After a couple of decades of food blogging, I write this post to answer the big questions that still consume me: why do I eat? what does food mean?
This is my truth: great food gives you happiness; sublimefood gives you meaning.
In arguably the greatest piece of food-writing ever penned, legendary French novelist Marcel Proust evokes how a simple mouthful of cake transports him – in body and mind – to a moment in the past.
For Proust, this single moment of foodie ecstasy would reset the course of his life, and launch him on the 12-year odyssey to write his classic: In Search of Lost Time.
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
In any language, in any era, is there a more evocative description of the transformational power of food?
Please read these lines again. Savour their genius.
And if you’re in the mood, please now pick a treat from your kitchen… taste it… and notice the feeling it creates in you. Your snack will be travelling with you throughout this blog.
Back to Proust…
His landmark paragraph (and the mouthful of tisane-infused cake that inspired it) literally re-shaped Western literature. As Graham Greene wrote: “For those who began to write at the end of the 1920s or the beginning of the 30s, there were two great inescapable influences: Proust and Freud, who are mutually complementary.”
In Search of Lost Time is, arguably, the greatest novel ever written.
It’s certainly the biggest. Running to 1,267,069 words, In Search of Lost Time is the longest novel in any language. Aged 38, Proust started work on the first volume in 1909, and devoted the rest of his life to completing the novel – creating over fictional 2,000 characters across seven volumes. One sentence in the book – running to 847 words – is quoted as the longest in literature.
So much for the facts.
What marks out In Search of Lost Time is not the vital statistics, but the monumental scale of Proust’s life-changing promise to the reader. As he boldly announces in the title, Proust’s aim is nothing less than to solve one of the central problems of existence: to fix time.
In early volumes of In Search of Lost Time, the narrator confronts the core human dilemma: that the experiences we live quickly lose their beauty, relevance… and even their meaning. To fill the gap, we search for new, more aggressive stimuli – which in turn lose their meaning. As human beings, we’re trapped in this cycle of permanent loss.
Searching for an existential solution, the narrator looks for a way to break free of the iron grip of time. Volume by volume, he explores the stimuli that promise to give lasting meaning to our lives: status, fame and love. But he hits a dead-end every time. None of these experiences breaks the endless human cycle of ‘having and losing’. The narrator discovers that status, fame – even love – eventually lose their meaning in life’s rear-view mirror.
(Sorry to break it to you – Love Island – this is how it rolls.)
It’s not until volume seven, Time Regained, that the narrator realises it is art itself which holds the key to unlocking time.
As the narrator gradually understands – art has the power to help us see life through fresh eyes, and to reconnect us with everything we’ve lived. Art dissolves the borders of time and enables us to see that all experience is eternally alive.
At the end of Time Regained, the narrator rushes off to write the novel that captures this truth. The book he sits down to write is the one that you – the reader – have just lived: In Search of Lost Time.
By opening your eyes to the transformative power of art, Proust frees you to live in the eternal present. He gives you your past life back.
Driven by the need to share this truth with humanity, Proust devoted the last three years of his life to finishing his masterpiece. Living in a single room, and interacting only with his housekeeper, he slept by day and wrote by night. The final volumes were published posthumously.
It’s epic stuff.
I’m eaten by what the book it could have been!
With a single, editorial tweak, Proust could have transformed In Search of Lost Time into my Bible… into my Users-Guide-to-Life.
If only – instead of looking to art to unpack the essence of existence – Proust had chosen food.
What the hell do I mean?
I mean that In Search of Lost Time leaves me hungry because Proust’s passion – his key to salvation –is art.
Proust is an aesthete: he sees life through the lens of art.
I’m a foodie: I perceive the world through what I eat.
And for me and other foodies, what a book Proust could have written!
Imagine it… the mind of arguably the greatest novelist who ever lived – dedicating seven volumes of luminous prose to exploring ingredient after ingredient, dish after dish – to decode their unique insight into existence.
To remind us, via the prism of food, why we are alive and what life means.
To help us understand our place in the universe.
To give us joy in being.
If Proust had written this book, I would read it cover-to-cover in French, and in translation.
