Friday, June 11, 2010

Ginger and Ganesh: Adventures in Indian Cooking, Culture, and Love by Nani Power

“Please teach me Indian cooking! I will bring ingredients and pay you for your trouble.
I would like to know about your culture as well.” 

So reads the Craigslist posting that foodie, single mother and indiaphile Nani Power places on the internet.  Before long her inbox is flooded with messages from Indian people of all ages inviting her to come cook with them.  Rather sensibly, she sticks with Indian women (young and old) but mostly married with families, and thus begins her adventures with Indian cooking and  friendships with people  who graciously welcome her like a family member and teach her Indian dishes "in the same patient and loving ways their own mothers had guided them through the years"

Our 46 year old author even finds love with the younger brother of a lady who had invited Nani over to learn some Punjabi cooking. “a sexy Indian boy-man, half sage meditator, half texting, hiphop loving, an odd mix for a forty-something non-cougar writer who loves to write and cook.”   That the boy was 25 years younger than Nani perturbs for just a short while but then she shrugs it off as destiny speaking as she describes how at the age of 12 her favourite book, "Cheri" by Collette,  happened to be the story of a woman and a man twenty-five years apart.  She ponders fleetingly on page 193, "Was I so impressed (with Cherie) as to seek it out or was I privy on some level to my destiny?  One can only muse."

So what did I think of the book?  LOVED the premise!  I think it's so cool that at the press of a button you can summon to you a veritable little India willing to teach and guide in the ways of their foods and culture.  It had me wondering if I would have the same luck had I wanted to discover, let's say, Mexico and Mexicans in the same way?  Somehow I don't think so, for the simple reason I am not as adventurous as Nani, I'd be too scared to visit strangers in their homes...I mean, what if some crazies decide to answer the advertisement and then set a trap for me?

What else about the book did I like?  The recipes are nice (more than 50 and all vegetarian)....most of them are recipes that we Indians would call "everyday" dishes...I didn't notice too many exotic dishes except perhaps for "Saam Savera" and "Navaratna Kurma" which are more infrequently made because of the time and effort that goes into it and also because it requires deep frying.  I was very touched by the author's love and interest in India, but at the same time, she acknowledges that try as she might she couldn't just slip in to the role of a traditional Indian woman. Instead she describes herself a DESBY (wanna-be Desi) and here is how she describes herself (and others like her) in relation to being Indian:

"We crave the pageantry, tradition, history , connection and spirituality of India, yet with our independent, willful, over educated backgrounds, we would no doubt explode if seriously involved in such a duty-oriented society.  We prefer to do Yoga, mediate, wear a sari, eat dal and play the role.  We DESBYS are stuck in between worlds, seeing balance and continuity while our attention spans are pretty short and we are very accustomed to our freedom"

I also thought it was nice to view India and Indians through the eyes of an outsider  On page 17 she makes a good observation about American and Indian kitchens: she laments that while American kitchens have shiny,  state of the art technology most Americans do not really cook and because they mostly consume convenience food, cooking has been stripped of it sensuality.  "We do not need to touch food to make a meal. We open packages. Salad and vegetables are packaged, as well as meat.  We tear these open, slide them on a place.  Dinner is done without a hand actually touching it."
In contrast, an Indian kitchen is a bee hive of activity...although the floors and the stove may be slightly greasy with well worn tools like a cutting board, knife, pressure cooker, blender etc. and cluttered with a lot of little tins containing precious Indian masala, the kitchen has a life and soul to it that maybe many American kitchens do not.

Having said all of that however, I found the book rather light and frothy...just like the buttermilk, the recipe for which is on page 171.  I don't think any of her observations on men, marriage and so on are new or profound and I think her loving explanations of the Indian foods, rituals, Indian deities etc. would perhaps be more interesting to someone new to India and Indian food than to the Indian reader. Also, although the book starts off really well with the reader invited to meet some of the lovely Indian ladies and are privy to some of their family stories and histories etc, however, I found that when Nani meets V, her much-younger suitor, the focus gradually shifts from the Indian ladies to herself and her longing to understand her wants, needs and emotions.

I see all the foodies and bibliochefs lapping up this one and so they should!  Bon appetit!


Edi said...

So, the premise is that the way to a country's culture is through its kitchen? I love it! It makes me wonder what would be learned if someone from India took to learning American culture through its kitchens.

Stefania said...

Interesting book. That's one thing I'd like to do as well and I've always thought I could do, since there are a lot of Indian women in my neighbourhood and I could learn how to cook that lovely food.

