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Eat your words: why a good cookery book gives you the flavour of a life, says Shamil Thakrar

24 December 2019 by

When it comes to good cookery writing, you should be able to taste an entire life between the pages, says Shamil Thakrar

I am writing from a quiet corner of the Permit Room at Dishoom King's Cross, with a Viceroy's Old Fashioned at my elbow to fortify my flagging spirits. I take the time to reflect on the past 12 months. It's my ritual at the end of every year.

In this time I've had the sincere pleasure of having in my hands the Dishoom cookery book. In some ways, the writing of this was so very personal, but equally, the book is the work of many. It contains a multitude of voices – so many years of stories. It's a travel guidebook as much as it is a cookbook. The recipes are not just of Dishoom, but of a city to which we are most deeply indebted. It's our love letter to Bombay. I'm grateful to be sitting here with this. It feels substantial and good as I hold it.

It has been a year of lovely cookbooks. I've very much enjoyed The Book of St John by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver, Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger, and Greenfeast by Nigel Slater – all wonderful.

I've noticed something delightful about these three books. Good cookbooks show us how to make beautiful dishes, but I think the very best tell the stories of how those dishes came to be, the context in which they sit, why dishes are how they are, why they have resonance for the writers. The emotional flavours of these stories make for delicious reading, but also enrich the pleasures of cooking and eating.

The context – social, emotional and cultural – is such an important part of how we experience food. Consider that much-loved and most humble Bombay street food staple, the vada pau, a spicy Indian version of a chip butty. On street corners in Bombay you'll find hawkers serving their vadas, deep-fried potato patties, spicy and hot, lifted straight out of scalding oil and placed in a pau – a bun – with spices. There is something very special about standing and waiting for your vada.

Everyone in Bombay waits for it – the tired taxi-walla, the stressed lawyer in a gown, the smiling urchin who has come upon a few rupees. It is here that you experience the city. The traffic, hooting so constantly that it almost becomes soothing, the other hawkers selling their wares, the gothic buildings that may be your backdrop. Then, holding the paper plate in one hand, you crush the vada gently within the pau with the other and take the first bite. It burns your mouth and gives you that instant hit of heat and chilli and potato and fat. Wow.

A large part of the joy of writing this book has been to articulate a cultural and historical context that we just cannot do in menu copy and in the restaurants. It's a way for us to recount our experience of the city. Almost necessarily, our version of this is subjective and I think this is important. Our reactions and emotions and feelings are, by definition, very personal. A wonderful example of this is Ella Risbridger's Midnight Chicken. Her writing is beautiful, brave and moving. She shares wholeheartedly with her reader, not just of her expertise, but also of herself. This is a book for all seasons and states of mind and is as effective as a manual for life as it is as a kitchen companion.

If you're still with me, in the dregs of this article, you might be looking for something to take with you. I'm not sure I can call it wisdom, but I think what I've learned through the process of writing is simple: it is to be personal, to be yourself, to find a way to express what's alive in you, to find a way of articulating the very many experiences and stories that you've gathered. It's about finding a way to bring your reader, or indeed your guest, fully into your world as you feel it.

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