As a former fashion editor and now occasional fashion columnist, I couldn't help but compare this dainty, 147-page memoir told through essays on food — with a few recipes thrown in — to what we call in style speak as a ‘capsule collection’. A mini, tightly-edited, abridged part of a larger whole. The kind with just a few hand-picked pieces whetting the appetite for more to come. And in the case of this wonderful book by Chitrita Banerji, one of the food world’s most respected and fêted writers and culinary historians, I sure do hope that there’s more to come of its kind.
Little Things, Big Dreams
What it lacks in heft, this book makes up for in richness - richness of prose, richness of memories and most poignantly, richness of emotions. Banerji all but strips down to the bareness of her soul, as she recounts how vital a role food has played at various stages in her life. All this, as she navigates her way on its meandering pathways. Some strewn with insurmountable highs, while others took her down to their murky depths. It is this brutal honesty, lack of vanity and self-consciousness in her writing that I most loved about her book.
In the author’s note, Banerji speaks of how she realised that “while food was a recurring theme, the pieces also reflected the universal experiences of curiosity, discovery, love, adventure, disappointment, heartbreak and loss.” She also speaks of her doubts about arranging these essays in a way that they reflect "a thematic unity beyond the obvious one of food.”
But she needn’t have worried about this! For she deftly manages this feat without making the book seem like a pastiche of disjointed montages. Like a symphony, each essay is in consonance with both, its predecessor and successor, alike. We journey with Banerji while she effortlessly segues from talking about the delights of the Bengalis' obsession for mochar or banana blossom. Especially when it takes centre-stage in the hallowed mochar ghonto . And we’re as invested as she is in the multi-sensorial explosion that accompanies any first timer’s tryst with the Calcutta style paan .
The reader is right there sitting with her as she describes the taste of typical, seasonal Bengali delights like narkelkul and jamrul . Two fruits, I daresay, I had hitherto never even heard of, leave alone savoured. We can almost imagine her surprise at discovering how generous serving sizes truly are in America (in comparison to here in India). This happens when she bites into a monstrous sized chicken salad sandwich at a diner on one of her first few days as a graduate student in the US of the1960s.
Without sounding the least bit apologetic or embarrassed (and rightly so, for she has no reason to be!), Banerji gives us a ringside seat to the food orthodoxy that ruled a typical Bengali Hindu household like the one she grew up in Calcutta. We are introduced to alien-sounding concepts like enthho for instance, that’s almost ‘kosher-adjacent’, one might deduce. For it is an ancient purity code wherein, among other strict observances, once someone has touched anything containing cooked rice, one must wash their hands before touching uncooked vegetables, fruits, spices or even clean containers and utensils.
I was so enraptured by her description of the rather elaborate jamaishashthi ceremonial meal her mother single-handedly conjures up for Banerji’s Bangladeshi Muslim husband at that time — one that was laden with wondrous sounding Bengali dishes like kalmishak, murighanto and prawn malaikari , ending with the laborious chitolkopta — that I did something I have never done as late as eleven at night before. I ordered in a much more frugal, but still deliciously exotic (for me, at least) fish feast from the first Bengali restaurant that popped up on the food aggregator platform’s list. The place's name? JamaiShoshthi.
A benevolent omen? You can bet your last spoonful of creamy payesh , it was!
(A wearer of many hats in the food and travel space, Mumbai-based Raul Dias is a food-travel writer, a restaurant reviewer, and a food consultant)
About the book
A Taste Of My Life
Picador India/Pan Macmillan India
147 pages (paperback); Rs 399
Check out the book on Amazon here
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