The author of Curry talks forced nostalgia, the commodification of curry, and playing with the tropes of South Asian literature.
Naben Ruthnum is the author, most recently, of the book Curry, a slim volume of linked essays that manages to be equal parts cultural and literary critique, culinary history, and self-aware food memoir. Born in Canada to Indo-Mauritian parents, Ruthnum has a particularly apt purview over the conglomerations and contradictions inherent in the study of a subject like curry. A catch-all term that first gained currency among Westerners looking for a taste of exotic India, curry eventually morphed, over generations, into a handy though reductive simulacrum for a certain subcontinental branch of brown identity itself.
Ruthnum takes readers on a giddy tour through the phenomenon of “curry books,” the genre of silk and sari novels and memoirs that are often steeped in nostalgia for childhoods spent in India or elsewhere in South Asia, or for a subcontinent gone by. Though Curry starts with an account of the common and clichéd tropes that typify many of these books, Ruthnum eventually comes around to revealing the ways in which his own book is a curry book of sorts. In its final assessment, Curry presents the much-maligned genre of curry books in its fuller, more forgiving sense: as an attempt to deal with the complex, knotted-up dilemma of talking about an abandoned homeland—whether it be Mauritius, India, or some other distant place made mythical by the machinations of displacement.
I met with Ruthnum on a bracing, bright fall day in his adopted hometown of Toronto (he grew up in faraway Kelowna, BC). We talked over beers on the sunny patio of a dive bar in the city’s increasingly trendy neighborhood of Queen West. A discursive and expansive talker, Ruthum pivots frequently, pinballing from hybridity in writing to the hunt for authenticity in Indian food to the freighted meaning of the word curry in its modern usage. His own digressive conversational flight path conveniently mirrors the multiple routes along which brown identity and culture have developed, routes that have left us with layered, often contradictory histories and influences.
Rohan Kamicheril: There is a really interesting hybridity to your book—it’s not just a food book, it’s not just a cultural study, it’s a little bit of both. Even many books that talk about food as a cultural phenomenon still try to stay firmly in the food camp.
Naben Ruthnum: Well, one thing that those books have that my book doesn’t is a high degree of expertise. In my book, the hybridity is not quite an escape, but a way for me to cover a lot of territory while also not having to go into extreme depth about anything. By virtue of coming at curry, which is a hybrid food, I wanted to make a hybrid book. That’s one of the tricks embedded in the book. The other trick is that Curry is a curry book. I talk about my mom’s recipes, I talk about nostalgia—all that stuff is in there.
But it has a metanarrative, too, because you’re talking about your curry book in the context of talking about curry books.
Yeah. And I also shouldn’t deceive you and say that this was all entirely deliberate. Hybridity sort of sneaks up on you. You’re talking about different foods, different texts—all of a sudden you realize, I need to section this up quite a bit. And then you realize, oh, these sections are all in conversation with each other even though they’re all talking about quite different things.
So, where did the idea of doing something on curry first come from?
I really liked that it was cheeky and funny and super typical. I know some people who’d followed my career—and I say this in quotes—from my short story days were disappointed by this title because I’d always written atypical fiction for what’s expected of a diasporic Canadian writer. I think some people read this as, Oh, I guess Naben’s surrendering to the demands of the market. I just thought it would be subversive to write a book called Curry about curry. But I also really love curry! As I say in the book, it was my first recognizable connection with a culture that wasn’t the one around me in the white world. The food that I ate was sort of an unshakable truth: my parents came from a different place that I still had something to do with
What do you think it is about food that makes it so tempting as something for people to both identify with and to be identified by? Why is curry considered such a stand-in for Indian diasporic culture, experience, identity…
I think it’s because it’s easy and, secondly, because it was designed to be exactly that. It was designed to please the palates of those who consumed it, and at different times in history and in different places—in Guyana, in Mauritius, especially in England, in the United States—it was designed to deliver a different culture to the palate of another culture. And I think that has made for a very easy math: This is a food that I understand, that I like.
