A Matter of Taste:
The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food
Edited by Nilanjana S. Roy

In a country where in each one of our ten thousands dialects, 'have you eaten?' would be an integral form of greeting along with the various renditions of namaskar, an anthology of Indian writing on food ought to certainly find its place on every book shelf.
And A Matter of Taste decidedly so. Like Indian food, it is good to look at and its contents are sure to please.

Now at the best of times, an anthology is like a five star hotel buffet. The introduction to A Matter of Taste claims as much. The thing about buffets, of course, is that there is very little room for surprise. You know for certain that there will be a soup or a shorba, mutton, chicken and a fish dish, a dal and assortments of vegetables, cold cuts, salads and pickles, rotis, rice and pasta or noodles, a dessert trolley with two Indian sweets and two flavours of ice cream and few kinds of gateaux. So it is with A Matter of Taste.

All the names you expect to find are there - Rushdie [having edited an anthology myself I know how tempting it is to speckle the anthology with Rushdie. The analogy I would like to draw from is food. Rushdie is rather like a fried in ghee cashew nut, guaranteed to make even the dreariest of pulaos's come alive not just in appeal but in taste as well ]; Naipaul [ the salad you feel compelled to fork onto your plate even if you don't particularly fancy salads], Rohinton Mistry [ the roti basket you can seldom fault]…

One after the other you discover them all. Allan Sealy and Jhumpa Lahiri, Vir Sanghvi and Amitav Ghosh…. Names and pieces of writing you are familiar with already and you ask yourself so what's new?
Mercifully there is Anuradha Roy's Cooking Women, Purabi Basu's French Leave, Geoffrey C. Ward and Diane R. Ward's English Soup and Atul Gawande's The Man Who Couldn't Stop Eating. Four pieces of writing that tempt you to want to read more by these writers. And recommend this anthology for their presence.

While an anthology comprising only of unknown writers could be a recipe for a total sales disaster, the trick I would have thought would be to layer the greats for garnish value with fresh points of view from writers who deserve to be read and recognized for their worth… and it is here that the anthology fails. It feels incomplete because one of the joys and triumphs of an anthology is the discovery of new writers.

So I wonder at the relevance of an extract from P. Sainath's Everybody Loves a Good Drought[an admirable book but do not see its place in A Matter of Taste] or the tiresomeness of having to endure yet another repeat of M.K. Gandhi's nightmare of a live goat bleating from within M.K. Gandhi's abdomen…

That is not to say that the book is not enjoyable. It is very much so. Bulbul Sharma's The Anger of Aubergines and Ruchir Joshi's Shrikhand add a wicked zest.

And yet, perhaps owing to the surfeit of the familiar my feelings about the anthology matches an extract from the anthology. That of Busybee's from the essay 'My First Buffet Lunch': ' "Yes, I enjoyed all of them . Yesterday's lunch and last week's wedding dinner and last month's lunch from the Indian restaurant. Thank you."'

More Book Reviews by Anita Nair...






   Copyright© 2001-2005 Anita Nair. E-mail Anita