CAMBRIDGE, Mass. When Chitrita Banerji speaks about the cuisine of a place, it is quite possible to mistake it for its people. Hence for her, the sophisticated, quiet and understated Lucknowi; the loud, hot, spicy Hyderabadi; and the rough, but elegant and powerful Delhi cuisine.
Cambridge resident Banerji's recent book, "Eating India: An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices," talks about this, and various other facets of Indian cuisine in its 265 pages.
Banerji, whose earlier books like "Life and Food in Bengal," "Feeding the Gods: Memories of Food and Culture in Bengal," and "Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals," have mainly concentrated on that region of India, has chartered new territory with this personal narrative of her own discovery of the roots of cuisines around the country.
The book, published by Bloomsbury USA, mainly explores the history of cuisine formed at the intersection of cultures the Parsi, Jewish, Mughal, Keralite, Punjabi, Gujarati and, of course, Bengali cuisine.
Cambridge, Mass.-based author Chitrita Banerji's new book, "Eating India," explores Indian food, focusing on cuisine typically found at the intersection of two cultures. Photo by PIERRE CHIHA
Banerji says the idea was to look at Indian history and civilization through the prism of food. "What I was examining was not so much a kitchen, as a civilization," says Banerji.
The nature of the cuisines explored was born out of a natural tendency of an immigrant, she says.
"I was motivated to do that because I have chosen to settle down in America," says the author. "This is a country that prides itself on being an immigrant nation, but people forget that India was probably one of the world's oldest immigrant nations."
Another reason she wanted to write the book now, she says, is the closeness of relations between the United States and India.
"Probably at no other time has America wanted to know India better," she says, stressing the timeliness of the book.
"From time to time, for the past six years or so, I have thought it would be fun to write a book about India, and not just Bengal," says 60-year-old Banerji. "I felt kind of constricted that I had kept myself restricted to Bengal."
The thought was pushed away, she says, until a wedding invitation to a Bengali wedding crystallized her thoughts. "The wedding motivated me," she says, adding, "It was a good way to plunge myself into it (the cuisine). Everything in India is chaos, a wedding, more so."
Banerji's book then travels to Goa and Karnataka, sampling Anglo-Indian and roadside food along the way. The second part of the book explores food in Amritsar, more specifically, the langar at the Golden Temple, and traces cuisine along the India-Pakistan border, Muslim influences, and Benarasi food.
Banerji ends with a section on Gujarati, Parsee, Keralite, Jewish, and indigenous food. Interspersed with personal anecdotes, the book also offers a commentary on the history and social structure of these places that gave rise to different foods.
The book includes personal anecdotes, and glimpses into Banerji's life, as she speaks about her relationship with her parents, and her husband. She says the personal touches were important to make the book appealing to a wide section of readers. They were important for the reader to get an overall context of her work. "If I wanted this book to really talk to my readers, I wanted them to know me a bit," she says.
Also, she says, the process was educational for her as well. "I wanted to give the feeling that I wasn't talking down from a pedestal," she says. "I wanted to give the feeling that I was also learning about India through the book."
However, she is clearly in her element describing Bengali cuisine. We also see that most of her contacts are Bengali, or chefs at reputed restaurants, and one misses the voices of the traditional grandmother, or dhaba owner.
She describes the hilsa fish with great fervor, and details the various ways in which it is prepared in the state. She prefaces it with a discussion on relative merits of different kinds of hilsa. She says, in the book, " I often heard heated discussions between members of my family (rooted in West Bengal for countless generations) and their friends and colleagues who had migrated from East Bengal, about which was superior in flavor and taste the hilsa from the Ganges (that we swore by) or the one from the Padma. But this was a minor difference. There was absolute, indissoluble agreement over the fact that no fish can rival the hilsa's exquisite flavor or delectably tender flesh"
The book, which took nearly two and half years to complete, is filled with historical nuggets of information, and traces the route various spices and condiments took to reach the cuisines of various regions.
Like the food she explores, Banerji says her story too, is checkered. A graduate of Presidency College with a major in English, Banerji then came to Harvard University in 1967 to continue her studies. After dropping out of Harvard, she married a man from Bangladesh, with whom she moved there for a few years in the late 1970s. She describes her experiences in Bangladesh as very emotional. Working for a nonprofit research institution, she says life hit her "up close and personal."
"I literally saw people dying in the streets," she says. "I saw an incredibly beautiful country, and incredible poverty." After her split with her husband, Banerji moved to London in 1981, where she worked with the British Broadcasting Service's world services. There, she translated news to Bengali, which she also read on the radio, and sometimes reported. Banerji then tried to finish her degree from Harvard, applying again in 1982, and graduating with a degree in English in 1984.
"Till this time, I had no fascination for food," says Banerji. "I was actually thinking of devoting myself to translation work."
With a translation of Sunil Gangopadhyay's novel, "Arjun" under her belt, she then moved back to India in 1986, where she chanced upon the opportunity to translate some of Satyajit Ray's work featuring the detective Feluda. "One of the greatest things about going back to India at that time was that I got to know him (Ray)," says Banerji. "He was a great man."
Banerji translated four Feluda books, and meanwhile, she received an opportunity to write a book for the London-based publisher, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, as part of a series on cooking in different parts of the world.
Banerji says she was ready to turn down the request, as she didn't know anything about cooking. ("I had resisted learning how to cook as my rebellion," she says.) The series, which was a departure from recipe books, traced instead the cultural history and evolution of food, focusing on smaller regions like the island of Corfu, Dordogne and Basque Country. Her father, the late Nikhil Ranjan Banerjee, then helped turn her steps in that direction.
"All this time, I had been thinking of my mother as the legendary cook," says Banerji. "But my father was the gourmet critic in the family."
Her father's interest in food was hitherto understated, and Banerji says she thought the book might help her know this side of her father better. "I now realize that my father was the ultimate foodie," she says.
After reading several books, including several 15th century Bengali texts, full of descriptions of food, Banerji's book was complete, stirring a new passion within her.
After her marriage to Dr. Jai Chakrabarti, the couple moved back to the Cambridge area, where Banerji now resides, with Chakrabarti and her mother, Anita Banerjee.
She hopes to be able to explore the cuisine of South India in a future book, and says she has several other ideas for books "floating around" in her head.
Despite her success, Banerji says she does not consider herself a food writer. "I think of myself as a writer," she says. "Food just happens to be the way I can deal with a lot of things."
"Eating India" An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices," is available at local bookstores and online, for about $25.