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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

South Indian Stories With Traditional Flavor!

In India, food and stories always go hand in hand. A south Indian meal, especially, is full of laughter, conversation and stories and in keeping with this tradition, two new books by authors of south Indian origin, go on to weave interesting tales with flavorful recipes that are integrally tied in with each other.

Monsoon Diary is a book of memoirs by award winning journalist Shoba Narayan, who lives in New York City. Originally, from the city of Madras in south India, she graduated with a Master of Science from the Columbia University School of Journalism in 1995. Since, Narayan has written about food, travel and her native India for many publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Saveur, Newsweek, Beliefnet and House Beautiful, among others. Her essays and commentaries have appeared on NPR's All Things Considered Weekend.

Winner of the prestigious James Beard Foundation's MFK Fisher Award for Distinguished Writing in April 2001, she takes her readers through the intricacies of traditional South Indian life and culture, interspersed with some of the most popular delicacies of India. Her tales revolve around growing up with her grand parents, traveling on trains and meeting new and interesting people, her parents’ trysts with starting new home run businesses, and others. Stories about spices, that her mother has told her should not be used before one gets married because of their aphrodisiacal qualities; the traditional south Indian ritual of making sun dried vegetables on the terrace during the hot tropical summers; buying milk each morning from her milkman whose cows are all named after his wives, are some of the enthralling tales she narrates from her childhood years.

As Narayan grows up and travels within India and abroad, her interactions with people of various backgrounds spawns some new food interests. She introduces to her readers foods from various regions of India such as Channa Masala – chick peas in a rich gravy of tomatoes, onions and spices, Fruit Chaat – a tangy fruit salad with unusual spices, Poha – a savory dish made with beaten rice and spices, and Thandaai – a cold sweet drink made with milk and exotic spices such as cardamom and saffron. A tender stuffed okra curry and a smooth spinach side dish, among other recipes in a traditional South Indian menu become her ticket to America, when her family tests her cooking mettle before they agree to send her to the US for higher studies. She recollects some more interesting anecdotes about how she held herself a fundraising dinner to help her get through graduate school in the US and the charming story of her arranged marriage.

Narayan’s book goes from the very basic South Indian recipes such as ghee – clarified butter, which she calls the “Vegetarians’ Caviar” and rasam – a hot a spicy broth made with dal, spices and tomatoes, to some of the more exotic street foods such as Pav Bhaji – which is pan toasted bread rolls served with a delicious mixed vegetable curry. Interestingly enough she narrates the tale of how she found some of the best Pav Bhaji in the streets of London. Traditional south Indian recipes such as Vatral Kuzhambu – fried sun dried vegetables soaking in a hot, sour and spicy tamarind gravy and Upma – a porridge like dish made with semolina and spices, interestingly enough, have a language of their own and speak deeply about south Indian relationships, life, and culture.

Narayan’s father, also a food enthusiast, and a keen experimenter, seems to have been a huge influence in her life and appears in several tales in her memoirs. While Narayan has a very specific recipe for her chutney and her father is the eternal artist, trying new combinations, she seems to find his coconut chutney recipe tantalizing and shares it with her readers. On a trip to New York City with an American friend, Narayan encounters a taxi driver from Kerala, a southwestern state in India, very famous for its spice coast. She strikes a rapport with the driver and is very excited when she is invited to his home for a traditional meal. She reveals the taxi driver’s wife, Shanti’s, recipe for a fragrant and tasty Olan, a simple but extraordinarily flavorful medley of steamed pumpkins spiced up with coconut milk and chilies.

Overall, Narayan is a proficient storyteller who has perfected the technique of making her recipes become a narrator of sorts and describe various incidents from a unique perspective. All in all this is a fine book of delightful memoirs and tempting recipes.

The Mango Season is Amulya Malladi’s second fiction novel. This time however her novel becomes the background for various food related events and is laced with traditional yet very popular south Indian delicacies from India’s southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh. Known for its spicy red mango pickles, food from this state is rich yet comforting. The heroine, Priya Rao, is an Indian girl who went to America to study. Now seven years, later she is living with an American fiancé, Nick, and returns to India to visit her parents, confront her very orthodox and traditional family, and tell them about her impending marriage with an American.

She arrives in India at the peak of the mango season when the markets are filled with competing mango vendors and every household is in the midst of their pickle making endeavors. This pickle making is obviously serious business, as everyone has an assigned chore and executes it to the best of their ability. In the middle of this hot summer and the pickle buzz is Priya’s struggle with confronting her parents and her very conventional family. As she does this she once again experiences all those favorite Andhra foods that she grew up with. Her grandfather who is one of her closest relatives, asks Priya to make the south Indian Avial, which she is famous for - a blend of vegetables in a sauce of coconut, green chilies, cumin and other spices. While Priya and her father step out one night to have sugarcane juice from a street vendor and have their tête-à-tête about arranged marriages, they hurry back to have dinner where the staple food of Andhra, Mango Pappu – a thick gravy made with lentils, mangoes and other spices and served with ghee and hot steaming rice, is introduced as Priya’s favorite recipe.

From the Avakai - a mixture of cut mangoes soaking in turmeric powder, cayenne pepper powder, mustard powder and sesame oil, one of the most loved mango pickles of India to perugannam or Yogurt rice, which is a staple comfort food of several south Indian states these recipes are woven into the novel very naturally. Perugannam is a simple dish that can be eaten with pickles or just by itself and pretty much at any time of day, and is skillfully put together one morning at breakfast by Sowmya, a key character in the novel, using leftovers from the previous night.

Rava Laddoo – little white lime sized balls made of semolina, flour, sugar and cardamom, a sweet dish that melts in your mouth and Alloo Bajji - made with potatoes dipped in a batter of chick pea flour, salt and spices and deep fried, a crisp savory snack, are both very traditional tea time refreshments and are introduced on a more interesting note. In Andhra, these snacks are usually served along with tea or coffee during or rather before arranged marriages, during the “girl seeing ceremony,” when a boy comes to the girl’s house to check her out.

Malladi, weaves an interesting story of the tussle between, traditional and modern beliefs, social issues from India that are prevalent to this day in middle class families, all in the middle of a busy pickle preparation ritual in a traditional Andhra home. Originally from Hyderabad, India she also has a Masters degree in Journalism from the University of Memphis. She currently lives in Denmark with her husband and son.

Monsoon Diary, by Shoba Narayan, Villard Books, 256 pages, $24.95

Mango Season, by Amulya Malladi, Ballantine Books, 256 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Visi Tilak

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