London is not kind to people with no money, not now and not back in the fall of 1994, when I moved there with my boyfriend after college. With a student work visa, I worked at a bookstore, then a pub; he was on a research grant. Our budget stretched to packs of “bacon misshapes” from the butcher’s sale bin, and the occasional Whopper, but only when we had coupons. Within a month, we were sour and picky with each other. I had a creeping feeling that straight out of the gate into adulthood, I’d made a bad decision.
At least my boyfriend cooked dinner. (Although even that could be fraught: “The recipe says to slice on a severe diagonal,” he snapped at me once, as I blithely chopped scallion greens.) Midway through the winter, he picked up a 1982 paperback edition of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking. It was the ideal companion: most of the ingredients could be bought for very little, and the flavors were intense and warming, exactly what was needed in that endless English damp.
When my visa expired, my relationship did too. In the breakup, I got the cookbook, and I took it with me to graduate school in Indiana. Now I was really on my own, no boyfriend to lean on, no foreign country to blame for my discontent. Madhur Jaffrey was by then a familiar friend, and a proven guide for living well with no money. I cooked steadily through the book: “Potatoes with sesame seeds,” “Lentils with spinach and ginger,” “Cauliflower with onion and tomato”—all resolutely dull titles, but intensely flavored dishes. Of the last, my roommate, a cautious eater, said, “Whoa, dude. It’s like cauliflower, but funky.”
Turning to the same book every day, I quickly saw patterns. What had first looked like a long list of ingredients became manageable when I saw they were grouped together in a series of steps—which were the same whether I was cooking “Gujerati-style green beans” or “Mughlai chicken with almonds and sultanas:” Toast spices. Make ginger-garlic paste. Fry. Commence with particulars. Step by step, I thought, as I cooked and muddled my way through school.
I was not well suited to graduate studies in Arabic poetry. I am too practical, and many days I was more annoyed than enthralled to read about Foucault, the subaltern, the trope of ruined campsite in the classical nasib. It was a pleasure, then, to turn to Jaffrey at dinnertime. She wrote with a clear love and knowledge of her subject, but she was all business: short headnotes, few color photos, no fuss about authenticity or regional tradition.
I should say at this point that I have no Indian background, nor any personal connection to the cuisine. And Indian Cooking, only 200 pages long, was not the book from which to learn much about India itself. I saw it as a tool for a satisfying dinner, nothing more. So I was surprised at my own reaction one day in my second year of school, when I read an article about Indian curry in Cook’s Illustrated—my new favorite reading material at the time, thanks to its approach that was even more practical than Jaffrey’s.
The curry article, though, set my teeth on edge. It described the familiar steps—make ginger-garlic paste, etc.—and concluded each with some variation on “that’s not how I learned it in France.” After a few paragraphs, the effect, intentional or not, was a tone of seething condescension. By the top of the third column, I was irate. Why was Indian cooking strange, and French cooking normal?
Then again, why was I so mad? Indian food was not “my” food. I was a white American. My parents were adventurous cooks who made dishes like gado-gado and moussaka, but what I had learned from them was French technique, even if they didn’t call it that: how to thicken gravy with flour, set an egg custard in a bain-marie, goose a stew with a slug of wine.
What provoked me, I think, was a sudden shift from theoretical to real. From years of studying Arabic literature, I had read Edward Said’s Orientalism backwards and forwards. I could see how insulting colonialist attitudes had been, and how damaging this legacy was. But I hadn’t felt it until I read it in ever-practical Cook’s Illustrated, in which, through a series of glib comparisons, Madhur Jaffrey was rendered the Other. Madhur Jaffrey, who had led me through a bitter winter, a breakup, isolation in the Midwest. Her food was considered odd? Hell, no.
Not too long after this, I quit graduate school. I was tired of overthinking, of pretending to care about abstractions. I still didn’t know what I was doing with my life, but I just muddled on, step by step. Moved to New York. Got a job. Got an apartment. Commenced with particulars.
I built a career as a writer, particularly about travel and cultures seemingly far from America. A few years ago, I looped back to my old Arabic studies and wrote a book about traveling in the Middle East. In the process, I thought about Madhur Jaffrey a lot—even though by then I rarely opened her book, having long before reached the point of freestyling a curry.
To write about another culture is a great presumption, and many people, especially travel writers, have done it badly. The core act of travel writing is going somewhere new, then marveling about it—and that’s the very dynamic that Orientalism critiques. So I proceeded carefully, thinking always of that Cook’s Illustrated article. How would my Egyptian friend feel to read my description of him? Was I making a comparison between Lebanese and American culture, when none needed to be made?
Writing the book, and rewriting, involved all manner of wrong turns and bad decisions. But again, I thought of how I had cooked through Jaffrey’s recipes. Step by step, a dish is made. Step by step, a story is told. Eventually, it’s done, and if you’re lucky, it stands on its own. If you’re lucky, you’ve learned a technique you can apply the next day, and every day after that.