Bengali American writer and one of the most celebrated culinary historians Chitrita Banerji grew up in a Calcutta home devoted to food. In her latest memoir of essays, she takes the reader through various phases of her life––childhood, her time at Harvard, her marriage to a Bengali-Muslim Pakistani, moving to Dhaka post the 1971 war, her subsequent divorce and remarriage, her return to the US as well as the death of her parents and husband.
Throughout these crucial life moments, food played an integral role in her experiences of discovery, love, adventure, conflict, heartbreak, loss and reconciliation. In ‘Tea with My Father’, she describes the little teashop she visited as a child with her father. It was he who initiated her into the intriguing world of this marvelous beverage—its roots, different varieties and historical role.
It was only later in the sixties, when she was at the Presidency College that she developed a taste for the chicory-flavoured milky Indian coffee at the famed Coffee House on College Street. Banerji dedicates an entire essay to paan, which she aptly calls ‘pleasure in a cone’. Fondly recalling visuals of the paan shop her mother used to frequent, she confesses that she still possesses her mother’s book-shaped silver paan box. She also informs the reader of the intricate details of mithey paan, indigenous to Bengal and the only one consumed by her family.
“If food was the king for our large extended family of opinionated connoisseurs, paan was definitely the queen,” she writes.
Through her prose, Banerji throws light on some of her favourite dishes and recipes, along with their significance in history, culture as well as her own life.
In ‘Petal Vessel’, she recalls a meal of mochar ghanto, a classic of Bengali cuisine. She elaborates on the melange of textures of the stir-fried banana blossom dish, and delves into its mystique in folklore. ‘A Sweet Fragrance in Winter’ probes the history of sugar production in India, the etymology of terms for various kinds of sugar and the complex art of tapping for gur in different parts of Bengal. She extolls the health benefits of khejurgur, the liquid syrup processed from the sap of date palm, and the solid fudge-like chunks made by boiling it down.
Over the years, famous Bengali sweets such as sandesh and more recently, even the rosogolla, have undergone a transformation, by being sweetened with khejurgur. Banerji’s collection of essays has been suitably categorised under three main sections—Sundries, Mains and Endings.
In the Author’s Note, she writes, “Food is the stuff of life, the energy that propels us to action, movement and progress.” The book, and in a sense her whole life, bears testimony to this.
A Taste of My Life: A Memoir in Essays and Recipes
Author: Chitrita Banerji
Price: Rs 399