little suspect but we’ll try not to hold that against this list. Continue reading

Indian (-ish) and the Question of Indian American Identity

It has been almost eight months since the publication of Priya Krishna’s cookbook Indian (-ish) and almost as long since I first threatened to review it (though I did get around to reviewing some of its marketing in the summer). Is there any point in reviewing a cookbook half a year after its release? Frankly, the reason I didn’t get around to reviewing it earlier—after work and family obligations got in the way in May, June and July—is that with each passing month it felt less relevant to do so. However, as the end of the year approached and it began to show up on many lists of the best cookbooks of the year it seemed worth it again to go back and look at it closely. It is, as at least one Indian reviewer has noted, somewhat lightweight in its approach, but a large part of the American food media seems to still be ascribing it a fair bit of importance. I should say before I get started that I am less interested in the book as a cookbook than I am in it as a cultural text. This is not to say that I have nothing to say about any of the recipes or other bits of food information that it contains; I do and will get to some of that below. But I’m more interested in how the book tacitly represents the categories of Indian and Indian American food, and relatedly how it models a particular form of Indian American cultural identity. Okay, let’s get to it. Continue reading

Indian–eeesh!: The Marketing

When I wrote the first of my pieces critiquing Indian-American food writing I noted that I was quite looking forward to Priya Krishna’s then-upcoming cookbook Indian(-ish) which promised to cover ground not so very often trod in the American food media: Indian American food. That was last autumn. Alas, my hopes withered in the winter under the onslaught of Krishna’s rather disastrous extended promotional campaign for the book and did not recover in the spring. Disastrous, I hasten to add, from the point of view of substance and accuracy; from the point of view of marketing per se it seems to have been a great success. The book has received a number of strong reviews in the American press and has been praised and promoted all over food social media. I bought a copy of the book as well. I have to admit that I did so largely in the hope that it might provide the kind of comedy not seen in this genre since the publication of Rani Kingman’s Flavours of MadrasThe content of much of the marketing certainly pointed in that direction. Continue reading

South Asian Writers, An Occasional Series: Amitav Ghosh

Here is my long-threatened post on books. I’ve written various versions of it over the last few months, junking each one. What I’d originally planned was a long post on contemporary South Asian fiction—taking in its history and development, surveying the scene in various languages, commenting on national and global market forces and international acclaim for a handful of writers, and ending with some recommendations of books by lesser-known writers. But each time I’d start to write it, it would begin to balloon in my head into something more suited for academic readers and I’d balk at basically bringing my work life into the blog (which is where I come to do do things I don’t do at work). And so, I’ve decided to instead break that proposed survey into an occasional series of posts highlighting (books by) South Asian authors and authors of South Asian origin that I think deserve more attention than they get.

This does not mean that I will be writing (only) about relatively obscure or hard-to-find authors—though there will be some of that. In fact, the author I am beginning with is someone who is reasonably well-known outside India and each of whose books for the last couple of decades have been published by major American houses: Amitav Ghosh.  Continue reading

“A World Where Everything was Foreign?”: Stories by Fouad Laroui

Fouad Laroui
The stories in The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, the first English translation (by Emma Ramadan from the French) of the work of the Moroccan writer Fouad Laroui, are not united by setting: they take place in Casablanca, in Brussels, in Paris, in Utrecht. Nor are they united by form: in “Dislocation”, a repetitive, cumulative structure takes the reader into the mind of a man on the verge of psychic collapse; “What’s Not Said in Brussels” presents the same event from the point of view of two characters; “Fifteen Minutes as Philosophers” takes the form of a play; “The Night Before” recounts a nightmare; only the title story, perhaps, closely resembles what most people expect a short story to look like. What unites them is a comic sensibility. They don’t easily yield meaning or answers to the questions they pose but each makes you want to keep reading, both for the intellectual play and for the sheer verve of the storytelling.  Continue reading

Earl Lovelace: Two Novels

The Dragon Can't Dance
Early in the year I’d threatened that in 2016 I would be further testing the patience of my core whisky readership—who are already suffering through a steady diet of recipes and restaurant reviews—with posts on literature. Here now is the first one, on the Trinidadian writer, Earl Lovelace, which will seek to convince you to purchase and read his novels, The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979) and Salt (1996).

Odds are that if you’re not from the Caribbean, or do not teach or study fiction by writers from the Caribbean, you will not be familiar with Earl Lovelace. And given the fame of writers such as V.S Naipaul (also originally from Trinidad—though it’s hard to say where he’s from now) or Jamaica Kincaid or Edwidge Danticat or, more recently, Marlon James, Lovelace’s lack of name recognition may seem to tell its own story. After all, in the era of globally available literature, and with the logic of the free market seemingly internalized everywhere, it is easy to believe that availability and name-recognition are linked to “quality”. Surely if a writer from the Caribbean and her books were worth reading they would be nominated for the Booker Prize or receive mass market publishing contracts and “rise” to the top of our consciousness.  Continue reading