Mothers and Daughters

I love writing for The National.  It is hard for my family to access– certainly for my kids– so it is easy to be open.  This one is a piece on a topic that is so close to my heart (and heartbreak).  It goes out to all mothers with teenage daughters.  As for the Dads with daughters, all I have to say is: You lucky dogs!!!  My kids, by the way, don’t read The National, and I am not about to correct this situation.

Between mothers and daughters, it’s always complicated

She pulls away when I hug her, my teenager.

“Ma,” she complains. “Stop hugging me. I have to finish my homework.”

She is like a butterfly, my 15-year-old child. Has a lock on a corner of my heart that I didn’t even know existed. Gives me mixed messages. Sometimes she needs me but usually she doesn’t want me anywhere near her.

When a friend asked her with whom she was most comfortable, she replied, “my friends.” As her mother, I felt hurt, even though I have told myself that it is normal for teenagers to turn to their peers.

The strange thing is that I am the same way with my mother. I pull away from her enveloping warmth; her protectiveness; her eagerness to help, to do things for me. “Leave me alone,” I want to say to her. “I can handle it.”

I don’t say these things, of course. After all, I am grown now, no longer a rebelling teenager. My mother too is old. She complains of knee aches.

I cannot accept that she is growing old. After all, she smells the same and her touch can still comfort me instantly. How can this woman grow old? I cannot stand it.

What is it with mothers and daughters? Why is it complicated? It cannot be mere dysfunctional personalities. It has got to be more than that for the difficulty to be so pervasive.

Fathers have it easier. There isn’t that much angst or expectation from the father. The mother, on the other hand, can do no right.

My daughter needs me in a deep, unspoken way. This I know. She doesn’t realise that she needs me but she does. I know this because she seeks my touch or my comments, usually when I least expect her to.

Sometimes she calls me into her room to see how she has combined a new top she got at Esprit with a pair of leggings she picked up in Paris. “Look,” she will say as I walk in. I immediately take on the deer-in-headlights look. “Please, God”, I think to myself, “let me not say anything wrong”.

“Wow!” I say non-committally. “You look nice.” “Ma, I am not after ‘nice’. I am after edgy,” she will reply. “Do I look edgy?”

What is edgy, I wonder. How can a child be edgy? She is no punk-rocker, my daughter. How can she be edgy? “Well, you look sort of edgy,” I hedge.

She gives me that look that happens when kids roll their eyes and then stop themselves at the last minute, if only because they have heard enough outraged screaming from affronted mothers: “I saw that. Don’t you roll your eyes at me!” She is good at stopping herself, my daughter. When she wants to.

What she wants to do today is organise her wardrobe. I am delighted to do it with her. I would be delighted to do it for her, but over the years, I have realised that she views this whole “doing it for her” thing as overbearing.

So I hang back. I sit down on the floor and ask her to throw down to me any clothes that she wants folded. Overbearing? Nah. Not me.

“How was school today?” I ask. “Good,” she replies and cranks up the music some more.

I get the message. After all, I am the same way when my mother comes and sits beside me on the sofa, just as I pick up the newspaper, and asks, “Have you planned the menu for the party?”

I know she wants to help. She is good at it. But I don’t really want to talk about the party – or anything else for that matter – just that minute. My shoulders tighten. “Oh yeah,” I say lightly, and attempt to ignore my mother.

What is it with mothers and daughters, I ask again? Is it that this particular relationship has so much invested within it that the whole thing gets complicated?

I should pull back from my daughter just so she gets breathing space. I know this intellectually but am unable to put it in practice. I want so much to be part of her life; her thoughts; her worries and sorrows that it is hard for me to hold back.

You know the worst part? In two years, she will fly away to university.


Shoba Narayan is the author to Return to India: a memoir


Idealism and Love

My latest My Life column for The National’s M magazine

Shoba Narayan on idealising your spouse

Mar 29, 2012

 After 20 years of marriage, I am no longer the dewy-eyed newlywed who believes her husband can do no wrong. Now I view my husband’s shortcomings with stoic realism. Knowing his flaws, I believe, takes our relationship to a deeper place.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the eminent positive psychologist Martin Seligman believes that the more illusions you have about your spouse, the better your marriage is. And research by the social psychologist Sandra Murray states that a “certain degree of idealisation or illusion may be a critical feature in satisfying dating and even marital relationships”.

