How not to write a food book
The best is carefully saved for the last in Kalyan Karmakar’s book, The Travelling Belly: Eating Through India’s Bylanes.
Each city-specific chapter concludes with a user-friendly ‘Food Walk’ section, describing routes one may take to sample the best dishes a place has to offer, from the Baga Classics Walk in Goa to the South Kolkata Brunch Walk, and from the Biryani Trail at Velachery, Chennai, to the Green Amritsar Trail.
The book as a whole, too, ends on a high: The last chapter is called, unequivocally, ‘Mumbai, I Love You’ and it is the ode in this Indian street food Odyssey. If, like me, you are one of the 65,000 people who follow him on Twitter (@finelychopped)—I confess to not being familiar with his blog, dating back to the early days of the phenomenon—some of this part of the book may even come back from random tweets over the years: Candies, Ling’s Pavilion, Khane Khaas are places Karmakar has mentioned umpteen times, along with snatches of his experiences at the market and his humorous exasperation with his unreliable cook, hashtagged #bunkinBanu.
This, the last and longest chapter, contains the stuff of life: stories about familiars, an all-pervasive sense of place and an unquestionable intimacy with the food. It is fluent, layered, even insightful.
It is, in fact, all that the rest of the book isn’t.
The Travelling Belly is an ambitious project, setting out to record Karmakar’s trysts with street food in 10 cities across India—Kolkata, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Delhi, Chennai, Amritsar, Jaipur, Bengaluru, Goa and Mumbai. The usual suspects, in fact, though there are multiple other cities (Indore, Bhopal, Ahmedabad, to name a few that I’m personally acquainted with) far better-regarded for their street fare, and far less publicized. But the book was born largely out of Karmakar’s work-related travel so the choice of cities was perhaps merely a matter of convenience.
As convenient is the crowd-sourcing methodology: Karmakar, a Twitter star, puts out a tweet stating his impending travel plans and scores of followers respond with recommendations. He then diligently crosschecks these suggestions with locals and ventures forth into the alleys and gullies, mostly eating where others have eaten and extolling the virtues of food already extolled. In Kolkata, he ventures forth into Dacres Lane; in Lucknow, he eats at Tunday Kababi; in Delhi, he goes to Karim’s.
I’m being facetious here because, of course, he goes to other places as well, some actually less obvious, but the template remains the same: painstaking descriptions of the approach to such-and-such place (“I headed to Tunday down a long, deserted alley”), the physical circumstances of the eatery (“Behind the kebab maker was a stark, cavernous hall”), the process of ordering (“My table mates seemed to be regulars and confidently called for the waiter. I took advantage of this opportunity and placed my order for kebabs and parathas when the waiter arrived”), the food (“The paratha was thin and muslin-like... I broke a bit of the kebab with a bit of the paratha and popped the combination into my mouth. The first bite brought a smile to my face”).
There is, honestly, nothing more boring than reading about people eating.
Oh, wait. After 300-odd pages, I can qualify that—there’s nothing more boring than reading about people eating when it is written by a strictly mediocre writer. There is not one section in the non-Mumbai chapters that felt inspired or transportive, and possibly one or two that sought to give any insight at all into the food being eaten. Everything (and yes, I’m being sweeping here again), from kebabs to dosa, is “crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside”. Every second dish (yes, yes, I’m generalizing) puts a happy smile on his face. And nothing (usual disclaimers apply) gets the benefit of a breakdown—there’s little attempt to explain why one chaat works, and one biryani doesn’t, what spices enrich the goat brain fry or how one gulab jamun beats another. Taste is a completely subjective matter but a little bit of critical insight wouldn’t have gone amiss.
This paragraph, from the chapter on Amritsar, is typical:
“We sat down to eat and were floored by the quality of the food. The magic of slow cooking showed in the delectably flavoured dal; it was served with ghee-soaked rotis which were delicious. The gulab jamuns that we ate that night were some of the best gulab jamuns I’ve ever had.”
This is banal, Zomato-level writing. It is perhaps passable as a diary entry or a blogpost or, most advisable of all, a 140-character tweet, but it is a disgrace to the time and effort and resources spent in making a book.
There’s the zero-rigour writing and then there’s the patently laughable. One tip: “If you are not very hungry I would recommend choosing a sada dosa over a masala one.”
And from the chapter on Chennai, when Karmakar is sharing a meal with the ITC Grand Chola’s Ajit Bangera:
“Chef Bangera advised me to scoop a bit of the potato masala with a piece of the dosa and pop it into my mouth. I did so and it suddenly struck me that with one action of mine I had united North and South India. The way I tore the dosa and had it with the potato masala was exactly how someone in the north of India would have rotis and aloo sabzi.”
In the 20-odd years I’ve been reviewing fiction and non-fiction, few books have left me as disappointed or angered as The Travelling Belly. The disappointment comes from the super-low bars authors – and publishers – seem to be settling for. And the anger is self-directed, because, while I was forcing myself to finish this book – yes, I read every page – I had a growing to-read pile that includes Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and a book of “stories, recipes and thoughts” by a bona fide chef.
Life’s too short for The Travelling Belly, frankly.