Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just booklove miscellany in general.
These are two books that have been recommended to us by our favorite book distributor here in Singapore: Pansing Books. Both are in keeping with our current Makan reading theme:
Fragrant Heart: A Tale of Love, Life and Food in Asia
Written and Illustrated by: Miranda Emmerson
Published by: Summersdale, 2014
Review Copy provided by Pansing Books. Book photos taken by me.
This book is a semi-autobiographical story of Miranda Emmerson, a British woman who traveled through China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia with her boyfriend Chris. As the author noted in her Prologue:
This is a book about travel but it’s also a book about food. The experience of food, the discovery of it, the sensuality of eating strange things in strange lands and falling in love with the taste of other people’s countries. (p. 6)
The reader gets to savor delectable recipes that have some connection, however tenuous, with the travels and thoughts shared within each chapter from Huo Guo (hot pot)
to Pijiu Yu (beer fish)
or Bun thit Nuong (grilled pork or aubergine on noodles)
Emmerson is also quite an artist. Instead of the usual foodie or travel-themed photographs, there are lovely illustrations that she has drawn herself.
Admittedly, it took awhile for me to get into the book. It was one of the reads that I truly struggled with. Then I realized that it is partly because the author is a British woman (possibly in her 30s) sharing her thoughts about my part of the world. The voice of the author is coming from a position of privilege – one that allows her to take an entire year off to have this exciting adventure in certain parts of Asia, with the calm assuredness that she and her partner would be able to find a job in these cities that would tide their trip over, plus their travel money. As she mentions the toilets, their death-defying attempt to cross the streets of Hanoi (“We look for a crossing. There is no crossing.” p. 88), and the young people from China who strike up a conversation with her to practice their English skills, this reader (from Asia) clearly sees the disparity between her world view and mine. These are everyday occurences that most people coming from developing countries tend to take for granted: little things that define our world. There is an art and a science to crossing the streets of Quiapo, Manila for one. And it does not appear like the author is interested in knowing this, as she dismisses the experience with a shudder and a “Let’s never, ever do that again.” (p. 89)
Her months of stay in China and their short backpacking trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia – demonstrate a peripheral view of the culture (notwithstanding the detailed historical notes and socio-political meanderings that did not work for me at all) that barely scratches the surface of what it means to live in these cities as sensitively perceived from the eyes of the people who live there. The book is written entirely from an outsider’s point of view, not necessarily a bad thing, but one that bears noting if you wish to consider picking up the book. There was no mention of any local friends that she or her partner have made in those months of stay in Beijing or the several weeks of stay in Southeast Asia. The characterization of Chris, the partner, is also flat and unidimensional. As a reader, I did not feel invested in noting whether they would eventually end up together or whether she would end up leaving him, as the story tells a lot without really saying anything significant at all about their relationship or the intimacy that they shared that would provide a certain kind of vulnerability to the narrator’s storytelling.
What did work for me is Miranda’s evident passion for food: from the marketing, to preparation, to the actual cooking itself, and the presentation of the dish. She is evidently a food connoisseur as she is able to analyze the various tastes and texture of a meal:
... this is what we do, Chris and I: we go to restaurants and I tell him about the food. When we first got together it would not have occurred to me that this was something that anyone outside my family would want to talk about. Of course we talked about food. My mother and I can easily fill four hours discussing one meal. And not just the meal we’re currently eating. We will discuss what we just ate. The last interesting food we read about. What we plan to cook for dinner. Where we plan to go for our next meal out. We will discuss recipes and compare notes on how we cook things. The discussion and preparation of food fills a vast proportion of our lives. (p. 156)
Written by: Mahtab Narsimhan
Published by: Hot Key Books, 2014
Review Copy provided by Pansing Books.
In contrast to Fragrant Heart, this book is clearly written with an insider’s knowledge, as Mahtab Narsimhan was born (and grew up) in Mumbai India. I could see in my mind’s eye the sights, sounds, and the varied tastes in Mumbai as I ‘walked’ through the vibrant city streets through the eyes of Kunal, the young protagonist in the story.
The entire story revolves around love notes sent and received through food boxes, known as tiffin in Mumbai. As found in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book:
The dabbawallas deliver home-cooked food to the thousands of white-collar workers who subscribe to this service, and return the empty tiffins to their homes after the meal has been eaten. These semi-literate tiffin carriers employ a primitive alpha-numeric code for tracking, and, using ever manner of local transport available, deliver the hot food on time, every day. They have an enviable track record – only one box in six million is lost.
What if there was a love note tucked inside one of the tiffins? And what if, due to some weird twist of fate, one in six million to be precise, the tiffin was lost in the nerve-wracking, pulse-racing logistics of getting everything together on time? Such is the premise of Kunal’s story whose mother left him as a baby in the care of an acquaintance whose husband owns a cafe, after her love note to Kunal’s father was lost in the dabbawalla fray. They did not turn out to be ideal foster or adoptive parents as they worked Kunal like a slave in return for his lodging and meals. After receiving a plethora of physical and emotional abuse, he decided that he has had enough and went to live with an old dabbawalla named Vinayak who was kind enough to take him under his care.
This is essentially a story of longing and hope, and a desire to find one’s family as Kunal searched for a place to call home. I was also struck by the grudging kindness of strangers, the vivid and unapologetic portrayal of the characters, and how food was described in such exquisite detail as could be seen here:
Kunal devoured the breakfast with his eyes first. Crisp brown buns, the size of his palm and oozing with golden butter, squatted on a plate giving off the most delicious fragrance. His stomach growled in delight. Vinayak was already biting into his bun, showering the table with crumbs. Kunal picked up the still-warm bread and took a large bite. Oh yes, he thought as he crunched up the mouthful, Rustom had named his restaurant well; this was definitely sunshine for the stomach.
Mahtab was one of our invited speakers for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content this year. It is too bad that I did not get a chance to attend her sessions or to speak to her. I would definitely be on the look-out for more of her stories.