Work Title: Cookbooks Lead Us Deliciously Astray
Work Author(s): Seth McEvoy
Byline: Seth McEvoy
Humans are wired to be equally curious and distrustful---traits more suited for bygone eras when danger abounded and fear ruled the day. Yet, without too much effort we can imagine what it must have been like for our ancestors when learning to cope with so little understanding of their environment. Gabriel Garcia Marquez played with the notion in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, when he wrote about the inhabitants of Macondo living at a time when "the world was so recent that many things lacked names and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point." One of the few moments of relative security for prehistoric man surely occurred around the evening fire where food was cooked and shared. Indeed, the first of these gatherings have been described as the beginnings of civilization. The sense of well-being brought about by warmth, food, and familiar people persists. We still share meals with a sense of congeniality, even when the food is foreign and dinner guests are strangers. Food brings us together.
When on the hunt for a meal in a foreign land, experienced travelers know the Marquez-like experience of timidly pointing at food. This gesture often accompanied by the universal hand signal---thumb held millimeters away from forefinger---for "just a tiny taste, please." But hunger is a great motivator. Hunger, or a couple belts of the local hooch to provide liquid courage.
At a food stall on the streets of Calcutta, for example, a city described by Rudyard Kipling as "chance directed, chance erected," you might point at a deep-fried morsel and learn that its called Mochar Chop: a mashed potato croquettes stuffed with spicy banana filling. Or, in a private home, your Calcutta host might offer you bright yellow servings of Bhapa Eelish, and an inquisitive nibble would reveal herring steaks in mustard paste, steamed to flaky perfection.
Readers will find these and many other alluring dishes, plus a level of writing rarely seen in cookbooks, in The Calcutta Kitchen (Interlink Books, 978-1-56656-671-1). "In this global age," Simon Parkes writes in the introduction, "it is a paradox that we seek out cooking that is regional and authentic. Yet, what largely passes off as Indian food in Britain is mainly rich north Indian food cooked by Bangladeshis, often with spices crushed and mixed as if with a sledgehammer. Bengali food could make many...