Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What does it mean to fail?

The piece below was written as the second in the series for my friend's website. Success? came before this one. As a postscript to this second piece, you should know that the friend I mention in it has since acquired a home that she is delighted to call her own. All is well that ends well.

“Remember: happiness is not dependent on who you are or what you have, it depends solely on what you think.”

Gautama Buddha

This week, a friend of mine put in an offer on a house. She has been house hunting for two years and had not seen anything that captivated her. Till now. A small Craftsman cottage called out to her from the moment she laid eyes on it. She sent me pictures, I thought it suited her perfectly.

The size, the style, even the way the current owner had decorated it, appealed to her sensibility. The book on the coffee table was the same one she was reading. And there was the wonderfully private and lush garden where she could plant vegetables and turn cartwheels all day long if she wanted (as she had done recently in her current garden, in an effort to teach my 8 year old how to turn cartwheels!).

When we wished her good luck after she put in her bid, she replied, “Oh, there is no question of luck, I am going to get it. I know it. That house and I are made for each other.”

Two days later she found out that she did not get it. Another buyer had outbid her. She was heartbroken. Had she failed? All she had been saving toward, working for, her dreams about living in a space meant just for her, gone.

What does it mean to fail? Should she have thought that she had failed, as most people would and indeed she did for a few days? Or did the Buddha really have something when he said that happiness depends on what you think? The world is full of wise saws and it is easy to ignore them sometimes as the feeling of failure or defeat overwhelms you.

But, she asked herself, what was different? Her life was still the same, it was just the house that was no longer a part of that picture. Indeed the house had never, until recently, been part of the picture. IF she had never chanced upon it, she would not today be feeling so sad, so cheated, so sadly altered.

And what she realized was that the only thing that had changed from the week before was in her head.

The power to be happy is in our heads. So is the power to be sad. The power to feel successful is there as is the power to feel failure.

So she did not succeed in getting her home. Now it was up to her to decide what to think. As she put it, she could say, “It’s all gone now and will never come back. Life sucks!”

Or she could hold on to hope: "I firmly believe that I will soon be living in a beautiful place of my own. I rejoice in imagining myself in that place, It gives me the greatest pleasure to make plans in my head about all the wonderful things I will do there... I have a beautiful dream and a belief that it is out there for me."

She chose the latter approach. This is gratifying for several reasons. First and foremost, I am glad for my friend that she is finding a positive way to approach her disappointment. Second, I am interested in how we all approach problems, obstacles, and perceived failures. I have tracked my evolution in this regard since I was a child. Crushing disappointment is followed by utter despair. Getting knocked down leads to lying winded on the floor. Being told I am not good at something in school makes me feel small and inconsequential.

Then, funny as it sounds, a best seller (among many other things) helps me change the way I look at failure and disappointment. Reading Gone With the Wind in my early teenage years, I saw Scarlett O’Hara not as an unscrupulous, mercenary go-getter who would not let anyone stand in her way but as a determined woman who would not let life get her down.

I was startled and amazed at her chutzpah throughout the novel but it was definitely the ending that left me breathless with admiration. Her world had ‘ended’ and the last person who loved her had finally abandoned her. Yet she could say (and I am paraphrasing here), “I’ll deal with it tomorrow, tomorrow is another day.”

“Wow!” I thought, “That is some kind of woman. That is some kind of optimism.”

Now I couldn’t be more different from Scarlett O’Hara but I do share her optimism. I have woken up nearly every day of my life feeling that it was a beautiful, new day and that good things were going to happen. Even if I had gone to bed unhappy or troubled, by morning I was ready to tackle life again, hope filling my mind and heart.

For this, I have my mother to thank. She taught me never to go to bed angry, to always fall asleep thankful for my blessings, and to live each day as my last. Subconsciously I had learned Scarlett’s lesson about not letting anything get me down. Consciously I learned from my mother because I saw that she lived her life as she taught me to live it, loving what she did, loving the people around her, generously giving of herself, her time, her cooking, with no expectation of anything in return, a smile always on her lips, no matter what pain was in her heart.

I think that a positive attitude can go a very long way in keeping you healthy and sane. It works for me. What some might term failure, I term a challenge. Yes, of course, I am first disappointed by some downward turn of events: an article not getting picked up by a journal I pitched it to; only three students turning up to a cooking class; my publisher delaying the publication of my book for years.