But then it gets complicated because the people who are cooking it for other people then also start consuming it themselves. Like, in New York you have Indians going to these terrible Indian restaurants all the time.
Yeah, there’s a section I quote in the book from Lizzie Collingham’s much superior book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerers where she has an interview with a big mogul restaurateur and he talks about how his son now only has a taste for UK Indian food. And he doesn’t have a taste for it at all, himself.
It’s an interesting cultural moment where rather than having Ruth Reichl say this is the lodestar of Indian cuisine—and I just chose her at random, it could just as easily be Julie Sahni talking about larger truths in Indian food—you now could have someone like Tejal Rao saying in The New York Times, my grandparents’ Gujarati food is my touchstone. What do you think about that?
As I move toward concluding in the book, I talk about how there’s been a drive to have this universalizing brown identity in the West, and I think part of that comes through in us wanting to identify what real, authentic Indian food is. The only thing that ends up happening is that we see just how many separate variations there are on what real, authentic Indian food is. Which I think reflects so much on the fact that you and I, for example, have extremely different backgrounds. Our histories aren’t shared and our ordinary day-to-day lives are reflective of an enormously different experience. So it’s sort of the double edge of solidarity—of course we share experiences all the time, based on how other people perceive us, but that shouldn’t color how we view our histories or our need to belong to each other.
I had that line in the book about how, if “Indian” is a baggy term, then “South Asian” is parachute pants. It really is that way, it’s ridiculous. My parents are from Mauritius so, yeah, I was constantly aware of this, and as a kid it would annoy me that they were drawn toward books from the Indian diaspora. I was like, you don’t have anything to do with these books, even your grandparents didn’t—their parents did. You have no relation with them at all. That doesn’t bother me anymore. I understand it, quite a bit. Because so many of those stories are also about people who are displaced looking back.
You’re critical—and I mean that in the full sense of the word—of the genre of curry books; you really explore what they are and it seems like you start with one notion of what they are and the picture changes. Can you talk a little bit about that, and also, how do you think this book fits into the canon of curry books?
That really reflects my experience of doing the research for this book because I had an overly stereotyped idea of what they were. When I say “curry book”—or, as others call them, “silk and sari novels”—brown people in particular are always like, oh, I know that story. And I always thought I knew that book and knew that story, too. Now I’ve read several of these books that cling to these tropes—the displaced person in the West looking back, finding solutions in the homeland. But what I discovered was that a lot of them—Brick Lane, for example, by Monica Ali, which starts in such a typical way that unless it was homework for me I never would have finished that book—actually ended up being quite nuanced, quite rich in character, and quite different. That book ends with the book’s main character, Nazneen, and her husband, who does end up going back to Bangladesh, discovering that nostalgia is a lie after all, and Nazneen loves her life in the West. Some aspect of her at least doesn’t want to go back.
I think there’s more of a range of complexity within people who’ve written curry books than I’d previously thought. They still have a lot of those trope elements but people are really playing with them. And this is a book that plays with them. I’d say the most curry bookish element of it is the memoir aspect, but as you say, it’s memoir that’s constantly interrogating and questioning—
Yeah. You’ll read something that’s very much like, he misses his mom and is trying to cook her food, and then on the next page you’ll read something that’s really mocking that notion.
But I also think what’s really different about this book compared to many culinary memoirs is that the story you’re telling is not all peachy. You talk a lot about the differences between how you cook and how your mom cooks and how some things just can’t be translated between generations. I feel like so few culinary memoirs are willing to go there, which is confounding because most memoirs outside of the culinary genre are gagging to tell you how misunderstood the authors are and how complicated everything is, but with food it’s like, oh, everything is amazing.
You even see that in great stuff, like early great stuff like MFK Fisher, where food is a place of harmony in her life.
In How to Cook a Wolf she does talk about hunger, but it’s not as prevalent as you’d think it would be. But with Indian food it’s particularly problematic because so many people in India are hungry.
