Tapping memories through gastronomy is for real, Indian food historians tell us more

For writer and food historian Chitrita Banerjee, the scent of jarda or perfumed tobacco that goes into a Bengali mithey paan transports her to her childhood home in Kolkata.

Published: 26th June 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th June 2022 10:30 AM   |  A+A-


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Express News Service

It is amazing how an inconspicuous waft emanating from a neighbour’s kitchen can open unknown doors in the dormant recesses of one’s mind; or how an unassuming bite into a childhood delicacy can trigger memories that were believed to be forgotten.

For writer and food historian Chitrita Banerjee, the scent of jarda or perfumed tobacco that goes into a Bengali mithey paan transports her to her childhood home in Kolkata where as a child she would watch her mother and aunts gather every day, almost like a ritual, to prepare paan.“I loved the moment when the tobacco containers were opened and a variety of aromas filled the air,” Banerjee writes in A Taste of My Life: A Memoir in Essays and Recipes.

The book, however, is more than just a recipe book. It is a retelling of the author’s life perceived through her gastronomically-inclined memory, a style that many writers seem to have taken to of late. In  Sumitra and Anees: An Indian Marriage––Tales and Recipes from a Khichdi Family, journalist and writer Seema Chishti too relies on memories (her own and of others) of the relationship between her Hindu mother from Karnataka and Muslim father from UP’s Deoria, to paint a picture of a secular India, the possibility of which only gets bleaker by the day.

It is in the shadow of this now seemingly impossible union (with the love-jihad laws) of her parents that she shares the recipe book she inherited from her mother. “This book of dishes... has acquired a different meaning now that people are being attacked for what they choose to eat, drink, read, and of course, who they befriend or choose to spend their lives with,” Chishti writes. The book features dishes from both Karnataka and UP, Hindus and Muslims, Syed and Kshatriya, vegetarian and non-vegetarian. “These dishes evoke the taste of a khichdi home that confidently experimented, borrowed, shared and ended up brewing a very special dish. It is called India,” Chishti writes.

Written in a more conventional style is Rajyashree Sen’s The Sweet Kitchen: Tales and Recipes of India’s Favourite Desserts. Sen takes us through the historical origins of India’s beloved sweet treats, and how different variants of a dish have evolved as the country changed its rulers. She has peppered these tales with her own reminiscences of the dishes. 

While this is not the first time that food is looked through the memory lens (Climbing The Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey,  and Sadia Dehlvi’s Jasmine And Jinns), there certainly is an influx of such books, perhaps induced by the pandemic that compelled many rediscover our kitchens. Another such book––Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka by Cynthia Shanmugalingam that tells the story the country’s culinary heritage through travels, hits the stands next month. 


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