Michele Humes (I live in New York and I write about food.)

Two Literary Passages That Make Me Want Indian Food Immediately

The first is from Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, which won the Booker prize ten years ago and which everybody should have read by now, am I right? On the off chance that you haven’t, though, this is the scene: the eponymous hero (full name: Piscine Molitor Patel) is adrift on a lifeboat where, in the absence of actual food, he discusses fantasy food with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, who asks…

“What would you have to eat if you could have anything you wanted?”
“Excellent question. I would have a magnificent buffet. I would start with rice and sambar. There would be black gram dhal rice and curd rice and—”
“I would have—”
“I’m not finished. And with my rice I would have spicy tamarind sambar and small onion sambar and—”
“Anything else?”
“I’m getting there. I’d also have mixed vegetable sagu and vegetable korma and potato masala and cabbage vadai and masala dosai and spicy lentil rasam and—”
“I see.”
“Wait. And stuffed eggplant poriyal and coconut yam kootu and rice idli and curd vadai and vegetable bajji and—”
“It sounds very—”
“Have I mentioned the chutneys yet? Coconut chutney and mint chutney and green chilli pickle and gooseberry pickle, all served with the usual nans, popadoms, parathas and puris, of course.”
“The salads! Mango curd salad and okra curd salad and plain fresh cucumber salad. And for dessert, almond payasam and milk payasam and jaggery pancake and peanut toffee and coconut burfi and vanilla ice cream with hot, thick chocolate sauce.”
“Is that it?”
“I’d finish this snack with a ten-litre glass of fresh, clean, cool, chilled water and a coffee.”
“It sounds very good.”
“It does.”
“Tell me, what is coconut yam kootu?”
“Nothing short of heaven, that’s what. To make it you need yams, grated coconut, green plantains, chilli powder, ground black pepper, ground turmeric, cumin seeds, brown mustard seeds and some coconut oil. You saute the coconut until it’s golden brown [...] Have you ever had oothappam?”
“No, I haven’t. But tell me about it. What is oothappam?”
“It is so good.”
“Sounds delicious. Tell me more.”
“Oothappam is often made with leftover batter, but rarely has a culinary afterthought been so memorable.”

The second one is much shorter, but even though it’s been eight or nine years since I first came upon it, the description has always stayed with me. It comes from another Booker-winner, A Fine Balance, by the great Rohinton Mistry. The characters, like the author, are Parsi, and so the dish in this passage is very different from those in the Hindu vegetarian feast dreamt up by Pi Patel:

Maneck emptied the alayti-palayti from A-1 Restaurant into a bowl and brought it to the table. “It’s out of my pocket money. I can spend it any way I like.”

Chunks of chicken liver and gizzard floated tantalizingly in the thick, spicy sauce. Bending over the bowl, [Dina] sniffed. “Mmm, the same wonderful fragrance that made it a favourite of Rustom’s. Only A-1 makes it in rich gravy—other places cook it too dry.” She dipped a spoon, raised it to her lips, and nodded. “Delicious. We could easily add a little water without harming the taste. Then it will be enough for lunch and dinner.”

For more on Parsi food in Rohinton Mistry’s fiction, here’s an article in the literary journal ‘Muse India.’ It’s part of a whole feature on food in Indian literature, so there’s plenty more good stuff to browse in the sidebar.