Let’s imagine the conversation I might have had with Proust, as his editor…
“Marcel, I am LOVING your first draft. Your scene with the MADELEINE is food-writing GOLD… this is going to BLOW THE MINDS of everyone at BAKE OFF!! The moment with the cake… that’s screaming PAUL HOLLYWOOD as narrator, right? With MARY BERRY as aunt Léonie? You’re going to be the hottest thing in publishing! But once you’ve done the memory bit, can’t you bring it back to food?”
But Proust didn’t listen to me.
Oddly enough, Clare Finney reveals that Proust did listen to his real-world editor on the specific topic of the madeleine! From the hand-written proofs of In Search of Lost Time, we know that his editor rejected the first version of his foodie paragraph: striking out Proust’s reference to dunking a tartine (slice of bread and jam) and inserting the famous madeleine!
And of course, if Proust had written his foodie masterpiece, I wouldn’t need to write this blog.
Let me explain.
A while back, I was reading a Q&A with a leading British philosopher. Asked “What is the meaning of life?,” the philosopher answered: “The question, I’m afraid, is meaningless. You might as well ask… what is the meaning of cheese? Cheese has no meaning. Cheese simply IS. Human life has no meaning. Human beings simply ARE.”
While I may agree with the philosopher on the meaninglessness of human life, I challenge every syllable of his assertion about cheese.
Cheese is a universe of meaning!
In her delicious book The Flavour Thesaurus, Nikki Segnit (the Marcel Proust of food writers) opens her chapter on Goat’s cheese with the words: “Like all cheese, the flavour of goat’s cheese is markedly influenced by what the animal has eaten. In a sensory evaluation study conducted in 2001, over two-thirds of the tasting panel correctly identified which one-day-old goat’s cheese had come from pasture-fed goats and which from animals fed on hay and concentrate. For the 20-day-old cheese, the figure rose to 100 per cent.”
Cheese is talking to you!
Tune in, and cheese will tell you the type of animal it came from (cow, sheep, goat – or as with the mouth-watering Cantabrian classic, Tres Leches, all three). Cheese will tell you what those animals ate, how the cheese was made, where it was stored, for how long. And that’s before we add the mind-bogglingly complex story of the living bacteria used to transform coagulated milk into the miracle of cheese (bacteria digest the sugars in milk, producing lactic acid which lowers the pH and hinders the growth of harmful bugs).
With a truly complex cheese like Granizio (please buy and eat it) the meaning gets so rich that you need footnotes to unpack it. Why? Because this cheese blends the raw milk of La Mancha sheep with fresh black truffle. The result is a cheese whose exterior looks like the human brain, hence the local nickname ‘el cerebro’.
Back to Niki Segnit to explain why the special additive of fungus excites the human ‘cerebro’.
“Analysis of truffle extract reveals that it contains traces of male-pig sex pheromones, which is thought to account for the sow’s happiness when dragged about the woods all day snuffling in the undergrowth [for truffles]. By all means make this [Asparagus and truffle recipe] for your date, but if they like it, you might ask yourself what this says about them.”
Eat Granizio, and you are not just eating a cheese of Proustian complexity – you are in conversation with a fungus which has learnt to mimic the chemical signature of a sexually-mature mammal.
For me, this dialogue represents meaning.
Back at the start of this blog, you might have picked a treat from your fridge?
Take a bite.
Your palate isn’t just responding to its taste, it’s translating a thrilling language of micro-compounds – which have the ability to change your mood right now, and to change your life in the longer term.
So, maybe it’s less a question of ‘Say Cheese’… than… ‘Hear what Cheese has to Say’.
History of an obsession
In terms of the full spectrum of the meaning of food, ingredients are the tip of the iceberg.
We haven’t even touched on the depths of meaning that culture, religion, history – and even the individual human hand that’s doing the cooking – can bring to food.
Why am I so obsessed with food?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that different human beings are drawn to different passions. I’ve sat next to friends at classical music events where they are transported to a different plane… and where I’m counting the minutes to the interval (and food). They hear things I am deaf to, they process the experience through a sensitivity I don’t possess.
Music, football, gardening, mountaineering, maths – the list is endless – all can become your lens on life. The moment you live for… the space where you exist in the present, and where you momentarily solve the puzzle of life.
