Monsoon Diary

My book Monsoon Diary: a memoir with recipes was published in 2003 by Random House (US). Since I am too lazy to sort everything out, I am uploading all the “Book” content from my old website here.

Praise for Monsoon Diary…
“An entirely enchanting look at growing up in South India, in an exotic world populated by the iron man, the flower woman, maamis, and the colorful and opinionated members of an extended Hindu family. Food and recipes are a powerful element in Shoba’s story–tokens of identity and a passport to freedom. Monsoon Diary is ultimately a story about being Indian and carrying the traditions into a new world.”
– Nancy Novogrod, Editor in Chief, Travel and Leisure

“Of all the many recipe-laced stories, fictional and otherwise, that seem to be arriving in bookstores lately, Shoba Narayan’s funny, bluntly honest memoir stands sharply apart from the crowd. This is fresh, wonderful writing that captures the large personalities of Narayan’s extended family (her own outspoken self included) and the texture of daily life in Tamil Nadu and Kerala–a life that also happens to be filled with spicy curries, pungent chutneys, and coconut-rich stews. It is a mouth-watering book from a gifted storyteller.”
– Margo True, Editor, Saveur

“A taste of a life that is exotic yet familiar, Monsoon Diary is as pungent and satisfying as a good curry.”
Sharon Boorstin, Author of Let Us Eat Cake: Adventures in Food and Friendship

“Shoba Narayan is that rarity in the food world: She has both a unique story and the lyrical skills to tell it.”
Regina Schrambling, New York Times and Los Angeles Times ‘ Food writer

Indian author weaves family connection with food

Author Shoba Narayan stands as a shining example of the writers’ axiom: Write what you know. Her just-published first book, “Monsoon Diary: A Memoir With Recipes” (Villard, $22.95), recalls the Indian-born writer’s childhood, her struggle to convince her parents to send her to a U.S. college and her arranged marriage.
Narayan will make two appearances in Fort Myers on Saturday to read from, and autograph copies of, her book.
She’ll also spend time with Lee County physicians Lakshmi and Ramiah Krishnan and their children at their Fort Myers home. Lakshmi Krishnan and Narayan’s husband are brother and sister. Narayan knows Fort Myers well because she’s made regular trips here for 10 years with her husband.
“I get pampered by produce,” Narayan said during a phone interview Friday from her home on Manhattan’s West Side. “We go to places close to my sister-in-law’s home for fresh bread and wonderful fruits. It reminds me of my hometown.”
It’s fitting that food plays a prominent part in her Florida visits. As her rich meal of a memoir quickly reveals, there is little that happens to the family that doesn’t involve the painstaking creation, ceremonial serving and mandatory consumption of classic Indian food. She recounts her grandmother haggling mercilessly with the vegetable vendor; how the contents of a schoolgirl’s lunch box determined her social status; and the first dinner she cooked for her very particular family members — a meal that would shape her future (read the book to find out how).
Today, she’s far from her hometown in southern India but her ties remain strong — in part because she cooks Indian food almost every day. While the family tries to visit India once a year, the food she prepares at home helps her daughters — 6½ years and 18 months — connect to their far-flung relatives. “When they smell the spices and taste the food they will remember India,” she said. “It’s a way of passing on a heritage. I can sit there and tell them about it or let them experience it, and I’ve chosen the latter.”
Nonetheless, her American-born older daughter loves pasta better than anything. That doesn’t bother Narayan. In her book, she recalls her mother sharing culinary secrets with her when she was a child. She writes: “She recited complex rules, Indian rituals and her own beliefs whenever she got the chance. Cumin and cardamom are arousing, so eat them only after you get married, she said. Fenugreek tea makes your hair lustrous and increases breast milk, so drink copious amounts when you have babies. Coriander seeds balance and cool fiery summer vegetables … Asafetida suppresses, cinnamon nourished and lentils build muscles.”
It would be many years before she appreciated what her mother passed along. Narayan had visions of becoming a hard-nosed reporter for a New York newspaper after earning a master’s degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The reality of the job market — and the demands of a raising a young daughter — quickly dashed that aspiration. Instead, she became a freelance journalist and, at the same time, tried writing the great American novel.
That flopped, too. But when she turned her attention to something she knows intimately — food and, in particular, the role it plays in Indian life — she discovered her niche. A variety of articles in such publications as Gourmet, Saveur, Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure led to the publishing of her memoir. She’s a frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” (broadcast on WGCU-FM, 90.1 from 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays and 5 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday) and she won the M.F.K. Fisher Award for Distinguished Writing, awarded by the James Beard Foundation.
Each chapter of “Monsoon Diary” serves up a recipe that played a part in the chapter.
“I haven’t dumbed them down,” she said. “Some of them are not easy to make, but it’s a memoir, not a cookbook, so I just give them authentic recipes that they wouldn’t find in other cookbooks.”
Recipes from “Monsoon Diary”

