Curry and Khabaar

Given my obsession with Indian food and curries of all kinds it only seemed fitting to learn more about them.

Madhushree Ghosh’s memoir-in-essays Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family (April 4, University Of Iowa Press) weaves together fragments of her life, both brighter and darker ones, loosely linked through food. It includes memories of shopping for fish in Delhi markets with her father (her parents were immigrants themselves to India from Bangladesh), her thoughts on language (I loved this: she’s of the mind that words from other languages need not be italicized when writing in English and makes an excellent case for why), and her own lifelong journey of growth as an immigrant woman working in medical science in the US, including the end of her abusive marriage.

There’s a common essay structure of writing about two disparate-seeming topics but eventually bringing them together or allowing their similarities or parallels to reveal themselves. These essays do that, and although I found her switches between topics a little abrupt and I didn’t always follow the connections, when they do work they make strong points. It’s a good blend of critical social topics with the personal.

This is one of those books that’s quietly powerful in its storytelling, sometimes employing a filmy look through memory and elsewhere a lot of detail on a specific incident that greatly affected the author. I found it strayed a bit far from the food theme in several essays, even though it also includes a couple of recipes, but then again I always seem to want more food in semi-foodoir memoirs.

Ghosh is a highly sensitive writer — the kind that makes her pain truly felt in her writing. This felt raw and honest even with the soft, rich language she wraps it in. There’s a lot going on, and although it jumps topics frequently and the lack of a linear narrative can be disorienting at times, it’s one that will speak powerfully to women with similar experiences; it reads comfortingly and reassuringly. It’s an important addition to personal narratives from the South Asian diaspora and a lovely exercise in memory exploration.

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
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Naben Ruthnum’s Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race (2017) is a sort of extended essay in three parts, examining the complicated topic of curry through lenses of the dish itself, its role in literature, and its representation of race.

Ruthnum is a accomplished novelist who writes crime fiction under the pseudonym Nathan Ripley (as he explains here, this is also tied up in race) and this is a beautifully written introduction to curry’s varied legacies in these different areas. Ruthnum is very witty which makes it fun to read even as it delves into the heavy topics of colonialism, immigration, and identity, among so many others tied into this now-global dish.

As any kind history of curry itself it didn’t feel as satisfying, although that’s hardly Ruthnum’s fault. As he explains:

The unifying notion of curry as an authentic, homeland-defining collection of dishes that form a cultural touchstone for diasporic brown folks is a cliché, in the same way food-based bonds between people from any culture who find themselves in a new land is a cliché. But curry can’t be trapped. If you push through the cliché, you arrive at a surprising truth: the history of this ever-inauthentic mass of dishes is a close parallel to the formation of South Asian diasporic identity, which is as much of a blend of conflicting cultural messages forced into coherence as Indian cuisine itself.

The literature section is really the highlight, both because of Ruthnum’s sense of humor around the topic (he called them “currybooks” for years, identifiable by the inevitable mangoes on the cover) and his analysis of what they mean to readers, himself included.

He’s also extensive in the many angles he uses to actually look at the surprisingly nebulous topic of curry within his broader categories: he loops in fiction, poetry, a recipe or two, his family’s own experiences, and various pop culture references. It’s all entertaining and highly informative — incredibly so, especially considering the wealth of information he packs in while still managing to avoid an academic tone. I would have read a much longer book on the topic; I think that’s what I wished this had been.

Any good memoirs or nonfiction you can recommend in this genre?

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8 thoughts on “Curry and Khabaar

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  1. Ooh, these both sound excellent, thank you for sharing about them! I don’t have a specific book I’ve read that will cover this area, but maybe these both do a good enough job themselves.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m surprised you haven’t, considering your penchant for baking! I only got interested in any kind of foodie book once I started learning to cook, I wouldn’t go near them before that. And curry always deserves more exploration 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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