Love begins with idealisation. So far, our assumption has been that enduring marital happiness comes from removing these rose-tinted glasses. If we continue to idealise our partners after marriage, we are in danger of deep disappointment, the thinking goes.

Not so, say Murray et al. In a paper they published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they argue that when we idealise our partners, they adjust their behaviour to conform to our view. They try to fit our vision, to perpepuate our adoration. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Seligman says, people try to live up to the expectations of those they love.

I decided to try an experiment. Could I force myself to idealise my husband, Ram, and would his behaviour change as a result? I focused on one flaw: his tendency to answer mobile phone calls in the middle of dinner. He knew it irritated me, but there were always exigencies that made him rise from the table and pick up the phone. How to idealise this? It took imagination and effort.

I began by rationalising it. Though Ram took phone calls during dinner, he was an involved parent and spouse. When I needed to talk, he listened. He helped me to sort out my emotions and to figure out ideas.

The phone calls weren’t a big deal, I told myself. They usually took just a few minutes and once he figured out why the person was calling, he said he would call back.

Second, I bought his explanation. Ram works with people in different time zones. The problem with not picking up phone calls, he had told me, was that it took double the time to get back on track. By the time he called his colleague back in Singapore, Dubai or the United States, it was after office hours and the people had left for the day. Worse, the crisis that they were calling about would have erupted.

I didn’t scoff. I told myself that Ram wasn’t making excuses, but rather giving me an insight into his work-life and asking me to sympathise. So I did. I forced myself to accept his explanation. I made a virtue of it, and bragged about it. My husband had created an excellent work-life balance, I told friends. He cherished family time and did his best to ensure that it was uninterrupted. I said it as if I believed it. I tried to believe it.

Over time, I noticed him ignoring the phone calls. The first time, I gave him a look of adoration – real, not put on. I won’t say that he didn’t get what I was doing.

“You are trying positive reinforcement on me, aren’t you?” he said. I pretended not to understand.

In my view, it is only one short step to Ram putting his phone on silent mode while we have dinner. Until then, I plan to continue to adore him.

My big fear is this: what if he turns the tables on me? What if he picks out all my flaws and idealises them? I don’t think I could stand that.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India

My Life: Writing

My life: Shoba Narayan on being born to write

Feb 29, 2012

My mother doesn’t read my articles but she thinks I am a terrific writer. Out of this seeming paradox springs my attitude and approach towards writing.

It is not that my mum doesn’t want to read my work. It is just that, although she knows English, she is far more comfortable in our native tongue, Tamil. We converse in Tamil. She speaks poetically, using similes and metaphors that are uncommon in English but make perfect sense in Tamil.

“Her cheeks are like a lotus bud,” she might say about a baby. “The river is giggling,” she might say about fast-flowing water.

When I was at journalism school in New York, the most common word used to describe my writing by hard-bitten editors and professors was “lyrical”. For this, I have my mother to thank. Her Tamil is lyrical, and somehow this lyricism hasn’t been lost in translation in my writing.

When a woman you admire thinks well of your abilities without caring too much about the by-product, it gives you a certain strength that is hard to quantify or even describe. The fact that my mother doesn’t read my writing has shaped the way I deal with my readership. To this day, I am uncomfortable talking about my work. I brush off compliments far too quickly and usually change the subject when people tell me they enjoyed a column. I think this is because my mother, and indeed my father (an English professor), don’t fuss over each and every essay or column I write. They don’t discuss it, let alone critique it. My writing is somewhat peripheral to our relationship.

This has given me a humility, for lack of a better word, about my work. When the people who matter in your life judge you not by what you do but rather by who you are, you realise that your work doesn’t define you as a person, that the journey is the reward.

My parents live round the corner from me and we meet pretty much every day. We talk about relatives and how vexing some of them are, about maid issues and parenting problems. They advise me to eat more vegetables, to take care of my health. I roll my eyes. I call up my brother and laugh over how interesting and funny our parents are and how they manage to surprise us still.

What we don’t talk about is my writing. This used to bother me when I was young. I thought my parents didn’t care about my writing, which I believed then was so central to my being. As I have aged, I realise their wisdom. The filmmaker Mira Nair, who directed Monsoon Wedding, once told an interviewer that the true gift of her parents was that they left her alone to pursue her passions. My parents did the same thing. As a result, I no longer regard writing as central to my being. What is more important is character – the choices I make, the way I treat people.

