“Let me tell you about chilies.
“The dry chili, lanka, is the most potent of spices. In its blister-red skin, the most beautiful. Its other name is danger.
“The chili sings in the voice of the hawk circling sun-bleached hills where nothing grows. I lanka was born of Agni, god of fire. I dripped from his fingertip to bring taste to this bland earth.”
--from The Mistress of Spices, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, 1997.
Whenever we discover a novelist who writes as well about food as she does about an earthquake or the slow erosion of a marriage, we feel twice blessed. And when there’s a vein of magical realism, in which spices and talking snakes whisper incantations to a sorceress who’s landed on a gritty street in Berkeley, California, we’re truly hooked.
Food runs through the works of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni like a gleaming thread. It’s the metaphoric link between out-of-place characters living in America and their real or imagined pasts in India. Often it is “the thinnest strand of a spider web” that pulls discordant families together. In Queen of Dreams, a father wins over his antagonistic daughter when he makes traditional Indian snacks that will save her chai shop from ruin; in Vine of Desire, a woman who never cooks stuffs her Bay Area refrigerator with spaghetti, tuna casserole and potato salad to welcome her long lost friend from India.
We interviewed Divakaruni when she was still at work on her most recent novel, Queen of Dreams. When she came dashing into her hotel, a little late from a book signing, we were struck first by her rippling waist-length hair, and then by her luminous eyes and melodious voice. She is author of four novels, two collections of short stories, two children’s books and has written for both The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. A long time resident of Northern California, she and her family currently live in Texas where she teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Houston
Naturally, we talked about food and spices.
Q. You were just 19 when you left India to come to America to continue your study of English. What was the biggest point of culture shock?
A. India is such a family-oriented country. I had always lived with my family or with my extended family. The concept that so many people in America live alone, and actually choose to leave their families to live alone, was very different. It was at once exciting and lonesome. In India it is still very common to live at home. If you were offered a job in another city, and say you had two job offers in two cities, you would probably choose the city closer to your family.
Q. Was food a way to stay connected?
A. Oh, yes! In the beginning I was so homesick. I was living in the dorm in Ohio [Wright State University in Dayton] and you couldn’t get Indian food there. Really you couldn’t get any ethnic food. My mother would send packages of whole spices to me. I would open them and smell the red peppers. It was wonderful. You could get little jars of spices in the big grocery stores, but you wondered how long they had been waiting on the shelf for someone to buy them. So they weren’t very fresh and none of the uncommon spices were available.
Q. For an immigrant, is food is a link to home?
A. That kind of emotional connection is a big part of immigrant cultures and it’s a part of many of my novels. You miss your food because it is associated with love and family and home. When everything is changing around you, there’s a sort of stability in the food that is familiar to you.
Q. Did you know how to cook?
A. I knew just a little from being with my mother. A few months before I left Calcutta, I started writing recipes down in a little notebook. I knew that I wouldn’t have a lot of the ingredients or the equipment in the dorm, so I asked my mother, “What can I cook with one pot and a stirring utensil and whole spices?” So she gave me some very simple recipes that I still make today.
Q. What do you still make?
A. Stir fried green beans. It’s very simple. You heat vegetable oil, add a whole red chili and a spoonful of cumin. When it sputters, add onions, turmeric and the green beans, which you have cut. Add salt and a little black pepper. People who like a lot of black pepper add the whole spice to the oil. Stir fry, then turn the heat low and let the beans simmer until they are cooked.
Q. What kind of oil do you use when you make the beans?
A. In Bengal mustard oil is very popular. It has a very strong flavor, but it is not as healthy, so now I use canola oil.
Q. Why is food is such an important part of your novels and stories?
A. It is because there is so much emotionally imbued in the foods that we choose to prepare. When I was living in India, I didn’t think too much about the meaning of food. It wasn’t until I came here that I began to reflect on it. For so many women, it is the way they show love, exert control, and practice art. In traditional Indian households, the women serve everyone else first and then they sit down to eat when everyone has finished. It’s regarded as a sign of virtue. I’m very ambivalent about that.
Q. I love the story in which the divorced mother reconciles with her teenage son by making him some almond milk.
A. Yes, almond milk. She has spent her life cooking traditional Indian meals, and then her husband leaves and she stops cooking. Her son resents it. In the end she comes back to some middle position. She will make him some almond milk. Talk about comfort food. When children are little and they are upset at night, it’s a calming drink. Good for both of them.
Q. Where did the spice world come from in The Mistress of Spices?
A. There are old folk tales about islands where women with magical powers live, and every now and then one of them will leave these very beautiful islands and come to our very ordinary world to help people. And there are legends about spice islands, where, if you can only find them, you will have everything you desire. So different strands were woven together to make the story. And there are old stories about talking snakes.
Q. The spices in that book were used more for healing than for cooking.
A. Yes. In India we follow Ayurveda, an ancient form of medicine. I use Ayurvedic remedies at home. In the old stories you hear of these spices, but they are lost. An ancient story in, say, the Mahabharata will mention a particular spice or spice mixture or remedy with special magical powers, but as far as we know, they no longer exist, if they ever did.
Q. Is there a spice you cannot live without?
A. I’m quite fond of all the peppers, red and black. Then mustard seed and cumin which are often used in combination.
I really love mustard paste. You take black mustard seed and grind it with mustard oil. It makes a really thick creamy paste. You cook fish in it. It is typical of Bengal. My family knows how much I love it, so they always make it for me when I go back. It is quite pungent and you can add a little red pepper to make it more so. It makes a spicy, creamy, thick gravy.
Q. Do you cook now?
A. I cook all the time. Two things my husband and my boys love are rice pilau and chicken curry.
Q. What’s your curry like?
A. I fry grated onion, ginger and garlic, add turmeric, red chili and garam masala, let cook slowly, add beaten yoghurt at the end and it’s done. It makes a really spicy creamy sauce that my family loves.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’ve just finished The Conch Bearer, which is novel for young adults. It’s about a 12-year-old boy who goes on a search for a magical object and what happens when he finds it. My son leaned over my shoulder and read while I wrote. He’s very excited about it.
Q. Are you writing anything for adults?
A. Oh, yes! My next novel for adults is also magical. It’s about a dream interpreter. I’m in a magical period.
Editor’s note: The Conch Bearer was published in 2003 and Queen of Dreams in 2004. To see more, go to www.chitradivakaruni.com.