Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Category: Fiction
Format: Trade Paperback, 256 pages
Publisher: Vintage Canada
ISBN: 978-0-307-39933-5 (0-307-39933-8)

Pub Date: March 30, 2010
Price: $19.95

I have a confession to make: I picked this book purely because I loved the title and it's mesmerizingly-lovely cover, so, when it was  Shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Prize for Best Book and nominated for the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, I couldn't have been happier!  Sadly, I had far too many interruptions while reading this book and that has affected my ability to write an insightful review, so forgive me if I just leave you with the synopsis and a review by Mary Whipple.  If anyone of you have read the book and have a review to share, please do so in the comments.

In a nutshell:  I liked the book.  It's a tiny book with big themes, with dreamlike-lyrical writing in some places and hard-hitting realistic descriptions in others.  Because two of the main protagonists are cooks, there is a lot of talk of food.  I particularly enjoyed reading Chef Kishen's food preparation instructions to our protagonist:

"Before cutting a tomato, give it the reference it deserves and ask:  Tomato, what would you like to become? Do you want to be alone?  Or do you prefer company? Apricot, what would you like to become? Would you like to become more than yourself in the company of saffron?  Saffron, who are you?"  
"Fish, what would you like to become? Basil, where did you lose your heart?  Lemon:  It is not who you touch but how you touch.  Learn from big elaichi. There, there.  Karayla, meri jaan, why are you so prudish? "

I have never thought to have a conversation with food before but maybe I should try it.  Don't they say that talking to plants makes them healthier?  :)

Best of all the novel includes a recipe for a tomato/olive and feta cheese salad that I actually made (was very popular with my two girls!)  There is also a recipe for the famous Kashmiri Rogan Josh on page 226 which I am going to try next.

Here is the Synopsis as promised:

Kirpal Singh is travelling on the slow train to Kashmir. As India passes by the window in a stream of tiny lights, glistening fields and huddled, noisy towns, he reflects on his destination, which is also his past: a military camp to which he has not returned for fourteen years...

Kirpal, Kip to his friends, is timorous and barely twenty when he arrives for the first time at General Kumar’s camp, nestled in the shadow of the mighty Siachen Glacier that claimed his father’s life. He is placed under the supervision of Chef Kishen, a fiery, anarchic mentor with long earlobes and a caustic tongue, who guides Kip towards the heady spheres of food and women. ‘The smell of a woman is a thousand times better than cooking the most sumptuous dinner, kid,’ he muses, over an evening beer. Kip is embarrassed – he has never slept with a woman, though a loose-limbed nurse in the local hospital has caught his eye.

In Srinagar, Kashmir, a contradictory place of erratic violence, extremes of temperature and high-altitude privilege, Kip learns to prepare indulgent Kashmiri dishes such as Mughlai mutton and slow-cooked Nahari, as well as delicacies from Florence, Madrid, Athens and Tokyo. Months pass and, though he is Sikh, Kip feels secure in his allegiance to India, the right side of this interminable conflict. Then, one muggy day, a Pakistani ‘terrorist’ with long, flowing hair is swept up on the banks of the river, and changes everything.

Mesmeric, mournful and intensely lyrical,
Chef is a brave and compassionate debut about hope, love and memory, set against the devastatingly beautiful, war-scarred backdrop of occupied Kashmir. 


Sanjay said...

Hiya Lotus.. loved your thoughts on this book and your reason behind picking it up.
And that brings to my mind a question, while printed books are not going away soon, the increasing use of ereaders might take away a way many have discovered books. By being drawn to a book by it's cover or jacket, not essentially in a book store but maybe while seeing someone else read it no?
Maybe I sounds quaint.. :)
I liked the premise of the book. Sort of like a coming of age tale, passing the baton. Sorry that was inelegant take on it. :)
Maybe talking to the ingredients is all about cooking with our soul and hearts? I think with processed and ready to eat foods some are losing their touch with what it is like to cook? Maybe I make no sense. :)
Thank you for your review.

monisha mehta said...

hey , nice blog , like it ,
won't be nice if i u can clickover to my blog page too ,
& post some suggestion

Neeku said...

Thank you for the review... and really like how conversations are made with the food... seems entertaining and a lite read...

I think I am going to look for this one for next visit to Crosswords.