Here is the paradox, however. My mother has an unshakeable faith in my writing abilities. She will brag to her friends about the power of her daughter’s pen, about how chefs come out to say hello when we visit restaurants because they have read my food writing, about how hoteliers are solicitous when we check in because they know I am a journalist.

“You were born to write,” she will say. “Keep writing. Never give it up.” She doesn’t care about the details, only that I continue to write, and because she thinks I am a good writer, I think so, too. As Abraham Lincoln said: “All that I am or shall be I owe to my sainted mother.”


Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India


My Life: Shoba Narayan on rice

Shoba Narayan

Feb 1, 2012


People want different things on a cold winter night: a piping hot bowl of soup or the seductive richness of, say, foie gras. I crave steaming hot rice. It could be Malaysian nasi lemak, Saudi Arabian kabsa, Iranian pilaf, Pakistani biryani, Indian tamarind rice, Qatari or Kuwaiti majboos. I don’t fuss as long as the main ingredient is earthy rice. For Asians, rice is the equivalent of American chicken soup.

Said to be cultivated since 6,000 BC in the middle Yangtze valley, rice feeds two-thirds of the world’s population. More than 120,000 varieties of rice exist. There are the fragrant Thai jasmine and the basmati, tiny sweet mochi gome, sticky Filipino malagkit, and plump Italian arborio. Sake is brewed from nine types of Japanese rice ranging from yamada nishiki to omachi. Colours range from brown rice to Chinese black rice, to Indonesian purple and pink rice. White rice is the most popular. Far East Asians like a sticky texture, while Arabic cultures prefer separate, somewhat undercooked grains.

India used to have more than 100,000 varieties of rice. Most were hand-pounded rice with the nutritious husk left intact. Today, the bulk of Asia eats polished white rice bereft of its mineral-rich skin. In Kerala, red rice is popular, while North Indians like basmati rice. A fortnight ago, South Indians celebrated Pongal, the spring harvest festival. My family served a savoury rice dish – also called Pongal – along with freshly harvested sugarcane, turmeric and other gifts of the harvest. When I lived in Manhattan, I frequently made Pongal using Thai jasmine rice that I bought in Little India.

Asia produces and consumes 90 per cent of the world’s rice. In Myanmar a single person eats 462 pounds of rice a year, relative to an American, who eats 20 pounds, according to Riceweb, a compendium of rice facts. Most Asians travel with a rice cooker, and spend a good part of their day testing and debating the merits of various brands and types of rice. For us, rice is the centre of a meal, and everything else, just condiments. In America, rice is considered, if not a condiment, a side dish.

The US farms about 20 varieties of rice, mostly in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana and Texas (where the aromatic Texmati rice originated). The type known to most is wild rice, which is not really rice – it belongs to the genus zizania, not oryza – and Uncle Ben’s “Ready Rice”, which I would argue is not really rice, either.

Vietnam ties its economy to rice grown in the Mekong Delta and its culture to rice wine (ruou nep), a ceremonial drink offered to honored guests and used to dissolve tonic medications. Indonesians base their Rijsttafel (rice table) feasts, consisting of 100-odd dishes, on rice. In Bangladesh, China and Thailand, a common greeting is “Have you had your rice today?” to which an appropriate answer is “No, come and share some rice with me.” Filipinos consider the Banaue rice terraces in Northern Luzon to be the eighth wonder of the world and make bibingkas – sweet rice patties – for holidays. Koreans offer songp’yon (rice cakes) to their ancestors and believe each bowl of ttokkuk (rice soup) eaten on New Year’s Day adds a year to their life. India and Pakistan feud on almost everything except for rice pilaf recipes.

As for me, I don’t feel like I’ve eaten till I eat rice. I may enjoy stinky cheeses, artisanal breads, rich creamy desserts, dark chocolates and cheesy pizza. But at the end of the day, or night, I have to eat steaming hot rice, served with a dollop of ghee. It is the taste of home.


Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India

Party Animal?

My Life: negotiating new roles as we age

Shoba Narayan

Jan 4, 2012


I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon: men get more introverted as they get older and women more extroverted. I see it in several of my married friends. The husbands want to spend their evenings at home. The wives want to go out.

It may be biological. The men have found their mate and see no reason to go out and fulfil their hunter-gatherer duties anymore. All they want to do now is munch on some peanuts or popcorn and watch the game. The women – having fulfilled their biological responsibilities of giving birth, nursing and feeding – are in the mood for a party.

