Book review: The Bloomsbury Handbook of Indian Cuisine

A disappointing culinary handbook that is devoid of an editorial vision and ignores the biggest Indian achievers in the field

Published: 13th August 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th August 2023 03:36 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

Too many cooks, the adage has it, spoil the broth. Whatever may be the truth in these words, after painfully browsing The Bloomsbury Handbook of Indian Cuisine, one is left with no doubt that too many food writers can certainly spoil a book. The troika of editors in this case keeps falling between several stools, leaving the reader hopelessly confused about their ‘product’. They ask, ‘Is it a companion to food? An A-Z dictionary of culinary terms?’ and answer, ‘No, it’s a handbook.’ The quip may have been inspired by Superman, but what has materialized is more of a distressing superbug.

The book resembles a child born out of wedlock to mismatched parents––a Manorama Yearbook-like crammer for UPSC exams and KT Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, a laborious compilation by a food technologist, published more than a quarter century ago. The latter wasn’t an exciting fare. In comparison to the Handbook, however, it seems a thrilling unputdownable page-turner.
No editorial vision or lexicographical discipline can be discerned in the 430 pages. This is surprising as Colleen Taylor-Sen, one of the editors, has previously published a delightful encapsulation of Indian culinary history, which is well-researched and elegantly written. Sourish Bhattacharya is a veteran food columnist, but in the F&B business, you are judged by the last meal served.

The book is seriously flawed. What are 12 pages on ‘Rites of Passage’ doing here? Indians today do not live their lives performing shodash sanskaras. Even in the past, these were prescribed for the twice-born. Besides, the rites have varied according to time, place and community. ‘Anthropology of Food’ should be left to experts like Professor Kurush Dalal (a peerless food lover as well). Why rush into alien territory where angels fear to tread?

To dump material arbitrarily in pigeonholes of linguistically or strategically re-organised states may be politically correct, but it is as disastrous as the Partition of India. The zones of taste in the subcontinent have never recognised man-made borders. The gastronomic footprint of Bengal-Odisha extends much beyond the present geographical limits. The same is true of Punjab and Tamil Nadu. Four pages on Madhya Pradesh have no mention of the Sarafa Bazaar in Indore or the legendary princely state of Sailana (Maharaja Digvijay Singhji is listed separately).

The piece on Jammu and Kashmir is disappointing. Not a single signature dish from the Valley is described. Jammu has been given equal space to reinforce equal status, but Ladakh is accommodated separately. Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and the Northeastern states are all covered to make the presentation appear ‘comprehensive’. The exercise is exasperating for the readers. Text is padded with unpalatable fillers such as statistical details about area, population and any tidbits that may tempt a tourist before a few lines about food from the Internet or past publications are thrown in. There are exceptions. Tarana Khan dazzles with a sparkling chiselled gem on Rampur that, in less than a page, allows one to savour the flavours of the princely state.  Sai Khandekar does justice to Maharashtra in a slightly longer but informative piece.

The buffets in de luxe hotels are notorious for their lavish spread recreated with leftovers from a la carte dishes. The book leaves the reader wondering if this ‘feast for thought’ was assembled in a similar style. One is surprised at the effusive endorsements for it to be a ‘must-have’ on every foodie’s bookshelf and an indispensable addition to the libraries of culinary institutes. Regrettably, the book carelessly dishes out sweeping generalisations and misinformation. Students need to be particularly careful about what they consume. Hazards of fatal or crippling food poisoning lurk in sloppy food writing as well.

It is difficult to decide what’s damaged the intended magnum opus the most: the acts of omission or commission. The squinted vision of mutual backscratchers is fixated on ‘celebrities’ in Bangkok and London, almost deliberately avoiding the iconic chefs at home. No mention of Imtiaz Qureshi, Manjit Gill and the impressive ‘youngsters’ that followed in their footsteps: Ranveer Brar, Kunal Kapoor, Nishant Choubey and many more. Vineet Bhatia, with multiple Michelin stars under his belt and active in India, deserves a better introduction than the ‘inventor of chocolate samosa’. The path-breaking 
food impresario, Jiggs (Kalra), finds no place either, nor does Major Habib Rahman, who created the landmark Bukhara and Dum Pukht.

The aftertaste left by this expensive ‘treat’ isn’t agreeable at all. One is left feeling outraged. To borrow from Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon: “My honour (as a food lover), family (of generations of worthy chefs) and Temple (of culinary learning) have been offended.”

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