Indian author weaves family connection with food

By KAREN FELDMAN, mailto:kfeldman@news-press.com

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”