It was after midnight at a friend’s birthday party. A group of us – all couples with children at home – were making noises about going home to make sure the homework was done and the kids were asleep. With a sigh, I told the group: “After my girls grow up and leave home, I will go out every night.”

“That sounds like a nightmare,” replied my husband.

All the women agreed with me; all the men, with my husband. One man said he hated parties because he had to be “on” all the time. “I do that at work,” he said. “I’d rather meet a small group of friends occasionally.”

“Except that his definition of ‘occasionally’ is once a month,” his wife said. “I want to socialise twice a week at least.”

“We do socialise,” replied her husband. “With each other.”

And so it went. The men couldn’t wait to get home; the women didn’t want to leave the party.

Early in my marriage, my husband would come home, have dinner and grab the newspaper. I would cuddle up and ask about his day, his boss, his feelings. Years later, he told me he hated those talks that I initiated and loved.

“When I get home after a hard day at work, I don’t want to be cross-questioned on feelings and emotions,” he said. “I’d rather let my mind expand and relax – discuss world affairs or sports, you know.” Our daily exchange of feelings, which made me feel so close to my husband, suffocated him.

Things haven’t changed much. I still feel closer to him after an exchange of sentiments, even if it is an argument or a fight. These volatile exchanges drain him.

“I want peace at home,” he confesses.

How to marry my appetite for socialising with his desire for solitude? Twenty years into our marriage, that is the question confronting me. How will we grow old together if I want to go out every night and he wants to stay home?

Why do you like socialising so much, he accuses. I like everything: choosing an outfit, dabbing on perfume, going out, the lights, the flowers, the candles, the occasional compliments, meeting new people and trying to take their measure. My husband hates the superficiality of parties and making small talk with strangers. The parties that energise me enervate him. I think it’s because we focus on different things. When I meet a stranger, I admire his clothes or her jewellery, while making small talk. My husband never notices these things. Instead, he debates public policy. No wonder it is tiring.

Now we have come up with a compromise: vacations. We both like travelling. We’ve decided to go with groups. This way, my husband can satisfy his curiosity while I chitchat with strangers. While he bones up on the history of Egypt, I can socialise with our fellow vacationers.

As for invitations to parties at home, I might just have to resort to going out alone.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India.

Mother in law

The problem with the mother-in-law

Shoba Narayan

Jan 8, 2011


Two women who love the same man is hardly the recipe for a friendship. I speak not of extramarital affairs or bigamy, but of the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. In India, where I live, this misunderstood, maligned “saas-bahu” relationship dominates the collective psyche. It is the stuff of television soap operas and is as much an emotional cliché as the stepmother is in the West.

Men have it easy in this respect. Their relationship with their in-laws is somehow not as fraught as a woman’s. Sure, some men can’t stand their mothers-in-law, but for the most part, they are able to deftly deflect the intimacy that this particular relationship demands from women.

It is different for the wife, at least here in the East. She is viewed as the “keeper of the flame”, as my mother-in-law calls it; the upholder of tradition. With this duty comes responsibility; and if you happen to be the kind of woman who’d rather go out and earn a living, this enforced responsibility leads to resentment, mostly at the mother-in-law who monitors the flame-carrying.

As a new bride, I started out being wary of my mother-in-law. She has a strong personality and has worked all her life. She has travelled the world in a sari, wearing the nose ring common to Tamilian Brahmin. She has, in other words, stayed true to her traditions even while attending conferences in Mexico or Indonesia.

This is different from my generation of Indian women. We adjust. We wear western clothes when we go abroad, slip into easy Indian salwar-kameezes for everyday errands, and pull out our silk saris for weddings. We act and react differently, depending on the occasion. We carry this chameleon-like quality not just to our wardrobes but also to our relationships. Rather than view the mother-in-law as a worthy foe to be treated with formal respect, we try to befriend her. Whether that works depends on both women, but the mother-in-law sets the tone. She is the older, more experienced mistress of her domain. It is her duty to welcome the new bride to her home and traditions. If the mother-in-law continues to dominate the household, power struggles ensue – for the keys to the home and to the man’s heart. But if the mother-in-lawgives the new woman room in her son’s life to grow and flourish, there may be room for two women in home and heart.