About kithcens: I've noticed that in the UK. People have shiny kitchens that they don't use very often. Compared to us Italians who live in the kitchen, it came as a shock for me. Dinner on the sofa aslo, which is forbidden in Italy.

Lotus Reads said...

Edi~ Hello and that's a brilliant thought! I know to most visitors North America is all about fast food (for let's face it, it's all you can see everywhere you turn) but once you get past that I'm sure the region's food has quite an interesting history. You've made me curious enough to want to go look it up now. What would you describe as typically American, apart from Apple Pie? :))

Lotus Reads said...

@Stefania ~ Wish you lived closer...we could have cooked together! I have Italian friends and you're so right about the kitchen being busiest room in the house. When they invite us over we all start out in the living room but somehow the party always moves into the kitchen!

Priya Iyer said...

i have something for you on my blog. do come over and accept it. :)

readerbuzz said...

I don't think I've ever read a book that included food in it that I did not like!

Susan A said...

Hi Angie,

If only I could remember what I wrote! :-))
I remember thinking that you presented this review really well in a multi-layered way, thoughtfully observing its premise from different angles.
I also loved the gorgeous cover.
And I also liked the insight provided by the fast-food consumer measured against the lady lovingly slaving over her thought-provoking menu in a beloved kitchen. You brought all this out really well, Angie.
Gordon Ramsay, Britain's celebrity chef once made this comment as well that the majority of Brits had forgotten how it felt like to cook in kitchens being so used to the fast-food service. He implied that they had misled the fine art of cookery.
I remember the kitchens of my childhood...when many Indian families & in my case, relatives, left over from the British colonial power and who were managers of Malaysia's vast plantations and estates...well, they all owned self-made kitchens in extended homes out in the backyard, that were duplicated directly from kitchens in India. They were jolly, rumbunctious affairs...lots of merriment, voices & noises while chickens were cut & shrimps were peeled... & lunches & dinners prepared especially on Sundays and for festive occasions. So many of my happy childhood memories were banked on similar events and you brought it all back kindly. xx

Sanjay said...

Wow, I loved, simply loved this wonderful review. I always know that you will capture the essence of a book and you do it so wonderfully too!
I loved several things about this review.
The term Desby! Lol.
The observation that Indian kitchens have what I like to call a "cooked in" look. :-) spanky kitchens with the latest gadgets do not make a great kitchen.
As you said it on FB? Indian cooking is all about Andaaz and dare I add about soul too.
Brave of her to venture on Craigslist to get her folks to cook. She was as you say careful.
Do you think the light and frothy nature of the book was a drawback in any way? Or apt given the subject?
Interesting thing about that romance, but then love makes for some strange partners. Wonder how it all panned out?
Again thank you for sharing this wonderful book with us.

Lotus Reads said...

Dear Suse, sorry for getting to your lovely comment so late. I had a huge smile on my face as I read your kitchen memories! It's true though, cooking is so much more than just creating something, it is also such a social affair with each member of the family contributing something towards the meal. In my husband's home, the father did the grocery shopping, the mum cooked (along with the kitchen help) and the kids lay the table and then cleared it afterward. Many a time desert was also left to the kids to handle and prepare. But when you buy a TV get the convenience, but you lose so much too! Wish we could go back to the good ol' days when we actually took time off to cook, eat and to socialize. Lovely comment Suse, thanks so much!

Lotus Reads said...

Sanj, hellloooo my friend! I still remember all the wonderful dishes you treated us to on your blog. Do you still cook all that gourmet food? :) LOL, yes, I thought Desby was a pretty cool term and she describes it so aptly! I think I know quite a few! :) Aandaz or cooking with one's senses is such a beautiful way to's the only way our moms knew how to..they didn't have recipe books like we do now!

Ummm, yes, I do believe she would have had a much better book if she perhaps concentrated less on herself on more on the Indian ladies she interacted with. I say that because the book is marketed with that premise - that the reader is going to meet all these Indian ladies - but about halfway through the book it's almost like she tires of talking about them and moves the focus to her love life. I found the part about her and her Indian love a tad boring and little indulgent, but that's just me. Someone else might see it as a beautiful interracial love story. So I am going to leave it to the reader to decide! :)

Anali said...

There are never enough food novels! I'm writing this down and will hopefully be able to get it from the library. Or maybe I need to try and buy it for the recipes? We'll see. Thanks for the review!

It makes me sad that so many people with beautiful kitchens don't use them. Ironies of life. My kitchen is hardly state of the art, but I use it a lot!