I met Chitrita Banerji the week before Thanksgiving at her Cambridge home, where we shared a pot of fine tea and she plied me with homemade Bengali snacks—sandesh, the milk sweet so popular in Banerji’s native Kolkata, and postor bora, fried croquettes made out of white poppy seeds and rice flour. The bricked-in alleys and mews outside were deserted from the piercing cold and it was a delight to speak with Banerji about everything from Satyajit Ray (whose Feluda stories she has translated) to the history of chhana, the milk solids that famously form the basis of a wide variety of Bengali sweets (sandesh included).
Banerji is a formidable figure in the study of regional Indian food. She is the author of several books, among them Life and Food in Bengal (later published in an abridged version as Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals), Eating India, The Hour of the Goddess, Feeding the Gods, and Land of Milk and Honey. Talking to her, it’s abundantly clear how much the twin subjects of food and India captivate her. She avidly shares stories about her travels and discoveries, punctuating anecdotes with wiggles and circumflexes of her impressively arched eyebrows. Apart from the breadth and depth of her study of “Indian food”—a meaningless term for a cuisine so variegated and regional, she tells me—Banerji is remarkable among food writers (Indian and otherwise) for her frank and penetrating approach to food.
Life and Food in Bengal, her first book, weaves captivating accounts of regional dishes around fictionalized stories inspired by Banerji’s own life, lush with details about food rituals, changing social attitudes, the pains and benefits of modernization, and the inevitable heartache of slowly disappearing tradition. But as fond as she is of traditional cuisine, she’s clear-eyed about the complications of incorporating it into modern ways of living. “I’m not against progress,” she tells me, listing the numerous positive ways in which progress has come to Indian daily life. Still, she laments the fact that so many Indian cooks feel forced to choose between culinary tradition and social progress. “I just wish that there were more people documenting these things before they’re gone forever,” she says, ruefully.
Banerji’s writing manages to evoke something that so much writing on Indian food misses: the specificity of regional food, and how the cuisines of India are inextricably tied to class, season, religion, and so much more. She shares with equal relish the food of the laborers in rural Bengal and the meals of wealthy city-dwellers in Kolkata and Dhaka. Both, though they tell different stories, cohere in the larger portrait of the cuisine of a place. Her writing repeatedly enacts the small miracle of conjuring up everyday dishes that have begun to recede from the repertoire of home cooks (and which have hardly ever existed outside of the home).
As Banerji talks about fantastical dishes from remote corners of Bengal and Bangladesh, you feel the real weight of Brillat-Savarin’s assertion that, “The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the discovery of a star.” Her elation as she describes a dish of freshwater climbing perch cooked with orange, or the season’s first hilsa (an estuarine fish much prized by cooks in West Bengal and Bangladesh alike) is palpable and infectious. But Banerji isn’t inventing dishes, she’s looking for ones that are on the brink of disappearing, relegated by years of disuse to the margins of the culinary spotlight, and she’s eager to bring readers along on the journey with her…
Read the complete interview here.