I’ve seen both situations in my family. My aunt became widowed at a young age. When her only son wed, she made it clear to her daughter-in-law that she intended to continue running the house. Her son, a doctor, withdrew to his clinic. The mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law slugged it out. Harsh words were exchanged, secrets kept and two granddaughters caught in between. All this happened under one roof, as is the case in a Hindu joint family. As I watched the two women make snide remarks to each other during my visits, I would think, “Boy, this wouldn’t ever happen in New York or London. Why can’t one of them move out?” But neither one did. The web of the Indian family was perhaps too strong.

In the West, my friends called their mothers-in-law by their first names, not “Ma” or “Mummy” or whatever term their husband used. The informality of western relationships allowed a tentative friendship to flower between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law. That said, I have western friends who cannot stand their mothers-in-law. Why is this relationship so complicated? It goes back to my first sentence.

Shoba Naryan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.

Matchmaking Tiffin

My Life: Indian matchmaking takes a tiffin or two

Shoba Narayan

Jan 29, 2011


My husband, Ram, and I met over tiffin and tea one rainy afternoon in November 1991. We had an Indian arranged marriage, and as was the custom our horoscopes were matched, our families met and deemed each other compatible, and finally my parents invited him (and his parents) home to have tiffin and tea, and oh, by the way, to meet me.

Tiffin, in this case, consisted of sojji and bajji, which are to Indians what scones and finger sandwiches are to the English. Sojji is a warm, sweet pudding made of milk, semolina, ghee, cashews and saffron. Bajjis are vegetable fritters – thinly sliced potatoes, onions, aubergines or plantains, dipped into a savoury batter and fried until golden brown, almost like tempura. Sojji and bajji are the twin pillars of Indian tiffin and are usually reserved for formal occasions, especially when boy meets girl. In fact, eating sojji-bajji has become a euphemism among Indians for meeting girls in an arranged setting, as in, “Now that you are 30, you’ll probably be eating a lot of sojji-bajji.”

When my future husband came to meet me, I decided there would be no sojji or bajji. Six years at graduate art school in America had made me a rebel with a cause: to overhaul the outdated Indian arranged marriage system. I was against horoscopes, matchmaking and most of all the formal boy-meets-girl event involving sojji-bajji.

Why did the boy have to come to the girl’s home to meet her? I raged. Why couldn’t we go to his home and eat sojji-bajji? Why serve sojji-bajji at all

My parents were used to my tirades. As usual, we negotiated. They argued that this was a formal occasion. I threatened to appear in torn jeans and a cut-off T-shirt. And so it came to be that my mother reluctantly served store-bought snacks to her future son-in-law and his parents when we met, and I wore a sari.

In retrospect, I wish I had let my mother make her sojji-bajji, for she cooks them exceptionally well. One of my favourite memories of childhood is wading home from school through puddles of water during the monsoon season to the aroma of sizzling hot bajjis.

The concept of tea and tiffin originated from the British. Siesta followed by strong, invigorating tea made sense in tropical India, where the heat lulled office workers into a somnolent stupor. While Indians appropriated the custom of tea, they spiced up the tarts, biscuits and sandwiches into what has now become tiffin.

The word “tiffin”, however, connotes more than just accompaniments to afternoon tea. It also means light food that can be eaten at any time of day. Tiffin is India’s culinary equivalent of an American sandwich. While growing up, my brother and I often had “morning tiffin” of dosas or idlis before heading to school. After a heavy wedding luncheon, my father often requested “light tiffin” for dinner, instead of the usual rice and curries. And when we had guests over for tea, one or two tiffin dishes were de rigueur. In the last 50 years, as more Indian women work full time, western-style cornflakes, toast, scrambled eggs and pizzas have invaded India. But tiffin dishes remain unapologetically and mouth-wateringly authentic.

Recently, my husband and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. For old times’ sake, I served him the sojji and bajji he had missed at our first meeting. And then, just to remind him that I was still a rabble-rouser, I took him out: for an afternoon of skydiving.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.

Conflict about Facebook

Does this essay which appeared in M magazine explain my conflict about Facebook?

Here in the M website and pasted below.

My life: Shoba Narayan on social networking

Shoba Narayan

Dec 7, 2011

As a memoir writer and columnist, I am comfortable with the first-person narrative. I write about the events and people in my life. I disclose what some would view as intimate details about my spouse, my marriage, my children, my pets and my parents. I am not a private person. Yet I find I have a deep disquiet about posting on Facebook. It doesn’t make sense; it seems illogical. How can someone who writes publicly about her life remain conflicted about revealing it to her 448 Facebook “friends”?

