Links in the Food Chain

In Indranee Ghosh’s memoir, food becomes a metaphor for inclusion

This story was originally published in India Today.

In the introduction to her food memoir “placed in the east of India”, Indranee Ghosh astutely notes that when everything else has changed “what we as a family have not lost is the food we ateperhaps the only thing that connects us to our roots and remains an active source of comfort”, Yet while Ghosh’s book is largely set in Shillong, most of the 70 recipes included in Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved: Recipes and Reminiscences from India’s Eastern Hills show even more clearly how the family stayed connected to its roots in Bengal.

Ghosh’s maternal grandfather left Calcutta for Cherrapunji as a Brahmo Samaj missionary in the late 19th century and her family returned to the city in 1973, a year after the formation of Meghalaya, spurred by the fear of violence against Bengali settlers. In the intervening decades, “amader barir ranna (our family cuisine)”, as Ghosh’s daughter calls it in her preface, absorbed myriad influences from Khasi neighbours but also from further afield (one of the recipes is of a family favourite Sri Lankan beetroot curry).

Ghosh’s reminiscences are insightful and she paints a charming portrait of Shillong through the middle of the last century. Her memories, though often tied to food and flavours, revolve around family members, including adoptive family like her uncle Ketu, one of the Khasi children her grandfather brought into the household. Ghosh skilfully brings him and other relatives to life: unflinchingly describing the eccentricities, madness and scatological humour that usually remain within the realm of a family’s intimate conversations.

Between these portraits, Ghosh weaves memories of the cooking that shaped her palate, including the techniques referenced in the title (smoking, pickling) that are particularly common in the hill regions. While she describes stolen orchard fruit and hunted game in vivid detail in the book’s first part, the bulk of the family recipes in the book’s second half draw from her parents’ roots in East and West Bengal. If the book’s title is a bit misleading in that sense, it also points to an attempt to complicate the idea of distinct cultures with authentic cuisines, with a hint of nostalgia for a time when different communities appeared to coexist with less friction. As Ghosh remarks, Sylhet, where her father was from, has historic, geographic and culinary ties with Assam and Meghalaya.

With “regional” food now becoming celebrated in the country’s metropolitan restaurants, Ghosh’s memoir is a reminder that the discovery of India’s mind-boggling diversity through its food is also an old and cross-regional process.

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