I used the word ‘obsessed’ above. I’m aware that my passion for food can both expand my world – and shrink it:
- If I’m eating with other people, I can only truly relax if the food is good. If the food is delicious, I’m catapulted into the present… the meal and the people I’m with are the only thing that exist. But if the food is bad, I am silent and semi-present – caught-up in wondering where the dish went wrong. This is clearly ridiculous¸ but it’s how I am.
- If I’m moved to write about or photograph anything – it’s food and the people enjoying it. Other families have photo albums… my beautiful daughter has three volumes of ‘Essential Ingredients’: a prose record over three decades of every important meal we’ve shared as a family – with photos of the gathering, the food, the ingredients and the recipe. Food is captured in these books as a member of our family (at the possible exclusion of human beings).
- When I cook, if a dish goes wrong, it feels to me like a moral failure. I am confused… for hours… sometimes even days. This is clearly an overreaction and a waste of energy, but it happens.
- As my friends will tell you, I am a nightmare to cook with. I care about every gram, every millilitre. In brief, I take cooking far too seriously. To misquote Liverpool FC legend Bill Shankly on his relationship with football: “Some people believe football [food] is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
Welcome to the curryverse – the metaphysics of curry
Within the universe of food, I am irresistibly drawn to one galaxy: India.
I live for Indian food.
First, of course, for the taste. From north to south – from the honey-scented filaments of Kashmiri saffron to the smelling-salts of organic Keralan cardamom – I am up for every flavour that comes out of India.
And the rarer, the more off-piste – the better. I have hunted down, and cooked with, obscure ingredients from marathi moggu to dried Sri Lankan fish chips, from mossy dagarful to the taste explosion that is Pondicherry vadouvan. These discoveries expand my foodie universe – please let them expand yours.
Like countless generations before me, starting with Greek explorers – then followed by Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British traders – I am irresistibly drawn to spice.
In his landmark volume, the India Cookbook, Pushpesh Pant writes that Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed back from India in 1498 with a cargo of: “1,500 tonnes of pepper, twenty-eight tonnes of ginger, eight tonnes of cinnamon and seven tonnes of cloves.” Working on an industrial scale, Vasco da Gama and co wanted to introduce the genius of spice to Old World palates. I’m just another moth, drawn to the lamp of Indian food. To misquote Bill Clinton: It’s the taste, stupid!
But beneath this outer ‘onion skin’ of taste are countless, inner layers of meaning.
In my library of Indian recipe books (currently somewhere between 130 and 150 volumes, I’m not sure), there are not just thousands of recipes – but also insights which define my sense of self.
These books are the reason I eat.
For me, no other national cuisine comes close to matching the ability of Indian food to connect you viscerally to time, place – and ultimately to meaning.
My Indian cookbooks are my metaphysical library.
Let’s peel back a layer, and look at ingredients – the what?
In the state of Rajasthan, you may be served a sublime dish called Ker sangri. Named after its two key ingredients (ker berries and sangri beans), the dish brings together two foraged foods, sun-baked in the Rajasthani desert and rehydrated for your dish – months (or up to eight years) later. Cooked together, they taste thrillingly of heat, earth and wilderness. But for a Rajasthani, Ker sangri tastes of so much more. Growing wild in the desert, the berries of the thorny Capparis decidua shrub and desiccated fruit of the drought-resistant Prosopis cineraria tree are there when no other food can be found. Ker and sangri are the staples that enabled previous generations of Rajasthanis to survive famine. Eat Ker sangri and you are tasting the cycle of feast and famine.
Hundreds of other Indian ingredients tell their own rich stories.
And that’s before you get to the Indian passion for combining ingredients at stunning levels of complexity. Cook and eat a single, ping pong ball-sized puchka from Manneet Chuahan and Jody Eddy’s sensational Chaat, and the firework display of flavours in your mouth is created by 51 individual ingredients! Can any other cuisine match this ability to turn complexity into harmony? Or, as the Indian foodie saying goes, to create: ‘music in the body’?
Time to peel another onion skin – the where?
In my collection of Indian recipe books, some of the volumes I love the most are dedicated not just to the cooking of an Indian state, but to the cuisine of the population of one city – and often the specific religion within that city.