Naturally there is often frustration and irritation during the process of coming to terms with, and then tackling, those obstacles. But there are opportunities too. I choose to focus on those, the proverbial looking on the bright side of things. I can rework the article and pitch it elsewhere. I get more time with my three students and can do a test run of a new class on the smaller group. When the book finally comes out, the sense of relief, elation and excitement are well worth the wait! So the rewards are sweeter for having faced those challenges and disappointments head on rather than letting them derail me.

Finally, I am interested in how mood affects one’s work. As a writer, of course, my mood affects what I write. This I have known every since the angst and melodrama of my teenage years and first loves. As a chef too, I see how my mood can travel from my head and heart to my fingers and from there into whatever I am cooking.

Luckily, because cooking soothes me so much, this transference only rarely has a negative effect. Nine days out of ten, my food tastes good because I cook it with love, dedication and a positive frame of mind (as for that tenth, I guess, everyone is allowed the day off!).

So the Buddha was right. It is not who you are or what you have that creates happiness, it is what you think. And yet one can also twist his words to take on new, positive meaning: If you think positively, you can indeed shape who you are and what you have in the best possible way.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


This summer a friend told me she was starting up a website "that offers a glimpse into the minds and lives of people who are successfully living their dreams..." and asked me to be a contributing writer, sharing thoughts on how I deal with my various career choices and "grapple with things like [one's] own sense of perfectionism, [one's] definitions of success, and [one's] connection to what's important."

As a writer, it is tough for me to refuse any opportunity to write. What I loved about this request was that it made me focus inward more than I usually need to do in my writing. I really had to introspect and reflect to give her the first two pieces she had asked for, to launch the website with in August.

Unfortunately, late in the summer, my friend's plan was put on hold by a tragedy and she is not resuming work on the website for now. I wish her all the best for the next few months. She suggested I offer my articles elsewhere for publication. So I thought I would share them right here, on my blog. The first, which appears below, is about success. The second tackles the idea of failure and I will post it tomorrow.

Success? What is that?

I have never viewed my life or my future in terms of success or being successful. I have certainly never equated any notions of success with cold hard cash. For me, success has resulted from the pursuit of smaller goals that have evolved and altered over the course of my life.

What I wanted most out of life, from an early age, was happiness. The desire to be happy has always driven me, and thankfully I have had more than an adequate measure of it! Luckily, I realized early on that happiness was not something to wait or hope for, or to look forward to. Happiness is in the here and now. There are many ways to be happy, and to make oneself happy. The most important, I find, is to be happy with myself and within myself and to greet each day as a new beginning.

The great film director, Ingmar Bergman said in Bergman Island, a 2006 documentary of his life and work, “The demons don't like fresh air. What they like best is if you stay in bed with cold feet. I always go for a walk after breakfast." I agree. I like to wake up happy and ready to go.

In my mind there is a critical connection between happiness and success. When I was 8, success was the joy of being given another mystery storybook as a gift. When I was 12, it was discovering that I enjoyed writing and wanted to be a writer when I grew up. At 16, success and happiness meant knowing that the man I was in love with reciprocated my feelings. At 20, it meant getting into the journalism school of my choice, then getting to work as a reporter at a reputed newspaper. When I was 26, it was the opportunity to write a book. By the time I was 33, it was getting pregnant when the ringing of my body clock had become most insistent. Three years ago, it was getting my green card approval so I could finally start Un-Curry.

Success is the feeling of satisfaction and relief when after five years of hard work my cookbook was finally published last year. But it is also the look of enchantment on my daughter’s face when I read her a story; the reaction of a friend when I offer a shoulder to lean on; my husband’s delight when I cook his favorite meal.

Perhaps my ideas of ‘success’ come from growing up in a family where money was never very high on the list of priorities. Learning, friendship, caring and compassion were. My parents are both professors of English literature. They traveled a lot for pleasure and work and made sure never to leave my brother and me behind. Growing up, I lived in different parts of Asia, Europe and the United Kingdom. I often think of Rudyard Kipling’s famous, frequently misquoted line, “East is east and west is west and n’er the twain shall meet...” in terms of myself because in my life, east and west have met, providing me a unique insider-outsider perspective to the world’s politics, writing, culture and foods.

