Book- Feasts and Fasts: The History of Food in India
Author- Colleen Taylor Sen
Publication- Speaking Tiger
Price- Rs 562
When Feasts and Fasts: The History of Food in India, by the Chicago-based food historian and writer Colleen Taylor Sen landed on my plate, I was more than a little intimidated. Here was finally a tome that had dared to take on the legacy of the legendary KT Achaya and his groundbreaking Indian Food: A Historical Companion, the first such comprehensive compilation to have ever been attempted which remained so for a good 25 years. Till Sen burst valiantly onto the scene, taking forward Achaya’s discourse into the 21st century.
I asked Sen what made her write this book, given that she was up against the invincible Achaya. She said candidly: “I suppose I always wanted to write about history but was daunted by Achaya’s wonderful work. When my publisher asked me to write this book, I felt I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It took me nearly three years to research and write it.” For most, it would have taken a lifetime, is what I told myself.
The opening years of the 21st century could well be the renaissance period in the history of modern cuisine and the culinary arts, ironically enough at a time of huge food insecurity. Sen’s book could not have come at a better time when Indian cuisine is poised to finally shatter stereotypes and emerge as a showcasing of cultural practices. India is right there on top in all its timeless wisdom about food and the art of nourishing the mind, body and soul.
Curiosity is high about the real India and the food we actually eat — not sell. It’s been a rather complex cauldron for the uninitiated to dip into, both at home and abroad. This book could be a game changer, spurring the discerning to break free of food as an archetype of cultural and social straitjackets and transcend the growing borders of regionalism and communalism.
Feasts and Fasts remains true to the story of the myriad threads that make up the foods of India in the footsteps of Achaya, but in reality, it takes off from where he left. In essence, it follows one of the main rules of eating quoted in the book — “Feed all five senses: look at the food and savour its appearance and aroma; listen to the sounds it makes, especially when cooking; eat with your hands to enjoy its texture; chew each morsel many times to extract its flavour”.
That then is Indian food, a celebration of the senses that are pampered by a narrative that draws from ancient Ayurvedic and historical texts, tales from foreign travellers, classical and folk literature and some startling facts and recipes from the oldest surviving texts like the early medieval Manasolassa, Lokopakara, Kitab-al-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes) and the Ni’matnama (Book of Delights), expounding on the pleasures of food. Moreover, reproductions of old miniature paintings and illustrations make this a visual treat.
Achaya’s book was, unfortunately, bound by its location in the realm of scientific research. Sen views her intensive study through a contemporary lens and places the narrative strongly in the modern context. Achaya ends with the colonial past. Sen moves on, expanding the reader’s horizons with insights into the New Eating and Drinking Indian.
She talks about the freedom movement and food, about the regional cuisines Achaya omitted to expound on. Here, she gives Assam her rightful place, recognising it as the last bastion of the sixth basic taste of ancient Hindu gastronomy that is alkalinity. She explores new trends post-1947, the proliferation of restaurants, fast foods and Six Sigma operations like that of the dabbawallahs of Mumbai. Says she: “The emergence of chef as a respected and respectable profession represents another significant change in India”. It doesn’t end here. Her last chapter is delightful in its discovery of food carried overseas by the Indian diaspora, primarily by migratory indentured labour.
So in Trinidad, roti is just not a bread but a popular street food, hailed as the country’s national dish, while the phulourie is a snack in Guyana as it is in India. The book closes with a terrific timeline on the evolution of the Indian gastronomic ethos.
However, no review is complete without a few nitpicks. A couple of proofing errors notwithstanding, most serious discourses on the evolution of Indian cuisine talk about caste being a marker of identity and hence distinctive food habits. While the book dwells extensively on this unfortunate yet unique social construct, it misses out on informing the reader, rather important in these days and times, that caste before Brahminical tyranny exploded was fluid — one could change caste by simply changing one’s profession.
However, such grouses pale when one turns a page and discovers ambergris, a rare and waxy secretion produced in the intestine of the sperm whale that was an aphrodisiac, medicine and flavouring agent for beverages and confectionary all at once. While most aspiring wine connoisseurs in India today despair over perfect pairings with regional foods, Sen provides a comprehensive list of food and beverage pairings recommended in the 6th century BC Susruta Samhita comprising wines and liqueurs from fruits, tubers and spices.
It’s a book for everybody — the lay reader, the serious student, the gourmet and the glutton. It may even encourage the anorexic to eat. I wouldn’t be surprised if Feasts and Fasts is hailed as the best book of the decade on culinary identity.