Shoba beats Jhumpa in Writing Sweepstakes 
by Aseem Chhabra
When the editors of Gourmet assigned journalist Shoba Narayan to write a piece for the magazine’s January 2000 issue, they virtually gave her a carte blanche. The editors had seen some of Narayan’s writing and had liked her personal style. Of course, she was told to weave in descriptions of Indian food, cooking and kitchens in the article.
“I find that I write best when I am given that kind of a broad mandate to write whatever I want,” Narayan, 34, says from her home in Manhattan.
Narayan’s article, The God of Small Feasts’, a 1,700-word piece, full of warm and charming childhood memories of life in and around her joint family’s kitchen, just won the prestigious 2001 MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award given by the James Beard Foundation. She beat two other prominent writers in her category, including last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, who was nominated for her article ‘Indian Takeout’ in the April 2000 issue of Food & Wine.
The James Beard Foundation is named after the father of American gastronomy, who spent his life and career encouraging new talents in the field of culinary arts. Cookbook writer and actress Madhur Jaffrey is possibly the only Indian writer to be awarded by the foundation. Jaffrey has been recognized two times by the foundation for her books — A Taste of Far East (1993) and World Vegetarian (1999).
In her article, Narayan writes about her childhood home headed by her grandmother and including her immediate family, aunts, uncles, cousins and servants. The center of the house was the kitchen where she learnt her first lessons in cooking.
But while her mother talked to her about the benefits of spices (“Cumin and cardamom arouse, so eat them only after you get married…”), Narayan’s mind would wonder off into the world outside the kitchen. As she says in the piece: “I was more interested in fighting with the boys over cricket balls… The kitchen was merely a place I might dart into between aiming catapults at sleepy chameleons and playing under the banyan tree in our overgrown garden.”
While Gourmet may have given her a carte blanche, she did get one set of instruction from the magazine’s editor, Ruth Reichl — to expand on a 150 word essay that she had written for a 1998 competition for The New York Times. In that essay, Narayan described how she had to cook an elaborate vegetarian feast for her family, so that they would let her go the US to attend Mount Holyoke College.
“Ruth Reichl (then the chief food critic of The New York Times) judged the piece and she liked it,” Narayan said in describing the genesis of the Gourmet article. “So if there was any hook, they said we liked that (the essay) and somehow bring that into the piece.”
And so in the second half of the article Narayan fast-forwards to 1986 where she cooks palak paneer, cucumber, tomato and red onion yogurt salad (pachadi), tomato rasam (“It’s the only comfort food I know,” she writes), ghee (“the food of gods”), and rice pudding (payasam) with roasted pistachios, raisins and strands of saffron for desert.
Her relatives loved the food, she writes. At the end her grandmother let out a loud belch and Narayan knew that she could head to America.
Narayan says she writes for people that she meets and sees in New York and so she does not feel the need to explain the intricacies of Indian cooking. “I guess if I lived in the mid-west I will have to explain what ghee means,” she says. “But here people are a lot more sophisticated. They go to Indian restaurants, they go to Kalustiyan (a gourmet Middle Eastern and Asian food store in Manhattan’s Little India area) to shop.”
But Narayan sees limitations even within the sophisticated New Yorkers. “Unfortunately the average editor of a magazine is not familiar with the nuances within Indian cooking,” she said. “I think they are familiar with North Indian versus South Indian food, but they do not know about Bengali or Assamese cooking.”
On Sunday, April 29, Narayan sat on one of the three dinner tables that Gourmet had bought for the James Beard award ceremony, held at the Grand Hyatt hotel. She was surrounded by other writers, who were nominated in different categories. Being a vegetarian, Narayan skipped the hors d’oeuvres that included goose liver, lobster tempura roll and seared venison. Instead of the main course meal of sturgeon and strip lion of marinated beef, she opted for mashed potatoes and mushrooms.
“I wish I could say I enjoyed the meal which I am sure was delicious, with the fancy wines and desert wines, but I was so tense,” she says with a laugh. “What happened was that Gourmet was winning in every category, and so they said to me ‘Shoba no pressure, but looks like Gourmet is winning everything and so don’t let us down.'”
This interview originally appeared in May 2001. 
Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved.