Part of the striving for success -- of any kind -- is to work hard, study, learn skills and practice them ad nauseam till you have the necessary experience and expertise. It is never too late to start. As a writer, I often meet people who tell me they wish they could write; that they cannot write well but would love to; that they have stories to tell but no skill with which to tell them. I tell them to just start. “Do it regularly. The skills will come, the experience will build, before you know it, you will BE a writer.”

That applies to almost anything you set your mind to doing. Cooking, skiing, mathematics, surfing. I believe that if we and the people around us don’t limit us, most of us can acquire a variety of skills (think Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences) and pursue several professions successfully throughout the course of our lives. This is what I, as an immigrant to the USA, admire so much about Americans. They pick themselves up from misfortune and start over at any age, acquiring new knowledge and skills as needed and rebuilding their lives with determination and energy! This way of approaching life, as a constantly shifting but achievable set of goals and aspirations rather than one distant star to aspire to, is admirable.

What is also important to remember and what I, as a perfectionist, had to teach myself, is that, while striving for your goals, you also need the ability to let go and to go with the flow. I have motherhood to thank for helping me acquire this.

As many of you know, the only thing that is predictable about parenthood is its unpredictability. Nine years ago, with the birth of my daughter, I stopped being the A-type, driven journalist who had to do everything -- from writing and editing to house cleaning, cooking and entertaining -- excellently or feel she had failed.

The first thing I let go of after my daughter’s birth was the dish washing! That might sound trivial but for someone used to cleaning her home, refrigerator included, once a week from top to bottom, it was very difficult to see dishes piled up in the sink. Did it really matter though? It was an education not just in understanding the pitfalls of perfectionism but also in prioritizing. Dishes or daughter? Daughter! Cleaning or cooing to my baby? Definitely cooing!

And going with the flow? Strolling in our neighborhood with my toddler was good training. A solo walk might take me 15 minutes. With a child meandering, squatting to observe some ants, pick up fall leaves, stare at birds flying overhead or smile at other walkers, we might be out for a good hour, no matter what deadlines awaited me at home. Not only did I learn to go with the flow, I remembered the importance of stopping to “stand and stare.”

These abilities have since come in handy. At Un-Curry, my catering company and cooking school, I have to deal with clients, plan menus, shop, prep, cook, teach, cater parties for 8-125 guests, with precision, efficiency and passion. I have to know where to spend my time and where to cut my efforts short. I have to put aside my own opinions sometimes and go with the flow of my clients’ predilections, the limitations of ingredients and kitchens.

At this point, you might be asking, how did a journalist get into teaching Indian cooking classes and catering home cooked, regional Indian food? I have been fascinated by food for as long as I can remember. Many of my sharpest memories are connected with it. As a very young child in Maharashtra (one of India’s largest states), however, I was a fussy eater and had no interest in cooking. My mother and grandmothers were superb cooks and came from a culture where one cooked every day and rarely, if ever, went out to eat. My mother’s family also entertained lavishly and frequently. I was constantly inhaling the aromas of their cooking -- chicken drenched in cilantro pesto, guava fudge, tomato jam, garlicky brown lentils -- and I was encouraged to ‘taste’.

My food history is not typically Marathi (of my state). I spent my childhood in Canada, Wales and different parts of India, moving every few years, and eating a variety of foods that my mother liked to experiment with: it might be chana masala one day, pork chops with mushrooms in wine the next, falafel the third. This was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when exposure to international cuisines was not what it is today.

Perhaps because eating the traditional food of my ancestors was a rare treat in my mother’s international kitchen, as I grew older I cultivated a great taste for the food of my state. In my early 20s, I wanted to learn more about it and so began my forays into the world of cooking. Marathi food – with its flavors of coconut, rice, jaggery (raw sugar), mango, and kokum (Garcinia indica); its characteristic seasonings of mustard seed-turmeric-asafetida, or ghee and cumin seed; and its delicate crunch of stir fried vegetables – was a means for me to reconnect with my past, to delve into my ancestry. It also has become the way to my future.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


My friend Lalitha, a journalist in Bombay, recently started a food book journey. So when she asked me to recommend some stops on her route, I had fun putting together a reading list for her.

