As the name suggests, Chitrita Banerji’s “Eating India” speaks of the author’s voracious appetite for all that’s desi – not just the food, but also the history, the culture, the sights, sounds, and colors, the religions… you get the picture.
Part travelogue, part treatise, Eating India traces Banerji’s personal journey in quest of culinary “truth.” Instead of simply documenting India’s multitudinous regional cuisines, she poses a question: in today’s global context, how exactly do we define the term “authentic”?
In fact, given that India’s history is rife with invasions, colonizations, and migrations, was there ever such a thing as “authentic” regional cuisine? (Chillies, for example, were not native to Indian soil – but are now integral to our cuisine). And even if there was once such a thing as authenticity, how relevant is it today? And who is qualified to judge?
Banerji writes from the perspective of a transplanted Bengali – she makes her home in Boston – seeking to overcome her own notions of culinary authenticity. Exploring contemporary trends in Indian cuisine, she challenges readers’ preconceptions, suggesting that culinary practices in India have always kept pace with change. “Too often we start thinking there is only one way of cooking and one way of eating,” she says, pointing out that the ability to assimilate and adapt has been central to the evolution of food in this country for centuries.
Eating India was written across four or five different trips to India made over a period of four years. Traversing the country, Banerji traces the many spheres of influence that have impacted our regional cuisines throughout history. Drawing connections between food and customs, religion, caste, geography, climate, mythology, and folklore, she highlights subtleties and complexities, consistencies and variations, with equal élan. In doing so, she brings alive different places, communities, cuisines, and eras in broad, bold sweeps of prose.
Switching effortlessly between childhood memory and present-day reality, between culinary fable and culinary fact, Banerji manages to deliver light reading with a kernel of intellectual challenge and a whiff of humour. If you’re looking for a cold, hard, factually impeccable work, Eating India is probably not going to meet your expectations. If on the other hand, you like to read and think about food, and don’t mind seeing a subject through the lens of one person’s perspective – pick this book up without hesitation.