Bad timing. That’s the first thought that crossed my mind when I began reading Mita Kapur’s The F-Word. Not because I don’t like gastronomic prose but because I like it a bit too much and read most food books that come my way. Unfortunately for Kapur, I had been reading Endless Feasts, a compilation of good food writing — that includes authors and critics like James Beard and MFK Fisher, and is edited by Ruth Reichl, ex-New York Times food critic — when her book fell on my desk.
Nonetheless I ploughed through. And I’m glad I did. The F-Word is an assemblage of some fun recipes put together in a part autobiographical and part historical manner, and a rather refreshing way of pursuing the F subject.
‘What’s for dinner tonight?’ It’s this familiar, almost cardinal question that Kapur puts forth in her book. Whether it’s her relationship with her husband, children, in-laws or friends, food is foremost and is often elevated to the status of an emotion. Kapur describes how ‘besan ka laddoo’ once combatted her morning sickness and how a chocolate cake can really bring a family together.
The recipes are woven through the chapters. When Kapur talks about her mother and her heritage, it’s the story of the ‘arhar dal ki tehri’ that is told. Her grandmother-in-law evokes the memory of ‘badiya’ with potatoes, cauliflower and peas and with her sister or Didi, her teacher, it’s the tale of the ‘chicken gol mirch’.
Obviously, the book echoes her love for good food and some of the recipes seem time-tested while others just seem thrown together. I tried two — ‘orange chicken’ and ‘walnut chutney’. Both turned out to be pretty good. My problem, though, was Kapur’s brusque way of explaining the method. Plus I didn’t care too much for her desserts section. (Too much gelatin, too little love.)
While Kapur has tried hard to draw out every single member of her family, what stays in one’s mind are the nuggets of information she puts on the plate. It’s the history of different kinds of food — be it the chronicles of the ‘tundey kebab’ in Lucknow or the tales of the Rajputana kitchen — that ultimately makes this book a fun read.
As far as the prose is concerned, Kapur is neither a Joanne Harris (Chocolat) nor a Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate), let alone a Sam Sifton (an NYT food critic). Her storytelling is abrupt, at times a bit unnerving. She doesn’t seem to complete her tales and leaves it for readers to figure out how certain incidents end. Like how did she help her daughter Sakshi lose all that weight? What did she feed her? As a fat foodie, I’d have liked to try one or two those recipes.
Also the use of too many adverbs and adjectives make her prose indelibly Nigella Lawson-esque. For example, “The tangy sweetness of honey teases the chunky flesh of dates in the ice cream” or “A sunny yellow moong ki dal, with the bite of ginger….”
A word of caution: Don’t buy this book if you think you’re getting a cookbook. Instead buy it if you really think food is love and one can bond over great gastronomical experiences.
(PS: Where does Kapur source her ingredients? How is she able to stock up on things like watercress, cranberries or Philly cream cheese in Jaipur? Delhi’s four hours away and that’s a lot of planning for “impromptu” dinners.)