Recipe for a memoir
Food Writer Shoba Narayan tells Aseem Chhabra what it took to writer he unusual book.
May 23, 2003
Shoba Narayan spends a lot of time thinking about food. A big part of her weekend plans are to fantasize about what she will have for Saturday breakfast.
“I will start with a humble bagel and I layer it with cilantro – dhaniya chutney,” she says, as she introduces her recently released book – Monsoon Diary: A Memoir With Recipes (Villard, 2003) to a group of journalists in New York City.
And a few days later Narayan adds another layer to her conversation with a group of residents of Stamford, CT – her former home town in the US: “In India we do a triple whammy with the cilantro chutney. We take cilantro, which is tangy and then add green chilies and then lemon on top of it. You put it in your mouth and all your taste buds are awakened.”
She adds cheese to the bagel – bought from Zabar’s — the legendary gourmet food store on Manhattan’s Upper Westside. Often it is Brie or a mild yogurt cheese. She adds tomatoes and onions and tops it all with mustard. She is not picky about her mustard — as long as it is hot. “Eventually my Saturday breakfast looks like a bagel burger with many layers. And I think about these things a lot.”
Narayan, an award winning freelance journalist – she beat Jhumpa Lahiri to win the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s 2001 MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, has been published in Gourmet, Travel and Leisure, Food & Wine, Newsweek, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Monsoon Diary is an immensely satisfying collection of autobiographical stories from Narayan’s life, where food features prominently. And each chapter in the book ends with a recipe of the food item that she has talked about. Her early childhood story is followed by the recipe of rasam – “a heartwarming comfort food that South Indians eat with rice as a first or second course accompanied with vegetable curries.” In introducing the recipe for soft idlis, Narayan writes: “My grandfather fell in love with my grandmother over idlis.”
Narayan, then 16, recalls a holi in Delhi and “strapping lads stripped to the waist” gulping down glasses of thandai. She talks about thandai being fortified with bhang in India, but eventually gives the recipe of “a benign but delicious version” of the drink.
In New York Narayan, searching for a gold fish (the story has to be read to be believed), finds herself in a cab with a driver from Kerala who takes her to his home across the Queensboro Bridge. The driver’s wife Shanti welcomes Narayan inside the home and feeds her olan. Naturally the chapter ends with a recipe of Shanti’s olan.
With all these tales and mouth watering recipes in the book, it is hard to believe that Narayan – the Chennai-born and now Manhattan-based mother of daughters Ranjini, 6 and Malini, 1, came to food writing quite by accident. She acknowledges that her life may just have taken a different turn — she could have easily become a sculptor or an acupuncturist. Her journalism career had a lot to do with her husband – Ram Narayan, who insisted that she apply to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Narayan grew up in a middle class home – her father an English professor and her mother a beautician, who held baking classes for the women of the neighborhood. Her father’s bookshelf was filled with authors like RK Narayan, William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy.
Her childhood was filled with Enid Blyton’s tales of a faraway land where in between their efforts to solve mysteries, English kids would gather for afternoon tea with scones and crumpets.
“I was just this kid in Madras and I had no idea what scones and crumpets are,” she says. “So I imagined them to be like ice cream cones. When I came to America, I actually ate a scone and I didn’t like it all that much.”
She got a BA in psychology from the Women’s Christian College in Madras and in 1986 she was admitted to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she received a diploma in fine arts and also acquired her beliefs in empowerment, feminism and the notion of women changing the world. Her journey to the US would not have been possible, but for a meal of stuffed okra, spinach, tomatoes brewed in tamarind water, red lentils blended into rasam, basmati rice, payasam for desert, topped with steaming, frothing South Indian coffee that she cooked for her family.
In the late 1990s Narayan entered a 150 word essay competition run by The New York Times describing the same meal. She won the competition and also the admiration of Ruth Reichel, the legendary food critic of the Times, who became the editor-in-chief of Gourmet.
A couple of years later when Narayan pitched some food stories to Gourmet – including one that would have taken her to Spain in search of perfect clementines, Reichel suggested that that she expand on her 150 piece essay. The larger 1,700 word article – The God of Small Feasts, won the MFK Fisher writing award and suddenly Narayan was part of the elite, inside crowd of food writers.
Another version of the Gourmet article appears in Monsoon Diary. The chapter A Feast to Decide a Future concludes with a recipe of okra curry. “As children,” Narayan writes, “we ate tons of okra because the elders assured us that it would make us smarter.”
Narayan admits that initially when her other pitches to Gourmet were rejected, she felt a little crushed. “I said I am a journalist I could do the other stuff,” she says, adding that she had survived Columbia’s intense and highly competitive broadcast journalism program, where her other female classmates would dress up like Diane Sawyer and spend hours honing their skills in front of the camera. But at her graduation, Narayan was one of the three students to win the prestigious Pulitzer travel fellowship.
“I wanted to be the hard core journalist who writes for The New York Times about wars,” she says. “But when people say that you write well about food, you have to sit back and say okay, maybe this is what I was meant to do. For me it was a mental adjustment.”
Nearly two years ago, the day she was nominated for the James Beard Foundation award, Narayan’s world had already gone through major change. The same day she also learnt that she was pregnant with her second child and her book proposal had been accepted.
Monsoon Dairy took two years to write and edit. Most of Narayan’s work was done from her Upper Westside apartment, where she surrounded herself with flowers and Indian artifacts. To add to her mood, Narayan would snack on bhel mix and samosas from Minar – a fast food Indian restaurant in mid-Manhattan. And she would play a lot of Indian classical music and film soundtracks, including her favorite song Aaj Mera Jee Kardaa — the title song from Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding.
“Listening to the song, kept me inspired, while writing the book,” she says.
“India features predominantly in my subconscious even though I am in America,” she says. “India is like a fountain of wealth for me. It is the source of my creation. Many of my friends are Indian. And the concerns we come up are the same. We talk about raising children and we talk about AR Rahman concert.”
Though she is a strict vegetarian, Narayan’s ideal meal in New York City would be a dinner at an upscale French restaurant. “I would go to Daniel (last year’s top rated restaurant by the Zagat Survey). They have a vegetarian tasting menu and they have candles. To me the food is equally important as the ambience, since my life is so unromantic with diapers.”
With all the food options available in Manhattan, Narayan feels that she cannot last one week without Indian food. “By the time I am in my 60s I will be like my parents. I will be eating Indian food everyday. I used to say ‘you guys are so conservative.’ But then I will become like them.”
Copyright India Abroad.