As I culled titles from my bookshelves and my memory, I recalled wonderful moments spent with MFK Fisher who was introduced to me a dozen years ago by my dear friend and one of the best [unfortunately unpublished] writers I know, Melissa Williamson.

Fisher still epitomizes the best in writing and particularly, food writing, thanks to her ability to tell a story, be poetic without being sentimental, make you hungry and satisfy you simply with the words on the pages of her books.

I thought also of recipes cooked over the years that have become favorites: Caesar salad from Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook, one of the stalwarts in my kitchen; potato pancakes and ginger snaps from that classic, The Joy of Cooking; and countless recipes made with my daughter, Keya from children’s cookbooks like Mollie Katzen’s Honest Pretzels.

I reopened Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential which I had read when it was first published and that I have recently been contemplating exploring again, now I am in the “restaurant” business myself.

So, Lalitha, here are my picks for your food travels. Many are dear to my heart, some not so much but they all address different aspects of cooking, food, food writing, and the Indian context, which was important to you.

Readers, don’t ask me why some books are here and others not, this is a personal and ever-changing list, a sampling of what I have enjoyed on my food travels. Send in your recommendations instead and we’ll post those too!

Bon Appetit & Bon Voyage!



The Gastronomical Me

MFK Fisher

As a writer and a foodie, I think this the best literary book you will ever read about food and what it means to people. It is also a wonderful collection of “stories” where the main character is food but the story is really about life, love and hunger. I would argue that Fisher gave birth to the genre of food writing in the twentieth century. She certainly has inspired every American food writer who has come after her! To take one’s reality and turn it into such delectation is talent indeed.

Food in History

Reay Tannahill

This is one of the first non-cookbooks I read when we moved to the USA. That is when I started researching food history at the University of Texas’ fabulous libraries and teaching myself how to cook cuisines from across the globe. Tannahill’s book is fascinating and it will change the way you perceive the world, food, and how we live. It shatters common myths and misconceptions about ingredients and brings a realization that nothing is as it seems, that food is intricately and inextricably linked to the history of the world! It’s also just a great story too... Great beach reading!

Indian Food: A Historical Companion

KT Achaya

Alas, there is a paucity in academic or literary food writing about one of the greatest food cultures of the world -- that of the Indian sub continent. Achaya’s various books, including A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food are the only academic texts worth looking at and they barely skim the surface of the subject. But I have all his books on my shelves because they make great reference guides.

On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen

Harold McGee

If you love science or want to know why certain ingredients taste, smell, and cook up as they do, this is the book for you. I hungered for it for a long time before finding it in the bargain bin at Borders. No one wanted this? I snatched it up and browse whenever I have a few minutes to spare!

Fast Food Nation: What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World

Eric Schlosser

Need I say more? A good piece of journalism. Yes, who needs to be horrified more than we already are? But if you, for some reason, missed this one, you’ve got to get it. You won’t put it down till you’ve reached the last page.


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Barbara Kingsolver

One of the world’s greatest contemporary authors moved to a place where she can grow or buy within a few miles everything she needs to cook substantial and healthy meals for her family. This is the story of her journey.

Check out these other interesting reads too!

Omnivore's Dilemma -- Michael Pollan

The Raj at Table -- David Burton

Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices -- Andrew Dalby

Masters of American Cookery -- Betty Fussell


My friends know that I read cookbooks the way I read novels -- for the story and the writing and the images they evoke as well as what I learn along the way. Recipes are almost beside the point initially. Once the story is done and the images are drooled over, I can go back and pick out the dishes I want to try making. Here are some books I enjoy, in no particular order!

Memories with Food At Gipsy House

Felicity & Roald Dahl

My favorite cookbook of all time is one that Lalitha has already seen. But I mention it here because it is so beautifully produced, still so current two decades later, in its look, its photographs and its attitude to food. It evokes lifestyle, nostalgia, home, in the most delightful ways. This is the way I have wanted my cookbooks to look. Can my publishers hear me?

The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York

Claudia Roden

Roden is the doyenne of Jewish & Middle Eastern cuisine in Europe and her books have that wonderful quality that I love of combining history and culture with delicious recipes. When I read her a decade ago, it was quite the right time. Having just moved to LA and settled in a largely Middle Eastern part of town, it was apropos to learn about the region, its cultures and its cuisines and I devoured her books one after another.