The Udupi Kitchen celebrates the vegetarian food of a single town (Udupi) in the southern state of Karnataka, and its relationship with the local Krishna temple. The recipe for Drakshi Gojju – raisins in sweet, sour and spicy gravy – is sensational!
In the whole of Western cooking literature, is there a serious cookery volume dedicated entirely to the recipes of a single faith, in one small community?
In India, there are dozens. Probably hundreds.
For me, this is genius. With the right book, you have recipes that connect you every point in the annual religious and natural calendars in that community, as well as to every significant point in the human journey – from birth to adulthood.
Cook from The Fragrance of Mango Blossoms, and you are welcomed into the family of Kokanastha Brahmin community in coastal Maharashtra. In her introduction, Sunita Rajwade writes: “At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, Kokanastha food is considered nothing short of perfect… Food and rituals are deeply intertwined in our everyday life. For instance, a person embarking on a journey will invariably be offered three helpings of dahi or sugar by the lady of the house to ensure a safe return. Similarly, in a simple ceremony called drishta kadhne the evil eye is warded off from a person (normally a young child) who may suddenly be drawing attention to himself either by his good health, good looks or just general good luck. The ceremony is performed ideally at sunset by the child’s mother, grandmother, or the oldest woman in the house, who tightly clenches black mustard seeds and salt in both fists and waves her arms in a circular motion over the person three times drawing out all the negative vibes. She then touches the feet of the person, cracks her knuckles and flings the contents of her fist into the crackling fire.”
Sunita’s recipe for Paalakchi dal – lentils with spinach – is a must.
And if you have the appetite, one extraordinary recipe book takes ‘localised cuisine’ to the next (and ultimate?) level. Dedicated to the cooking, culture and philosophy of the Jain community in the city of Palanpur, Dadimano varso guides the reader to a vegan cuisine that avoids harming any living organism (including root vegetables). I have blogged on this stellar book before – and my copy is one of the most precious things I own. I celebrate the fact that Dadimano varso is now available online, and I urge everyone to cook the giddyingly-delicious Jaamfal nu shaak (guava curry).
As you do so, flip to page 406, and you will find – captured in a few sentences – the essence of Jain philosophy:
- Jainism is one of the oldest religions of the Indian sub continent. Today too, it remains a living religion.
- The Jain ethos states: Ahimsa is Live and Let Live
- The motive to refrain and prevent harm through the five senses, to any life; be it humans, animals, plants or the infinite number of organisms that are single-sensed, is the central ethics of Jainism
The guava dish you’re enjoying springs from the Jain commitment to harming no living thing.
No recipe in the book uses garlic or onions.
Cook Jaamfal nu shaak, and you are living a philosophy!
The concept of Ahimsa is said to have deeply influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence.
Can you ask more from any cookbook – or book of any kind – than to connect you with this extraordinary depth of meaning?
And yet we peel back another layer – the who?
In the exquisite pages of Spice Sorcery, you discover not just the delights of Muslim cooking in the Kutchi Memon community of Maharashtra, but also the game-changing concept of “haath ka mazaa”. As author Husna Rahaman explains,this phrase translates: “as a special flavour unique to her hand”.
For me, this is a beautiful and important concept: that the essence of the person doing the cooking also becomes an ingredient in the final dish.
Bringing this back to Proust, I think the great novelist would recognise the concept of the pivotal role of the artist/ creator/ cook. For Proust, the artist has a sacred responsibility to decode the essence of life, and to explain that essence in a work of art. With haath ka mazaa, the cook brings his/ her personality, beliefs and experiences to create a dish unique to them.
We are talking about dissolving the barrier between human beings and food.
Taste your kitchen treat again. If it’s handmade, then haath ka mazaa says you’re tasting the essence of the person who created it.
Which brings us to the final, innermost onion skin – the why?
With a topic as vast as food, you might expect more than one truth?
I am sure there are many.
I offer my three personal truths of food:
- Creating human happiness
- Building a better world
- Embracing the infinite
Before I share my metaphysical ‘truths of food’, I invite you on a mini-detour via the great minds of classical philosophy and history.
