Okay, first up, the disclaimer: Anoothi Vishal, the author of Mrs LC’s Table, and I used to be colleagues back in the day and continue to be in touch over social media and, very occasionally, in real life. How does that not disqualify me from reviewing her book? Well, it’s simple: I’ve never sampled the food she cooks or, more importantly, the food her Barima was known for. So, in the most important equation of all, I am in the same boat as most other readers.
And while all of us have/had grandmothers and some of us were lucky enough to have had grandmothers with significant culinary skills, be warned that this book might leave you with a slight tinge of family envy—though not quite in the sense that Vishal is obviously wary of, as self-confessedly “the most reluctant Kayasth ever”.
Caste and all that goes with it is a tricky subject in India today, bound to rile the politically correct privileged as much as the underprivileged it has methodically denied and deprived. It is to Vishal’s credit though, that while fully aware of the obnoxiousness of the system, she is also cognizant of the extent to which it continues to govern life in India. Writing this book, allowing non-Kayasths access to her world, is, perhaps, her shot at democratizing a hierarchy that, much as we question, isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.
Still, Vishal clarifies at the outset that the Kayasths were not part of the original varna system of Vedic India: They appear to have come into their own as a distinct community sometime during Mughal times, rising to prominence as courtiers, record-keepers and general men of letters at a time education was a rare commodity. This proximity to power nurtured their culture—inculcating a love for Urdu and muslin kurta-pyjamas (and not dhotis), among many other traits—and influenced their table in ways that set them apart from every other Hindu community, an adaptability that allowed them, also, to embrace British mores and traditions (table manners and a weakness for Scotch) when the colonizers took over.
The fascinating history of the Kayasths comprises the first part of the book, the entrée, so to say, to the main course. The biography of Mrs LC, Swaroop Rani Mathur to give her full name, would have made fascinating reading just by sheer dint of the strength of her character and the range of her experiences, but it would’ve been a limited book at best. Vishal uses her life—and, indeed, her table—to paint a picture of a vital, dynamic and culinarily intriguing people while, at the same time, throwing light on many other aspects of the subcontinental foodscape with all the authority of her 16-year-long career in food-writing.
Vishal generously allows us a ringside view of her family—a large, sprawling one, rooted in Lucknow but spreading into Delhi—and there are facets that allow, possibly, almost every upper caste (there’s that word again) Indian to plug in and relate to, from vegetarianism in a predominantly meat-eating community (the Mathur Kayasth specialty is the pasanda) and the consequent improvisations of “faux meat” (read, vegetables such as plantain or raw jackfruit that approximated meaty tastes, long before trendy restaurants began peddling soya-stuffed sausages or meat analogues such as tofu) to kitchen arts such as fermenting and sun-baking badi-mangori (lentil dumplings) or fasting foods such as phalahar.
Though there’s no doubting the depth of emotion invested in the account of the Mathur clan, and especially her Barima, with whom Vishal spent her early years, that the author’s deep connect with food goes far beyond is most evident in the sections that take off from the family table. Consider the bit on the kachri powder, an unusually plebeian choice of tenderizer in the royal-influenced Kayasth kitchen. As remarkable is the exposition on the yakhni pulao and its comparison with the biryani, for which Vishal has little time (unless it’s the Hyderabadi kachchi biryani). Or the rant—there’s no other word for it!—against vegetable biryani. There’s no such thing, Vishal says: “Vegetables cooked with rice constitute a tahiri, not vegetable pulao or biryani.... Whatever they say about a rose, it is important to get the nomenclature correct!”
In the peculiarly amorphous world of Indian food, Mrs LC’s Table is a milestone—one, that I hope, will inspire our multifarious communities to look beyond recipes and deep within, into the histories that gave birth to those recipes. Be it social history that ticks your box or recipes laden with nostalgia, family anecdotes or a bittersweet personal story, you could do worse than dining at Mrs LC’s Table.