What we eat is at the heart of who we are. It shapes our stories as completely as it shapes our bodies and defines our cultural worlds. In the United States, a certain post-war generation is bound together by the memory of canned creamed corn and Campbell's chicken noodle soup, as firmly as those a few years older are by the mention of powdered eggs. It is an unfortunate truth that none of these iconic culinary emblems are more than marginally edible.
And then there is the food that pervades the life of Shoba Naryan: flavorful, enticing, sumptuous dishes that are not just part of her existence. They are the substance and heart of her life. From the moment that she was taken to a Hindu temple for the rice-eating ceremony that marked her first meal, where she spat out the initial morsel because the clarified butter that had been stirred into the rice was burnt, food envelopes the milestones of her life and gives them a dimension of voluptuous, succulent, and bountiful pleasure.
When Shoba's mother becomes pregnant with her second child, she and her small daughter move back to her parents' home for the final stages of gestation. Shoba's mother takes to her bed where she is given "milk spiked with saffron, ground almonds and jaggery or cane sugar" rather than the calcium and iron tablets that serve the same function, and her favorite foods are brought by friends and relatives,who believe that "feeding a pregnant woman was akin to feeding God." It's impossible--if you're female-- to read about this incredibly civilized form of prenatal care without feeling overwhelming waves of envy and a longing to be born Tamil Brahmin in the next life.
After Shoba starts school, every lunch hour becomes a wildly exciting picnic, with little girls sharing bite-sized pieces of their biriyanis, appams dipped into stews of vegetables, cashews and coconut milk,mango pickles, idlis, with the girls with the best lunches reigning over everyone else.
Trips on the night train take on the same feast-like quality, with passengers sharing their food with nearby strangers: roti stuffed with spiced potatoes, sweet-and-sour buttermilk soup, spiced kidney beans. Vendors at stations along the way sell mangoes, milk sweets, and "thick yogurt in tiny terra-cotta pots." Travel is one long delightful culinary adventure.
Although food is the predominant feature of her daily landscape, Shoba cooks her first full meal only when a successfully prepared vegetarian feast will allow her to accept a fellowship to a U.S. university. While her family is confident that she will never be able to pull this off, Shoba has grown up eating, marketing, and watching her mother cook. She prepares food so luscious that reading about it causes an immediate trip to the closest South Indian restaurant and eating it guaranteed that Shoba's family will permit her to leave for America.
The stories in this memoir are as irresistible as the food that underpins it. Murdering New York goldfish leads to a frenzied taxi ride to replace them and an instant friendship and a fabulous meal with a taxi driver from Kerala. An eccentric sculpture professor opens up an undreamed of world of experimental art, lesbian friends and a wasp-nest of outraged Southern academics. And who would ever dream that an unconventional, outspoken artist who has lived for five years in the States would return home and find true romance in an arranged marriage?
You may not wish you were Indian as you gulp down this delicious memoir, but you certainly at times will wish you were Shoba Narayan, if only so you can eat the way that she does. Since twenty-one recipes garnish her anecdotes, this is easy to accomplish. But to have her sense of humor, flair for description, and adventurous spirit? Maybe in the next life!