A decade ago, inspired by some of the simpler, shorter stuff by Plato (Trial and Death of Socrates – a timeless guide to personal integrity – please read it), I kept ploughing through the classics (Herodotus, Homer, Julius Caesar, Plutarch, Suetonius et al). As well as reading these books for pleasure, I was looking for insights from some of the greatest thinkers of all time into the nature of food.
I came away hungry.
Aristotle’s Metaphysics starts promisingly for seekers of truth: “All men desire knowledge” before going on to explain that Law and Medicine are the only paths to wisdom. Great for lawyers and medics – not so good for foodies.
I moved on to read Apicius whose ground-breaking De Re Culinaria (written in the first century AD) pretty much defines the format for the modern recipe book. The neatly laid-out chapters tell you course-by-course how to cook a Roman dinner-party. Sadly, Apicius is silent about the profound human relationship with food.
On a final word on the place of food in the Classics, maybe the most confusing experience of all is reading Epicurus himself – the philosopher who gives us the word ‘epicurean’. Surely the man whose name is now shorthand for fine dining will share important thoughts on food?
Tragically, Epicurus is definitively not a foodie – and has been deeply misunderstood. As a philosopher, he argued that the human senses are key to understanding reality (for example, that thunder and rainbows should be explained by our eyes and ears as sensory phenomena, rather than by our imaginations as divine interventions). Disastrously, his emphasis on the senses has been misinterpreted by the rest of us as a licence for high living (at best) and debauchery (at worst). Read the surviving fragments by first ‘epicurean’, and you’ll see his relationship with food in general (and restaurant menus in particular) is dismissive: “The pleasant life is produced not by a string of drinking bouts and revelrie, nor by the enjoyment of boys and women, nor by fish and the other items on an expensive menu, but by sober reasoning.”
Unless I missed it, the metaphysicists and historians of Ancient Greece and Rome didn’t do food.
Or if they did, they didn’t write about it.
Jumping a couple of millennia, I turned to the work of Renaissance genius Michel de Montaigne (the Proust of philosophers).
As Sarah Bakewell explains in her luminously intelligent book on Montaigne – How to Live, in one question and twenty attempts at an answer – it’s difficult to over-emphasise his impact on the evolution of human thought. Writing in the 1500s, Montaigne unleashed a revolution in self-expression by making his own life the subject of his research. As he says in his prologue: “Reader, I myself am the subject of my book.”
NO ONE had ever done this!
Vloggers, bloggers and TikTokers take note – Montaigne made you and your first-person schtick possible.
Montaigne invented the art of thinking about who you are, and what makes you tick (tock).
So surely, as the man who single-handedly invented the concept of the ‘essay’… and who used it to explore topics as fundamental as ‘On sadness’, ‘On solitude’, ‘On sleep’, ‘On vanity’… surely Montaigne would map the edges of the human relationship with food?
After all, he was Mayor of Bordeaux and he had gastronomy in his blood (the family fortune was founded on his grand-father’s wine and salt-fish business). He also had the CV: Montaigne was a courtier to Charles IX, had travelled Europe, hobnobbed with the Pope, read every classical text known to man, and even owned his own estate and vineyard. If there were a human being to ponder the truth of food, it was Montaigne – and his 1,200 page masterpiece ‘The Essays’.
Promisingly, there is a chapter ‘On drunkenness’ (but no reference to accompanying food). There is even a spell-binding essay ‘On the Cannibals’, in which Montaigne records the customs, insights and lives of three Brazilian cannibals brought to France in 1562. Over the course of 15 pages, he finds the cannibals morally superior in every way to his Renaissance counterparts – and even able to give a lesson to Plato on the purity of the human soul (unsullied by Western influence). The chapter is a masterclass on diversity… centuries ahead of its time.
Montaigne even gives us a tantalising paragraph signposting the importance of food in human life: “The art of dining well is no slight art, the pleasure not a slight pleasure; neither the greatest captains nor the greatest philosophers have disdained the use or science of eating well.”
But that’s it.
Across three books, and 107 essays, the chapter heading ‘On food’ doesn’t happen.
It’s a tragedy.
Montaigne simply wasn’t a foodie.
“Give me the provisions and whole apparatus of a kitchen,” he confesses, “and I would starve.”