Cooking of the Maharajas

Shivaji Rao & Shalini Devi Holkar

I interviewed Sally (Shalini Devi) Holkar, a wonderfully warm Texan who was then still married to Shivaji Rao, years ago about work she was doing with the women of Indore (the capital of her husband’s “kingdom”) to revive their tradition of exquisite hand loomed textiles. From that point on, I wanted her cookbook but it was out of print.

About six years ago a Canadian family friend gifted me a large part of her cookbook collection (including some rare 18th & 19th century cookbooks. But that is another story!) and to my delight, Cooking of the Maharajas was among them! It is a rare glimpse into the lifestyle of the “Original Rich & Famous”, the erstwhile royal families of India. The stories are mind boggling, including Sally’s tales of settling into royal life as a new bride, and the recipes are worth trying.

Ras Chandrika

Saraswat Mahila Samaj

My mother is a Saraswat so I had to acquire this book. It also helped with the research for my book, The Essential Marathi Cookbook (New Delhi: Penguin, 2009). It is a modest, unassuming and, to a student of food history, endlessly fascinating peek into an age long gone.

The Best Recipes in the World

Mark Bittman

A little bit of everything here but not everything, if you know what I mean. This is certainly not what my collection of the best recipes in the world would look like. That said, if you like to cook but don’t want too many cookbooks crowding your shelves, Bittman’s is great to explore and use, and works as a book end too, it’s that heavy!

The New York Times Cookbook

Craig Claiborne

Sanjiv bought this for me when we first moved to the USA in 1996 so it was literally my first American cookbook. A happy accidental choice of the perfect text for me to start exploring American cuisine and ingredients with. Claiborne’s recipes for pork chops, Vichyssoise, and Caesar salad still appear on my table with regularity and I can always turn to this book, along with The Joy of Cooking, for answers to basic questions about ingredients or classic American fare.

Food with the Famous

Jane Grigson

A collation of articles that English food writer, Jane Grigson wrote for the Observer Colour Magazine, Food with the Famous takes us on journeys into the worlds, meals milieux of the likes of Jane Austen, John Evelyn, Emile Zola, Thomas Jefferson, and of course, Marcel Proust.

In the recipes, Grigson includes those with a distinctly Indian origin like Martha Lloyd’s Curry in the Indian Manner; and Clear Mulligatawny Soup. Other recipes that caught my attention: Batter & Norfolk Puddings; Coffee Jelly & Cream; The Savoy Temple; Veal Risotto with Spinach. I’m hungry!

The Naked Chef

Jamie Oliver

He had me hooked at ‘Pukka!’ Using the Hindi word for “permanent” that has come to mean “just right” or “just so” in England, the naked chef came into my living room every week like a breath of fresh air, bringing a whole new world of food to me in Bombay, peeling back the mystique of cooking and laying it bare in its true essence. His show was worlds apart from the fuddy-duddy studio cooking shows I had seen before. He spoke in his own unique way, had a casual, happy-go-lucky attitude, and made cooking really easy and fun, turning a generation of youngsters the world over into foodies and amateur chefs.

The photographs in his eponymously titled book were equally young and fun, the recipes were easy to master in a home kitchen and the feeling Jamie imparted was that life and cooking were a breeze. And he’s cute!

French Provincial Cooking

Elizabeth David

Long before England had Jamie Oliver, it had Elizabeth David. She introduced the English to warm and fragrant tables of French and Mediterranean cuisines through her writing from the 1960s on. She is just as interesting and definitely as relevant in this age of locavore, seasonal, simple family food, as these lines in her introduction to French Provincial Cooking illustrate: “With la haute cuisine I am not here concerned... The feeling of our time is for simpler food, simply presented; not that this is necessarily easier to achieve than haute cuisine; it demands less time and expense, but if anything a more genuine feeling for cookery and a truer taste.”

A Taste of India

Madhur Jaffrey

Arguably the first real regional exploration of Indian cuisines in English, Jaffrey did us a favor by beginning to set the record straight on the culinary traditions of the subcontinent. The book seems dated now and in any case is rather cursory, more personal journey than documentation, with only a few recipes for each state or region, but it was a starting point from which younger chefs and writers could approach India.

