Out of India: Memories to Savor
By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is
Thursday, May 22, 2003; Page C02

MONSOON DIARY: A Memoir With Recipes
By Shoba Narayan
Villard. 223 pp. $22.95

This engaging book — part personal memoir, part culinary celebration — is the work of a native of India who came to this country as a college student in the late 1980s and has been here pretty much ever since, raising a family and spreading the word about her country’s cuisine. Shoba Narayan grew up Madras as a “TamBram” — TamBrams “speak Tamil and are Brahmins” — and as a vegetarian, learning to cook from many teachers but her mother most particularly. One brief passage describing her mother’s “attempt to reveal to me the mysteries of South Indian cooking” immediately conveys both the richness of her culinary heritage and her own prose style:

“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. Mustard and sesame seeds heat the body during winter. Asafetida suppresses, cinnamon nourishes, and lentils build muscles. Every feast should have the three P’s: papadam, payasam, and pachadi — lentil wafers, sweet pudding, and yogurt salad. A new bride should be able to make a decent rasam. If you cannot make rasam, don’t call yourself the lady of the house. And so it went.”

Rasam — “a heartwarming comfort food that South Indians eat with rice as a first or second course accompanied by vegetable curries” — is one of about two dozen Indian dishes for which Narayan provides recipes. They are uniformly inviting — indeed a minor difficulty about this book is that it provokes a pronounced surge of the appetite — but be warned that a trip to an Indian grocery will be necessary to make just about any of them. Rasam, for example, requires red gram dal, asafetida, rasam powder and tamarind concentrate, aka Tamcon. It may be easier just to go to an Indian restaurant, of which the Washington area has many good ones.

The recipes, in any event, are likely to interest most readers less than Narayan’s evocation of a culture in which food assumes an importance that probably borders on the unimaginable to most Americans. Inasmuch as to all intents and purposes there is no such thing as an indigenous American cuisine that helps define us and our country, inasmuch as we tend to like our food fast, predictable and cheap, we may have trouble imagining a cuisine not merely as rich and varied as India’s, but one that is so intimately connected to the national identity.

Thus for Narayan, idlis is not merely rice-and-lentil dumplings, not merely “a simple recipe” that produces “sensational results,” but a time and a place: “A smell can carry a memory, and certain foods can compress the memory of an entire childhood into them. The tastes and smells of my childhood were the twin bastions of TamBram cooking: idlis and coffee.” Perhaps there are still a few Americans for whom grits and sausage evoke similar memories, or scrapple and coffee, but surely there aren’t many. And there can’t be many Americans who are in their thirties, Narayan’s age, and who remember getting their milk “the old-fashioned way, straight from the cow.” Even those who might have such memories certainly didn’t get milk the way Narayan’s family did: drawn from a “mud-colored cow” led door to door by the milkman. As to the culinary delights of Amtrak, forget about it:

“Almost every station in India sells a regional specialty that causes passengers to dart in and out of trains. My parents have woken me up at 3:00 a.m. just to taste the hot milk at Erode Station in Tamil Nadu. Anyone passing by Nagpur Station is entreated to buy its glorious oranges. Allahabad, home to Hinduism on the banks of the River Ganges, is famous for its guavas. Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, has wonderful pedas (milk sweets). Shimla, called Queen of Hill Stations by the British, was known for its apples. North of Delhi we could buy thick yogurt in tiny terra-cotta pots. The earthenware pots sucked the moisture from the yogurt, leaving it creamy enough to be cut with a knife. Kerala, where my father spent his childhood and still leaves his heart, is where I’ve eaten the best banana appams, fried in coconut oil on the platform. A few stations down on our journey to Bombay was the summer resort of Lonavla, where my mother would hop out of the train to buy chikkis (peanut brittle).”

That isn’t the half of it; on board the train there is an endless stream of vendors, selling food and coffee. Narayan’s love for all this is both self-evident and infectious, which makes all the more remarkable the eagerness and ardor with which she embraced America when she was given a fellowship by Mount Holyoke College after her third year at Women’s Christian College in India. At 20 she was “a tabula rasa, eager to learn,” dashing from course to course — art, music, journalism, dance, theater — “deliriously excited by the novelty of it all, so wildly enthusiastic and eager to learn that nobody had the heart to turn me down, to say no.”

Freed from the constraints of caste and class (which, incidentally, she accepts as “an important part of the way Indians define themselves”), she reveled in the fluidity of America: “Everyone was moving, searching, asking for more. People were changing spouses, changing jobs, changing homes, changing sexes. It seemed like the more choices people had, the more they searched for something else, something new, something different.” That’s what she did, too, not least at the dining table, where she was introduced to the culinary heterogeneity that in recent years has become, perhaps, the closest thing there is to an “American” cuisine. When she made an arranged marriage to an Indian businessman living in the United States — the arrangement was made with the approval of the bride and groom — she imagined cooking for him:

“My idea of a perfect meal included a bottle of a summery chardonnay with some spicy blue corn nachos and salsa to start off; a crisp, garlicky bruschetta topped with vine-ripened tomatoes and red onions as an appetizer; some Turkish tzaziki to clear the palate; a fiery vegetarian pad thai with lemongrass, galangal, spicy peanut sauce, and kefir lime for the main course; and for dessert a tiramisu and cappuccino.”

The good little Indian girl had gone all-American, in other words, which is to say gastronomically multi-culti. The problem was that her husband loved Indian cooking and expected her to serve it. So, “with the fervor of a graduate student,” she taught herself to master the cooking of her native land: “Cooking well became my goal, and when I succeeded, it was an achievement.” In time these skills became essential to her new career as a writer about food and travel. “Monsoon Diary” is the first book she has written, but doubtless not the last. It is notable, by the way, not just for its own quite irresistible charm but also as the perfect companion piece to Mira Nair’s exquisite movie “Monsoon Wedding.”

© 2003 The Washington Post Company


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