I think it is because Facebook mixes up the public and the private, confuses intent and trivialises the notion of friendship. True friendship is a beautiful, sacred thing. A friend “gets” you — not just your public persona, but also your inner inconsistencies, failings and flaws. Good friends call your bluff, goad you when needed and point out uncomfortable truths. They enjoy you warts and all. I have been blessed with such friends, but they are usually two, maybe three people – five at most.

Many of my 448 Facebook friends are not people I know. Some are acquaintances; others former colleagues whom I have lost touch with. Many are old school friends whom I haven’t seen or kept in touch with for 20 years. I have fond memories, but know next to nothing about their current lives. Still others are people I have never met, who feel connected to me through my writings or through common friends.

My early days on Facebook were heady. I shared articles that I enjoyed, posted questions (“Does Muji retail at airport duty-free shops?”) and talked about events in my life (“Daughter’s exams today” or “Going to the dentist for a root canal — wish me luck”). That type of thing.

The uncomfortable thing about Facebook is the element of voyeurism. Users can peep into lives they have no connection with. I have surfed Facebook and discovered photographs of wild parties at friends of friends’ homes; wedding pictures and even photographs of children in nightclothes snuggling in bed. Who would put all these photos up? I assumed it was a generational thing. Today’s teenagers, after all, are willing to live out their entire lives on Facebook, posting every music show, restaurant and party they attend. But I know individuals who are my age and do the same. They allow people to violate their privacy, which leads me to the question of intent. Are we posting updates to share our lives with close friends or are we candidates in a public forum? On Facebook, we do both. We share news and views with people who are dear to us while allowing strangers to have a peek into our lives at the same time.

Posting updates can be addictive. You reveal banal details about your life. Five “friends” comment on it and you feel validated, like a minor celebrity. Nothing is real unless it is on Facebook and five friends comment on it.

Some users disengage completely. They post nothing personal on Facebook and instead use it as a platform to market themselves. I’ve started doing that, too. I post my articles. Even that confuses intent. I don’t want to market my articles to friends. I want to do that with editors, colleagues and agents. LinkedIn is easier that way — it is clearly a networking and professional forum.

My solution has been to use Facebook in spurts. I like reconnecting with my old college mates. I hate that random users will see these connections. Some day, I will go through my friends list and cull my 448 friends into the five to 50 friends I really know. Until then, my Facebook conflict will remain unresolved.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India.

Food piece for The National

My column for The National’s M magazine, edited by the divine Rick Arthur and Helena Powell.  Click here for the latest one.  Also pasted below.

Great meals forge a connection to their place and time

Shoba Narayan

Nov 16, 2011

Foods have a connection to place but not an obvious one. To explain, I must make the distinction between good food and memorable meals. Good food is best found where it originates. You expect to have spicy samosas in India, terrific borscht in Russia, rich raclette in Switzerland and fresh sushi in Japan. What makes a meal memorable is an element of surprise combined with a longing for a particular food. Surprise and longing produce memory.

The best Lebanese meal I had was in Prague; the best pasta I ate was in Zermatt, Switzerland; the best avocado juice I tasted was in Singapore; and the best flatbreads I ate were the gozleme in Turkey. What made them memorable was that I didn’t expect to find them there.

Take the gozleme, a Turkish flatbread with a variety of fillings – spinach, feta, potatoes, onions, mushrooms – that peasant women cook on a griddle. I didn’t even know gozleme existed till I drove from Istanbul to Cappadocia. My guide, Abdul, suggested a roadside diner for lunch. He knew I was a vegetarian and said it served terrific gozleme. After days during which I ate mostly cold feta, cucumbers and cabbage, the hot sizzling gozleme with warm spinach and feta brought tears to my eyes. I still remember the dusty diner and Abdul’s grin as I bit off a large piece of hot, sizzling, cheese-dripping gozleme.

In Prague, my husband and I were out walking one winter evening. After four days in eastern Europe – Warsaw, Auschwitz, Budapest and then Prague – we longed for familiar food and warmth. When we saw a restaurant serving Lebanese food, we ducked in, knowing we would find vegetarian mezze. The owner, a rotund bearded man wearing a chef’s cap and a chequered apron, welcomed us as if we were family. When we said we were vegetarian, he sent a slew of tiny plates to us. There was warm pitta and tangy dips – hummus, baba ganoush, tzatziki, falafel, marinated carrots, feta, tahini paste. We ate and talked, and later sang and danced.