And how do you talk about nostalgia for a country which, when many people left it they never wanted to come back? Or, rather, never wanted to move back and have their lives there. There’s this early short story that I wrote, that I talk about at the end of the book—“Cinema Rex”—that is about these kids who grew up next to a theatre and see it as a kind of a portal to the West. I think that’s actually a true lived experience for a lot of immigrants. It’s actually similar to curry in that sense—the portal. Having once leapt at that portal, my father and my mother, both of whose parents wanted them to move back, knew it was never going to happen. There’s a difference between memory and nostalgia that drives how we act.
What do you think about the hunt for authenticity? As interest in Indian culture and Indian food grow, there’s a corresponding spike in interest in being the person who knows the most about it, who’s pinned it down and knows the most obscure detail. Do you think that that’s had a sort of flattening effect, or is that a good goad, to prompt people in the right direction?
I think it’s good if it’s playful and it’s bad if it’s not. I’m not an expert, but I really don’t think you can draw an authentic history of Indian cuisine leading up to what we’re eating right now that doesn’t involve constant hybridity and trade and colonialism. And I think people are wary of that, in that it seems like if you’re not celebrating what’s most Indian about this food then you’re celebrating colonialism and empire—as part of celebrating the “authentic.”
The word “curry,” is so loaded, so filled with implications, so fraught, but do you think it has added nuance to it in its diasporic use? Or do you think those meanings are already built into it because the history of India is so fraught with immigrations and colonizations?
I think it’s kind of both. I think it’s already fraught, but the fact that it’s used so flatly and as a huge categorical descriptor that, to many of the people who utter it, only means one or two or three things—that’s what makes it such a great word. So you don’t actually know what you’re saying, for the most part.
Are there advantages to that? Is it a good thing to have an elastic word whose meaning you can stretch and adapt to your needs?
I think so, certainly. Because I get to title a book after it and to talk about all these incredibly disparate concepts. Also I think it is constantly pointing to that truth, that there is so much going on in our thoughts about authenticity and food and where we come from and how we represent ourselves.
And it sort of encompasses all of that—contradictions and all. It’s a very contradictory word.
Yeah. That’s why I’ve compared the word curry to wine. If you’ve grown up with Western writing, Western art, wine is such an endless metaphor. Curry’s like that, too.
I wanted to ask about nostalgia. It gets a bad rap, not just with food. I can see the contaminating effect of applying nostalgia too liberally to the memory of a place that you came from. Do you think that the remedy to that is to be optimistic about the future? Or is that also a skewed way of looking at things? Is looking at the future with those same rosy lenses just as misleading?
If there’s a tint to my lenses it’s wry realism in both directions, which isn’t really a color. I don’t think nostalgia is entirely poisonous. There must be a way of looking back that acknowledges that history is where your memories actually are. I do think it can probably be counteracted by a look toward the future. It should be counteracted by a solid grounding in the present and in the way that we think about our identities now and how much those identities are reflected in the work we do. I do think our notions of diversity should also encompass individuality within diverse groups. I feel, for example, that while this book is a relief for a lot of brown people to read, for a lot of other brown people, they look at it as sort of an insulting pushback against a very certain and agreed-upon version of what diversity is supposed to be. I say mean things about other people’s books and movies. Nothing too brutal. But I think adulation is the general mode within a racial group’s criticism, like, this is so great that this voice is being heard. Whereas I’m saying, it’s great, but isn’t it a lot like what that other voice said?
It’s figuring out the line between ones role as a critic and ones role as a member of a certain community.
Exactly. And I feel like I still do that best through my fiction, which I look at as the work that I started with first.
It occurs to me that various things that are endemic to curry books (and the ways that brown people treat each other and are treated by other people) stem from many brown people’s desire to engage with their past. But I think they also reflect an interest in learning how to engage with the larger culture. So they’re both selling their history to themselves and also selling themselves to the larger, in many cases, white, culture.
I mean, I couldn’t put it better than that. [Laughs]
But that’s a contradiction, right?
Yeah, and where that contradiction arises from is that so many of these writers and storytellers have grown up with a foot equally in white culture and in brown culture. Even brown people who do have deep roots in the East also have no fucking clue about what to make out of their past.
