Thursday, July 14, 2016

Indian Cuisine Deciphered

Writer Colleen Taylor Sen speaks to Sapna Sarfare regarding her latest book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India which reveals Indian cuisine like no other book.

Much has been written about Indian cuisine. Yet, not all these books & their authors can claim to be an authority on the subject. Colleen Taylor Sen is an exception. A Canadian-American translator & author, Colleen has written vastly on Indian cuisine including 6 books. Despite her Slavic Studies educational background, it is her prolific writing on different topics she is renowned for.
Her latest book, Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India explores Indian cuisine keeping in mind India’s religious, social and other growth, along with topics like vegetarianism, street food, festivals & food, and so on. Colleen speaks about this project which puts focus on Indian cuisine once again.

A lot is always being spoken about Indian cuisine. How does your book differ in that sense?
Despite the growing surge of interest in Indian cuisine and history, the only other comprehensive work on the subject is the late K.T. Achaya’s wonderful book Indian Food, written over 20 years ago in 1994, and followed by his Historical Dictionary of Indian Food (1998). By contrast, dozens of books have been written on the history of other national cuisines. Achaya’s book covers the food of certain regions in depth, especially his native Karnataka, but devotes less attention to other cuisines such as Bengali, Assamese and tribal cuisines. I know that my own book has similar shortcomings and hope that many other people are inspired to write histories of not just Indian cuisine but their regional and even local cuisines, drawing upon original sources.

What are the aspects of the book which will tempt food lovers and readers alike?
The book has a lot of anecdotes, historic recipes, and even poems. My favorites include an ode to ghee from the Rig Veda and a whimsical argument among leafy vegetables about which is the superior in a 16th century Sanskrit treatise called the Ksemakutuhalam (Diet and Wellbeing.). Feasts and Fasts is also lavishly illustrated with photographs and paintings. 

How tough was it to write a book like this considering the sheer vastness of the cuisine?
Colleen Taylor Sen
It was very challenging. I have been writing about Indian food for over 30 years and accumulated a lot of material in the process, but  it still required a great deal of research. It took me three years to write it. I was limited to translations into English but on occasion asked native speakers, such as my husband who is Bengali and a friend who is a professor of Sanskrit for help. Some of the existing translations are poor because the translators were not cooks and didn’t know how to translate culinary terms. 

Any aspect(s) which surprised or amused you?
I was surprised by many things. Some people think that Kebabs came with the Mughals, but in fact, meal grilled on skewers over a fire goes back thousands of years to Vedic times. Also, in classical Ayurvedic medicine, meat and even alcohol was part of some cures. As an 11th century Ayurvedic physician wrote, “The recommendations of medicine are not intended to help someone achieve virtue (dharma). What are they for, then? They are aimed at achieving health.”

Your educational background is different from what you write currently. How did the process towards writing on food start?
Although my educational background is in Slavic languages, I was familiar with the techniques of scholarly research and writing and this was very helpful. I started writing about Indian food for newspapers and magazines in the United States decades ago, when very few people were doing so, and eventually adopted a more scholarly approach to the subject by writing several books.

Has your foray into writing about Indian food come from the fact that you are married to an Indian?
It very much comes into it. My husband is Bengali and has been very interested in food since childhood. His late mother Arati Sen was a well known Bengali journalist who wrote a widely-read column in the magazine Desh under the pen name Srimati. She wrote a lot about food and even introduced me to the late Kundal Lal Gujral, founder of the iconic Moti Mahal restaurant. 

Indian food still has not reached the global status. As an authority on Indian cuisine, what do think?
That is a very good and much debated question which Professor Krishnendu Ray explores in his recent book Ethnic Food. In the United Kingdom, Indian food is, of course, very popular both as an everyday food and as haute cuisine. London alone has several Michelin-starred Indian restaurants. In the United States, Indian food is less popular. One reason is that India is less familiar to Americans than to the British for whom it is part of their history. Another is that other cuisines have long gained a popular foothold in the U.S., especially Chinese, Mexican and Thai. I believe that one way Indian food will become more popular here is via street food both in food trucks and restaurants that serve Kathi Rolls and other wraps, Bhelpuri, and similar dishes.

Colleen Taylor Sen’s latest book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India is out in the market. Visit her website for more information on her and her work.

Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India
AUTHOR: Colleen Taylor Sen
PUBLISHER: Reaktion Books
PUBLISHED: January 2015
GENRE: Food, History, Culture
LANGUAGE: English 
PRICE: Rs 562
PAGES: 352 

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