& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Settler's Cookbook: A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food

I’ve no compunctions in admitting that my ignorance of contemporary writers is monumental.

I had not heard Yasmin Alibhai-Brown or her masterpiece of a book. The Settler’s Cookbook – A Memoir of Love, Migration & Food that was published last year to wide acclaim in Britain.

House of Anansi Press Inc., the distributors of Portobello books in Canada, has brought the paperback edition of this genre-bending memoir and a cookbook rolled into one.

Thanks to my friend Yoko Morgenstern, I’m reading it right now. Quite simply, it’s an amazing book.  I haven’t finished reading it yet so it would be improper to review it. I'm sure nobody would mind if I comment on it.

You can also read it as a recipe book. Although that wouldn’t be half as interesting as reading the book as it’s written – memoir interspersed with recipes. Yasmin weaves the recipes into the story of her life. She does this assuredly and with dexterity.

When you begin to read the recipe, you can’t help but reminisce about your own past. A past that in my case is now a swiftly fading memory.

I had tears welling up as I read the recipes for rotlo, halwa, stuffed brinjals, shrikhand, dudhpak, lemon chilli and ginger pickle, moong dal bhajia, masala chai, chevro, khari puri, nan katai, sev, urad dal, sak dhokri...

Any Gujarati would feel the same way.

Reading these recipes transported me back into time and place when (in a world that somehow felt more secure than now), my mother and my Ba cooked for us – my sister and I – adding dollops of affection to their considerable culinary skills.  They could make everyday home food taste better than restaurant food.

Yasmin’s book has several finger-licking non-vegetarian recipes. I've only listed the vegetarian dishes because of my largely vegetarian upbringing. 

It’s been a while since I’ve had traditional Gujarati food. Let me hasten to add here, that to Mahrukh’s credit, despite being a non-Gujarati and a Muslim, her urad dal is as good as my Ba’s.

Yasmin’s memoirs are important in the context of Diaspora writing because the stories are about real people and about their despair at being uprooted from a land that they never quite considered home and yet didn’t know of any other place they could call so.

The story of Yasmin’s family is as compelling as Salim’s story in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.

There is a sizeable Gujarati speaking population in Canada of first generation immigrants from East Africa (including the Ismailis, Yasmin’s community) who will identify with many situations that Yasmin describes in her book. In fact, all Gujaratis will enjoy the book. 

However, that would be an unfair summation of the book’s appeal. The book effortlessly transcends geographical boundaries and ethnic classifications.

Moreover, The Settler’s Cookbook portrays seemingly commonplace situations in a devastatingly deadpan style.

Sample this:  “Fatima, nearly ninety, remembered her deprivation and struggle: ‘Mosquitoes used to bite us everywhere and make us sick. My parents, you know making more children on the gunny sacks in the shop and it was not very good behaviour. My father made a lot of noise and my mother’s voice was like a lost kitten. She died when baby number fourteen got stuck. Good, she was free after that.”

Let me leave you with a recipe that you should have this Sunday afternoon...

Masala Chai (The Gujarati tea)

Teabags, one per person
Sugar to taste
Water with milk – 2/3rd to 1/3rd
A little cinnamon, cardamom and a pinch of clove powder or ready-made tea masala you can buy in Asian shops
  • Boil the milk and water in a saucepan, then add all other ingredients
  •  Let the liquid boil up one more time
  • Serve in feminine cups, not blokey mugs; never tastes right in those

1 comment:

  1. Mayank,

    What can I say - you reminded me of women in every role of mother, grandma ....from all over, who just enjoy cooking and feeding their family. Going little beyond the book, perhaps everybody would think of returning and reciprocating that love that we take for granted. Evertything that you cover here is excellent and I am sure your readers are going to demand a compilation of all that is there in your blog - to treasure your thoughtful analysis and read such a classic and wide selection of books. I am really enjoying Gujarati thali at Purohits in Churchgate. Thanks