(Montaigne’s commitment to honesty is heart-breakingly sincere. In almost the last words of ‘On the Cannibals’, he describes how the group was taken on a tour of Rouen: “Then someone asked them what they thought of all this… and what they had been most amazed by. They made three points, I am very annoyed with myself for forgetting the third.”
So… the Ancients, Montaigne and Proust all stick to their knitting.
In terms of decoding the meaning of food for humanity, they are silent.
But the questions won’t go away…
What can food tell us about the truth of human existence – about our place in the universe?
What can food tell me about who I am?
What are the metaphysics of food?
With a billionth of the talent and insight of the giants on whose shoulders I stand – and with a clear-eyed acceptance that metaphysics is ultimately a sphere beyond reason and proof – I offer my three truths of food:
- Creating human happiness
- Building a better world
- Embracing the infinite
Truth #1 – Creating human happiness
In her ground-breaking book Babette’s Feast, Isaak Dinesen tells the fictional story of French chef Babette. Forced to flee her Paris restaurant and live as a refugee in bleakest Jutland (northern Denmark), Babette suddenly comes into a sum of money – and invests it all in cooking the meal-of-a-lifetime for her new hosts.
Over seven courses of exquisite food, she takes her suspicious group of Lutheran ‘bread and water’ guests (each of whom carries the typical life baggage of missed opportunities, enmities and disappointments) and sets out to heal them with her cooking. As the guests eat, personal differences around the table vanish. In the final scene of the film version, Babette’s blissed-out diners hug and sing together under falling snowflakes.
It’s a lovely story about the power of sublime food to melt differences between people.
Does it happen in life?
If you’re cooking from the recipe books of Vivek Singh, it happens all the time.
Vivek is not only the man who – as CEO and Executive Chef at the Cinnamon Club and Cinnamon Kitchen restaurants – reinvented the Indian restaurant for the modern era. He is also the author of the recipe books that shape my world: Cinnamon Club Cookbook, Cinnamon Club Seafood Cookbook, Indian Festival Feasts, Curry Classic and Contemporary
By taking Indian food on another exciting step in its journey – combining the finest Indian ingredients and recipes with the modern science of European restaurant cooking – Vivek creates the most sublime food I have ever consumed.
“If Vivek’s recipes use modern, European restaurant techniques,” you ask, “is it still Indian food?”
Take vindaloo – one of the Indian dishes every Brit has heard of, and so famous it spawned its own pop hit. (When England needed one word to rally millions of fans for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, it chose Vindaloo!)
As a dish – and as a word – vindaloo is a delicious Indian mash-up of the Portuguese carne de vinha d’alhos (meat with wine vinegar and garlic). Cooked up in Goa in the 1500s – as local people mixed local recipes with ingredients brought by the first European traders (introducing wine vinegar to India) vindaloo showcases the Indian passion for ‘fusion’… getting in on the act at least five hundred years before the foodie term was invented.
And if we need more proof of the Indian passion for foodie change, let’s remember that the chilli itself – backbone of Indian cuisine – was imported from the New World in the 1500s. One of the earliest written references to the chilli in India, by composer Purandaradasa (1480-1564) is addressed to the new foodstuff in person: “I saw you green, then turning redder as you ripened, nice to look at and tasty in a dish, but too hot if an excess is used.”
Vivek Singh’s food carries on this exciting, restless tradition of innovation.
And like Babette’s Feast, Vivek’s cooking takes ‘delicious’ to a level that simply transforms mood and moment.
I have hard evidence. With pages of recipe books annotated by friends, I have the day, date and mood of meals we cooked to celebrate the best moments in our lives – and heal the worst. (I owe this habit for annotating books to Montaigne… blessed with a large library, but not a great memory Montaigne wrote notes in all his books to avoid mistakenly re-reading them from scratch).
The hand-written notes in my recipe books mark the peaks of new relationships and the troughs of grief – capturing how we’ve lived real catharsis in these moment… thanks to Vivek’s transformative cooking.
In fact, I have shown Vivek himself these pages. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to meet him several times, discuss Indian food with him and celebrate Holi with him and his chefs. Vivek was even kind enough to curate one of my trips to India – introducing me to his close friends in Jaipur and colleagues in Varanasi – and creating two of the foodie moments of my lifetime. He is as charming and insightful in person as he is on the page.