Indian Essence

Atul Kochar

Our friend John Heglin gave me this book the first time he came to dinner. I have enjoyed the London-based chef’s regional Indian recipes and the fact that they are presented in a style familiar and approachable to Westerners. My state, Maharashtra is still largely ignored or given short shrift in this and other regional Indian cookbooks but hey, that is why I focus on Marathi cuisine.

Cracking the Coconut

Su Mei Yu

The best introduction to Thai cooking that I have come across, Cracking the Coconut is lyrical at the same time as it is comprehensive, explanatory, easy to follow. The author has two restaurants down in San Diego I have been wanting to visit ever since I read the book. I hope to get there soon.

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Marcella Hazan

I used the front of Hazan’s book as a model for how to approach explaining the elements of Indian cooking techniques in The Essential Marathi Cookbook (the title of my book had nothing to do with hers. Mine is one of The Essential Cookbook series as envisioned years ago by Penguin India). Hazan’s book is well-planned and structured and easy to use so readers can learn the foundations of Italian cuisine and move beyond pasta.

Chez Panisse Café Cookbook

Alice Waters

For me, as a chef in California, this book is a must-have but anyone who enjoys good food produced with quality ingredients, good writing and lovely Art Nouveau illustrations will treasure it. Not only is Waters the pioneer of what is now known the world over as California cuisine, she has done a tremendous job educating American children on the importance of eating healthy. Her recipes are seasonal, fresh, and flavorful and David Lance Goines’ block prints accompany them with timeless appeal. I saw the same delightful motifs and patterns in Waters’ Berkeley restaurant interiors and menus when I finally made it to Chez Panisse this summer. It was quite the pilgrimage realized.

Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child's Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes

Alice Waters

Alice Waters recounts the story of her daughter Fanny’s childhood adventures, growing up at Chez Panisse, with its resident characters and flavors. My daughter Keya loved reading about them and trying out some of the recipes from this book.


Climbing the Mango Trees

Madhur Jaffrey

The doyenne of Indian cooking abroad, Jaffrey’s contribution to the world has been to introduce the idea that Indian cuisine was complex and varied. This book is her biography and makes for a good read for those interested in her, in India, and in a time gone by.

Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love & The Search for Home

Kim Sunée

Fellow journalist Allison Gee who was part of my original Shared Table dinner group recommended this book a few years back. Kim Sunée is a friend of hers and they met on a press junket in Korea. I enjoyed this interesting exploration of a woman’s search for her roots and empathized with the pain of her unsuccessful quest for her lost mother.

Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food & Drink

Editor: David Remnick

A collection of New Yorker articles about food and bev by writers ranging from AJ Liebling, MFK Fisher and Calvin Trillin to John McPhee, Nora Ephron, Alex Prud’homme and Malcolm Gladwell as well as fiction from acclaimed authors like Louise Erdrich, Italo Calvino, John Cheever and my favorite, Roald Dahl. A tasty book to bite into with a cup of hot chai by your side.

Tender at the Bone

Ruth Reichl

Long time Gourmet magazine editor, Ruth Reichl wrote this funny, sweet memoir. I enjoyed it so much, especially the bits about the mother who wastes nothing that I gifted it to my own mother. I must say here that my wonderful mother is very different from Reichl’s. The only parallel is that it hurts her to throw food away too!

Kitchen Confidential

Anthony Bourdain

What can one say about Bourdain? I like the way he walks and I like the way he talks and his show No Reservations is one food program I enjoy watching. He speaks plainly, has an intellect and is not afraid to show it! That said, I still don’t get a sense of how well he can cook!

No matter, he knows his food. Kitchen Confidential was an eye-opener to me at a time when I knew little about the restaurant world but aspired to have my own restaurant someday. Suffice it to say, the book had its impact. To this day I won’t order swordfish in a restaurant. Oh well! As my friend and fellow food writer, Litty Mathew would say, “Swordfish is so 5 minutes ago!”

Epitaph for a A Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm

David May Masumoto

Having always wondered what farm life is like, this book by a 3rd generation Japanese American peach and grape farmer in California, called out to me. It was an interesting and poetic look at one of the toughest and possibly most satisfying and fruitful professions in the world.

Rude Food: The Collected Food Writings of Vir Sanghvi

My best friend, Sameera gave me this book some time ago and I read it because I was interested to know what people were writing about food back home. It is not one of my favorites but it is definitely interesting for the Indian context.

