Recipe for a memoir Food Writer Shoba Narayan tells Aseem Chhabra what it took to writer her 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.