The National CooksFrom cool summer salads and soups through to delicious deserts, here is our extensive recipe collection.

I lived in Singapore for two years and frequented the hawker markets. Near Newton Circus was a tiny stall serving chilled avocado juice. It was the best thing to drink on a hot summer’s day. I would pack some in a plastic bag and bring it back home.

Whenever my husband went to London on work, I would try to go along. During one trip several years ago, I set out to discover the best afternoon tea in London. We were staying at the Dorchester, which served a perfectly acceptable afternoon tea. Friends recommended the Ritz for its pomp and circumstance, not to mention the serenading harpist. Fortnum & Mason was a must, mostly to buy its jams and clotted cream to carry back home. Purists said Brown’s served the best afternoon tea. I still remember the formal demeanour of its waiters as they led me into a small inner room with green wallpapered walls and heavy curtains. I didn’t enjoy the hushed tea service but I do remember the magnificent detail of the environs.

We went with our daughters to Zermatt one winter for ski lessons. We stayed at a charming wooden chalet. One evening, we took our tired, cranky girls for dinner. The steward heard two words: vegetarian and pasta. He brought us a mound of spaghetti surrounded by four bowls, each with a sauce – pesto, marinara, cheese and aglio olio. The four of us dived in without saying a word.

They say great meals soothe the soul. The four-sauce pasta that a kindly Swiss waiter brought to us surely did.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India

Global Village for The National

My life: the global village

Shoba Narayan

Oct 12, 2011


Ten years ago, I sat at the window of my Manhattan high-rise, watching a plane fly overhead and wishing I were on it. It was a cold day in November and I held my newborn second daughter in my arms. For most of my life, I had been on the immigrant treadmill – coming to America as a student, and then staying on for over a decade – getting married, getting a job, securing a green card, having babies, and finally becoming a naturalised US citizen in the year 2000.

The next year, our world changed. The twin towers crashed to the ground and my husband and I felt foreign in New York for the first time in our lives. As brown-skinned people, we were suddenly scrutinised at airports, malls and railway stations. As new parents, we wanted our daughters to get to know their grandparents. Simply put, we wanted to go back home.

Home for me was a mélange of memories that had softened into a happy haze, like an Impressionist painting. There were people in this painting – iconic figures, such as my grandparents, uncles and aunts. There were physical places, like schools and karate classes, from my childhood. Most delightful of all were the scents and tastes of childhood, which gave me a powerful longing for the land known as India, but which I called home.

Five years after that November day, my family and I moved to Bangalore. It wasn’t easy because we were giving up the opportunities of America to return to a nebulous construct called “home”. My husband, Ram, worked on Wall Street and loved his job and our life in the Big Apple. But he also missed his parents and wanted to be a son to them, in person, in real time, on their terms.

The funny thing is that we are surrounded by immigrants in India. Our neighbours are a French couple, working for a software start-up. About 30 Japanese families who work for Toyota live in our building. Several American families are part of our soccer class. At spas, we meet Arabs who seem to love Indian ayurveda. My foodie group is populated by Britons, who want to go to spicy Indian restaurants when we eat out. Their spice tolerance is higher than mine.

Horace Greeley’s edict, “Go west, young man”, seems to be turned on its head. Today’s migrants are coming east to earn their stripes and their livelihoods, be it the UAE, China or India. Yet they are as haunted by their homelands as I was in America. The reason, I believe, is that we are all economic migrants – changing identities, choosing cultures and chasing opportunities. Unlike generations past, we can go home and frequently do. Compare this with the political refugees and religious exiles of yore who fled native lands to escape starvation, persecution and even death. They were the pregnant women who threw themselves on to boats, braving raging seas and the risk of drowning just so their children would have the rights of US citizenship. They were the desperate refugees who begged, borrowed and paid their life savings to visa agents to get them into the UK saying two words, “political asylum”. They jumped fences, crossed borders at night and slipped into the shadow world of illegal immigrants for one reason: they didn’t want to go home. The problem for migrants like me, migrants of this generation, is that we are equally at ease in two cultures and so fit into neither. We do the Namaz five times a day while trading derivatives or tracking baseball scores. We can sing in Sanskrit and rap. We belong to both countries, yet choose neither. We embrace our new homeland but never forget our old one. This, I guess, is what it means to be a global citizen. I am one, reader, and so, perhaps, are you. This is the new reality.




Shoba Narayan is working on a memoir called “Return to India”