Novels & Short Stories

Just as food shows up three times a day in many of our lives, it frequently appears in fiction, either by-the-way or as the setting for important scenes and dialogue, and is increasingly becoming central to the plots and themes of many contemporary writers. I was raised on a diet of good food and good literature so my eyes were devouring food on the pages of my books long before I was cooking in the kitchen. Here are some of my favorite picks from over the years....

Like Water for Chocolate

Laura Esquivel

The first book that I read -- on a beach in Goa, umm -- in which food played a key role. I have not seen the film, I have no desire to see the film, the book was so earthy and sensual and visually evocative for a young 20-something, it was a revelation not only into the cuisine and culture of Mexico but into uninhibitedness, lustiness, magic.

Velma Still Cooks in Leeway

Vinita Hampton Wright

I truly believe that there is a right moment to read a book. For some reason, I picked this book up at the public library. I was captivated by it and it was just what I needed to read. Published at a time before the trend in novels with recipes really took off, it was ahead of the curve and therefore both new and appealing. But Wright is also a great story teller and keeps the mystery of her plot successfully to the very end.

Set in middle America, Velma Still Cooks in Leeway was a peek into lives very different from my own, the story of a woman in a different phase of life than I was as a young mother. The book also stayed with me in a delicious way. I tried several of the recipes. The one that stuck was Scones for Friends. I bake these easy, tender treats often when friends are coming to Sunday breakfast and they never fail to please.

Short Stories & Novels

HE Bates

My father introduced my brother and I to Bates when we were 5 and 10, with a story about a real “character” named Uncle Silas whose shenanigans had us rolling off our beds with laughter. One of the moments Dad read to us captivated me -- a simple, nostalgic mention of potatoes roasting in their jackets in the embers of a fire. Listening, I became hungry, not just for those buttery potatoes with the crisped skins but for more HE Bates. Since then I have read everything of his I can find, including his wonderful three-part autobiography, The Vanished World, The Blossoming World, and The World in Ripeness.

Bates’ descriptions of food, while not focussing on food for food’s sake, are so sensual, evocative and exquisite that they leave you wanting more and yearning for the English orchards, Italian trattorias and French vineyards described in his books. No one describes the peeling of a peach better. But I am not doing him justice here. You just have to discover him for yourself. You won’t be disappointed. Start with Love for Lydia or the Larkin family hi-jinks in A Breath of French Air, if humor is more your style.

Sons & Lovers

DH Lawrence

Although this is not really a novel where food is key, what I remember about Sons & Lovers 20 years after my first reading of it are the scenes of family meals, fires burning, cold tea in flasks that the miners carried down with them into the mines.... It is Lawrence, after all. If you have not read him, this is the book to start with!

Anne of Green Gables

LM Montgomery

Growing up in Canada, Anne was required reading for me and I fell in love with her as generations of readers had before. If you have not read Anne, do give her a try. The mentions of food will satisfy and Montgomery’s descriptions of her native Prince Edward Island will leave you hungering to visit that lovely eastern shore.

Little House in the Big Woods

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Long before I set foot in North America at the age of 9, I had discovered it through the words of Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are no more evocative descriptions of the entire food cycle -- growing, harvesting, hunting, preparing, eating, and preserving food -- anywhere in literature. Can I ever forget the Christmas in the little house in Wisconsin, the games Laura and her sister played in an attic scented by the aromas of hanging herbs, onions, pumpkins, and the making of maple candy by pouring maple syrup in freshly fallen snow to set? Don’t we all yearn sometimes for the beauty of such simple (but tough) lives?

Ingalls lived and wrote when the world was on the cusp of changing forever from an agrarian to an industrial state of mind, which gave her an enviable perspective from which to tell her stories. Her books are great for children and adults alike and not only have I read and reread them all, I have discovered her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane through them too.

Fast Food, Gulp, Gulp

Bernard Waber

Just for fun, I include a kids’ picture book. There are plenty of other great children’s stories about food but they will have to wait for another time. My friend Ruta Kahate, who until recently worked as a chef and ran her own cooking school up in Berkeley, gave Fast Food, Gulp, Gulp to Keya when she was little. It is a great book about eating right that is fun for little ones to hear and chime along with, the message does get through.