Radio Interview with A Chef’s Table

The New York Sun; Date:
May 28, 2003; Section: Food & Drink; Page: 16

Passage to India Cooking With Shoba Narayan By JOANNA SMITH RAKOFF
‘In a proper Indian meal you have to balance six tastes,” explains food writer Shoba Narayan, a native of Madras. “Salt, sweetness, tartness, bitterness, sour, astringent. So every family strives to have these six tastes in every meal.” She flashes a mischievous grin.”Of course, no one ever really does. Or at least not in our family. Balance is a goal.”

Ms. Narayan may not manage to get those six tastes onto her dinner table every night — bitterness “falls by the wayside,” she says, as no one much likes acrid vegetables — but she’s still something of an expert on balance. In the elegant personal essays that she writes for Gourmet and Saveur and reads aloud on National Public Radio, she offsets sentiment with humor, ornate descriptions with absorbing anecdotes, startling candor with childlike coyness. The essays, which include Indian food recipes in the context of vivid personal stories about growing up in Southern India, have won her a James Beard Award — the ne plus ultra of the foodie world — and a loyal following. A collection of Ms. Narayan’s work, “Monsoon Diary” (Villard, $22.95), arrived in bookstores last month.

Recently, Ms. Narayan invited me to the Upper West Side apartment she shares with her husband and two daughters for a lesson in Southern Indian cooking. The cuisine of Southern India, she explains, bears little resemblance to the North Indian dishes served in most of New York’s Indian restaurants. “Southern Indian food is closer almost to Thai food. North Indian food … is richer and they have masalas, a mix of spices. … In North India they use a lot of cheese. … It’s because of the weather. In North India, they have winter.They need that sustenance,” she says. Southern Indian food, in contrast, is light (as befits a tropical climate), flavored by just one or two spices, and is heavily reliant on coconut.

Though ostensibly simple, the dish we are to make — a crunchy snack called bhel puri — offers a crucial lesson in balance. “It’s all about proportion. You have to know how to balance the ingredients. It’s a mix of boiled mashed potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and bhel puri mix, which here you can buy at Indian grocery stores,” Ms. Narayan says, laying out the ingredients on her large dining room table. “You mix it all up with spicy cilantro chutney.”

The chutney, which Ms. Narayan has prepared in advance, is thin, almost watery, and brilliant green. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” she says, pointing to the mixture.

Standing at the head of the table, Ms. Narayan — clad in a purple salwar kameez (an Indian women’s garment) — takes up a worn knife and begins dicing an onion with quick, careful strokes. “The trick to this is to fine — all the vegetamake it really bles — so that they kind of meld together,” she says. At age 20, Ms. Narayan came to America on a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. One summer, while working at a Michigan sleep-away camp, she learned to chop in the rapidfire manner of a professional chef. But she’s nowhere near as fast, she insists, as a typical bhel puri vendor that one would find on the beaches of Southern India. “His hands are like lightning,” she says. “A little of this, a little of that…and in a couple of minutes he has this beautiful plate set out.”