How do you view your relationship to India? It seems like you would have two lenses—you’re a person of Indian origin who lives in Canada, but your family is already once displaced from India. I know you talk about your relationship to your parents’ relationship to India—how do you frame your own relationship to India?
I don’t have one, I would have to say. I would like one. I’m very interested in it as a nation but I feel about the same level of connection to it as I have with Mexico, which is another nation that I’ve always been interested in and read a lot about. But I do have much more of a sense of connection to Mauritius, which is a place I badly want to go back to. I don’t know enough about India, I feel like I would be dishonoring it by pretending to have some kind of link to it.
I feel, and perhaps this is just my opinion, that India sort of arranges discussion around itself whenever it comes up, especially in connection with the countries in its orbit. So anything that’s even tangentially connected to it is required to then be about India.
Do you find that that’s true when you’re talking about curry? Do you find that the conversation always gets forced back to India?
It always gets back to India. Coming from someone who is of Mauritian origin, it’s interesting how nostalgia skips a few steps around how your family was initially displaced, being brought over as coolies to Mauritius or by other nefarious means. But maybe it’s not skipping a step after all. Maybe it’s more pleasant to think of India as a homeland that you’re connected to.
Can you talk a little bit about what it was like doing research for the book? Had you read most of the books before?
No, no. And I’m very proud of the bibliography for that book because I read a lot of books in a very short time. For a long time I’d been drawn to books by Paul Scott and J.G. Farrell, books that were about India but mostly by white guys. Sometimes when I’m gravitating toward a certain kind of book, I don’t question it for a while but then eventually I’m like, why am I doing this? Those are very well-written, well-crafted books, especially The Siege of Krishnapur, which is an amazing novel. Such a good book, highly recommended. But it was only in the last two years that I really got into Rushdie as well. I’d been prejudiced against these books by people of my color largely, I think, because of the pressure I felt later in life to write books like those. But then I also didn’t really know what those books were like.
Did you reread any books that you found you approached differently on a second try?
The Monica Ali actually. I’d read the first hundred pages of it before.
And then abandoned it?
[Laughs] Exactly. So it actually made me follow through with it.
A lot of cookbook authors feel a great pressure to add narratives to the recipes that provide a little context about where the food comes from. The general thinking, and I agree with it, is that it gives some much-needed background about the places, people, and culture behind cuisines. But, and especially with so-called ethnic cuisines, and especially with Indian cuisine, do you think that there’s a tendency to add text that presents a somewhat romantic picture of what the food and the culture are about?
There’s a brief section in the book where I talk about the introductions to three cookbooks and they’re all the same! [Laughs] There’s one by a Mauritian author, one by an Australian Indian writer and one by a UK Indian writer. And, yeah, I think that’s actually the purest form of the curry book now. Those four introductory pages in the beginning of a cookbook by a South Asian cookbook writer, and to me it always feels like the fakest part of that book. Especially if it’s by, like, a twenty-year-grizzled restaurateur or professional chef. This sense of connecting to a childhood and the way that Amma cooked on the stove. It always rings a little false to me, even if it is true. I don’t know if that’s how that person thinks about food anymore after twenty years of professional cooking.
I have a friend who’s really interested in Italian cooking and so she reads a lot of Italian cookbooks and she always says, if she has to read one more story about how a chef grew up rolling handmade pasta with his nonna, she’s going to shoot herself! Because there’s an uncanny similarity to all these stories.
And I wish cookbook publishers would take note of that. I mean, this book is a real stay-in-my-lane book. I’m talking about brown stuff, but more generally Asian American narratives are also haunted by this, that you have to tell the story this way. But as I acknowledge kind of repeatedly, there is some truth to it! The way your mom cooked was important to you, it’s just not necessarily important to talk about it again.
How you talk about it is also a large part of the issue. And I feel like there’s less due diligence done with a lot of cookbooks. It’s like, check these boxes, get this story out, and that’s kind of it.