Across the four books of his that I own (he’s written others), and the sixty or so recipes I’ve cooked from them, two things stand out for me.
First, that every dish is genuinely, transformatively delicious. Whether it’s a (relatively) simple Bombay scrambled eggs, or challenging Wild boar chops with vermicelli, your palate instantly tells you that the finished dish is perfection. I can only explain this by allusion: eating a mouthful of Vivek’s food is (for me) like looking into the eyes of a Rembrandt self-portrait, or reading a line of Proust. Every dial inside you is switched up to 10. You are consumed with wonder and delight.
Second, there’s Vivek’s sheer attention to detail. Cook his Tandoori grouse with aubergine crush and layered bread, and you journey across seven separate pages of the Cinnamon Club Cookbook, via two marinades and 39 ingredients. It took three friends and myself nearly three hours to cook the meal. Other than eating in Vivek’s restaurant, it is the most perfect dish I have consumed.
I asked Vivek about the role of complexity in his cooking.
“People think I’m adding things to make the dish more and more indulgent,” he said, “but I’m not… I’m really not. I’m simply trying to recreate the excitement I had when I ate that dish for the first time.”
If a loved-one is ever in need, I pack one of Vivek’s recipe books and cook for them. Vivek’s recipe does the rest.
And while the great minds of antiquity are mostly silent the power of food to transform the moment and mood, modern science isn’t. A report in The Guardian stated that: “The adage that justice depends on what the judge ate for breakfast may not be far from the truth, according to a study of more than a thousand court decisions. The research, which examined judicial rulings by Israeli judges who presided over parole hearings in criminal cases, found that judges gave more lenient decisions at the start of the day and immediately after a scheduled break in court proceedings such as lunch. The authors of the peer-reviewed paper looked at more than 1,000 rulings made in 2009 by eight judges. They found that the likelihood of a favourable [parole] ruling peaked at the beginning of the day [after breakfast], steadily declining over time from a probability of about 65% to nearly zero, before spiking back up to about 65% after a break for a meal or snack.”
Food genuinely has the power to make human beings happier… and judges more lenient!
If the opportunity ever comes up, I’d like to cook some of Vivek’s recipes for those weary Israeli judges, and track the impact on positive parole outcomes.
Maybe you’re feeling a little tired yourself? You’re five thousand words into this blog!
Eat more of your treat.
You will be happier.
Truth #2 – Building a better world
Walking into a tent at the Taste for London festival in 2021, I hear a voice I know well over the PA system.
Asma Khan is talking to the crowd, and they are loving her!
“People who look like me and sound like me don’t usually get to the top of my industry,” says Asma.
BOOOM! As opening lines go, it’s up there! The crowd is already eating out of her hand.
In the promotional blurb, the session promises a close-up with Asma to cook a paneer korma. But from her first words, it’s clear it will be much more. Over the next forty minutes, the cook-alongers not only get a masterclass in a curry classic – they get a guided tour of Indian culture, family life, diversity, fame, Netflix and more!
Pretty soon, the tent is perfumed with the aroma of dozens of kormas on the go, and the unmissable scent of paneer. “Make your own paneer at home,” says Asma, “it’s a life-changing experience. In India, paneer only exists in the Punjab because they have a winter and cows. In Kolkata, if we have a cow, we eat it. It wasn’t until the Portuguese arrived in India that Bengalis learnt to make cheese. It was their only legacy.”
In a few sentences, Asma sprinkles centuries of Indian foodie insights. It’s delicious stuff.
But then her narrative goes up a gear. From micro insights into managing the cooking temperature of a pan, Asma switches to macro insights into Indian culture.
“I love my culture and my cuisine,” Asma tells the crowd, “but I can criticise it. I lead one of the very few all-female chef teams in the West – but also in the East – which I find very sad. In India, the approach to food is based on our patriarchal society… where men eat first, women eat last, and girls eat least. Very often, the men eat alone. It’s a sad fact that I never saw my uncles or grandfathers eat.
“But if you go to any home in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, you’ll find a woman in the kitchen. Women do all the cooking for their families and for festivals, but as soon as it comes to money – the men arrive. Go into an Indian restaurant in the UK, and you’ll find a male chef. There’s nothing wrong with what they do, and they’ve achieved great things, but they went to culinary school and they didn’t learn at home.”