Moments later, Ms. Narayan is ready to compile her own beautiful plate. A stainless steel serving dish holds piles of perfectly minced onion, tomato, and cucumber.She grabs a handful of bhel puri mix — a blend of toasted basmati rice and fried chickpea-flour vermicelli, seasoned with paprika, turmeric, and asafetida — and piles it on a plate. Deftly, she adds smaller handfuls of the vegetables, crumbles bits of boiled potato on top,then pauses,her hands in mid-air.

“What’s your spice tolerance?” she asks, with a knowing glance. “Low?” It’s low. “We’ll give you just a little of the chutney.” She splashes a bit of green on the plate, squeezes a lemon over it, adds a dash of salt, and mixes everything together with her hands. The result: an addictive, pungent blend of paprika and lemon, with tomato and cilantro binding it all together.

The plate Ms. Narayan prepares for herself is bright green, loaded with cilantro chutney. “You build up a tolerance for spice,” she says.”After awhile, you can’t eat non-spicy food anymore. It tastes like nothing.” Ms. Narayan’s six-year-old daughter, Ranjali, refuses to eat spicy food, much to Ms. Narayan’s dismay. “She was born and raised here. … I keep asking her, ‘You’re an Indian kid, how can you not like spicy food?’”

Between mouthfuls of her fiery snack, Ms. Narayan lists the benefits of bhel puri: “Vitamin C, beta carotene. … Tomatoes have lycopene. Onions are very good for opening your sinuses up.” And potatoes? “Potatoes are just potatoes. Comfort food,” she says. “It’s okay to go a little overboard with that.”

ROB BENNETT SPICING THINGS UP Above, Shoba Narayan prepares a meal.

‘Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes’
Shoba Narayan’s Book Celebrates Family and Food

Sparkling insightful narrative….Publisher’s Weekly
Narayan, who grew up in Chennai, India, writes in humorous, tender prose about her family and their love of food. Rituals surrounding food are central to every aspect of life, such as the choru-unnal ceremony of a child’s first meal of rice and ghee. When her mother is pregnant with her brother and the women gather to feed her and chew betel, Narayan writes, “As they chewed and their lips and tongue became stained red, their jokes became more risqué, their gossip more personal, their bodies more horizontal.”
Food is intimacy and comfort, and Narayan’s book neatly transitions between descriptions of her family’s life and the meals that punctuated it. Recipes for staples such as rasam (a bean and rice comfort food) a wonderful recipe for upma (a semolina vegetable stew)—which she serves to a grumpy group of Americans—complement more festive recipes for snacks and meals such as inji curry (a pickle with ginger and tamarind).
When Narayan comes to America for a year at Mount Holyoke, she misses her native food but, in a hilarious sequence of events involving two dead goldfish, chances upon a taxi driver from Kerala whose wife feeds her olan, made with pumpkin, black-eyed peas and coconut milk. Narayan’s sparkling, insightful narrative makes for a delightful cultural and culinary read. (April).
Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
In a series of color-drenched chapters accompanied by recipes, food and travel writer Narayan recalls growing up in India and studying in the US. Place and taste take center stage, often at the expense of story, in a narrative focused as much on particular foods as on milestones in the author’s life.
Born in South India, Narayan begins with the Hindu rice-eating ceremony traditionally held when a baby is six months old to mark the transition from liquids to solids. The baby is offered a mix of rice and ghee, the melted butter described in the recipe that follows as “the vegetarian’s caviar: slightly sinful, somewhat excessive, but oh so delicious.” The author describes her grandmother making vatrals and vadams before the monsoon, because these thin slices of vegetables had to dry to a crisp on the rooftop before they could be stored. At school Narayan traded lunches, even though as a vegetarian she could eat only the rice in the chicken biriyani swapped by a Muslim classmate. She recalls shopping in the produce market, visiting her grandparents, attending festivals, surviving adolescence, and achieving academic success, lyrically evoking the tastes and textures of a world where rice was still ground on a stone, pickles and chutneys were made at home, and milk was delivered daily at the door by the cow herself.
Though appreciative of her heritage, Narayan wanted to study in the US, which her parents reluctantly allowed after she graduated from college. There she reveled in the freedom to study what she liked (sculpture and drama), to meet a wider range of people, and to eat (if not always enjoy) different foods.
Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.