The mood in the tent has changed. People are listening hard.
“The fact is that Indian cooking is done by Indian women… but generations of them have gone to their grave thinking they have no skills. Together with my lady chefs, we want to change the perception of women in Indian food.”
There’s a burst of applause.
When it comes to her own culinary skills and stellar career, Asma is wonderfully self-deprecating. “When I got the email from Netflix Chefs Table,” she says, “I didn’t answer for days. I thought it was a scam… one of those ‘your uncle has died and you’ve inherited a fortune’ numbers. Luckily, I did get back to them in the end.”
She goes on to explain how – trying to move to bigger premises from her Kingly Court restaurant – she found herself in front of countless panels of white males, who all said ‘no’. Despite the huge success of her first venture, with cash in the bank and 18 months of forward bookings, Asma tells the audience how an Asian woman simply couldn’t persuade London landlords to back her.
Until she met the panel of her current Garrick Street restaurant.
“When I realised that I might get the Covent Garden site,” she says, “I told the landlord, ‘You have to give this place to me, not just for me, but for everyone who’s ever felt marginalised in life.”
“If you’ve ever been ‘othered’,” she tells the audience, “talk to me.”
The crowd give Asma a standing ovation.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing Asma – and eating her exquisite food – from the start of her career, with pop-up supper clubs in her Earls Court flat. In Calcutta, I had the pleasure of sharing a meal with Asma and her charming parents.
From the word ‘go’, she has used her dinners – and later her media platform – to share insights, and push for change.
Every human being needs to eat; we are all connected by food.
In the modern world, food shines a spotlight onto other worlds, with their blessings and challenges.
No one is more passionate about using food to build a better world than Asma Khan.
Truth #3 – Embracing the infinite
Maybe, at the close of six-thousand-word blog, you already feel you’ve embraced the infinite? 😊
I’ll be brief.
We are, I believe, living in a genuine Food Renaissance.
Food has suddenly been promoted to the top table of human affairs, and is debated by thoughtful people in all arts and news media. Every newspaper dedicates acres to menus and trestauarant reviews.
After millennia of walk-on parts, food is suddenly in the spotlight.
The time is right to ask ourselves about what food means.
For me, it’s time to share the truth of my curry metaphysics…
Connecting many Indian recipe books is the tantalising golden-thread of the human relationship with the things we eat.
The western mind tends to build a Berlin Wall between us (human beings) and what we eat (food).
Take a close look at the snack you chose from your kitchen… how different are you?
In terms of molecular make-up, you are identical twins!
The human body is 99 per cent comprised of just six elements: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, calcium, and phosphorus.
Back to our friend cheese – you are made of the same stuff!
All six elements in your body are present in cheese!
Likewise… when Proust ate his tisane-infused madeleine (or tartine) the chemical combo of butter and water mirrored most of the elements in his body.
For food and human beings, there is no ‘them and us’.
In our current, human form we are consumers of other things. In our previous states (four billion years) the elements that make us up have been consumed by countless other life forms.
We ARE food!
The snack you chose from your kitchen is YOU.
Take a bite. You are eating you!
The metaphysical message of food is unmissable.
As human beings, we can only chose to live in harmony with the world – of which we know we form a part.
This simple, radical thought explodes our human-centric view of existence, and puts us in our rightful place – as part of the timeless cycle of recycled energy and matter.
Welcome to the endless present.
Proust, I dare to hope, would approve.
In his final chapter of ‘The Essays’, Montaigne quotes Aristotle’s words from The Metaphysics on the limitless human appetite for truth: “No desire is more natural than the desire for knowledge”.
Montaigne then adds: “but truth is so great a matter that we must not disdain any method which leads us to it.”
Food, I believe, is a source of truth.
Launched by today’s Food Renaissance, future generations will decode the many truths that food has to share with us.
Thank you for reading my Essay.
If you’ll let me cook a curry for you, I will.
My sincere thanks to Asma Khan and Vivek Singh – and to every ingredient that’s helped me to understand why I eat… and stimulated my hunger for meaning.
Please tell me YOUR #foodtruth