‘Turmeric Nation’ review: Flavours of a rich and varied culinary tradition

A restless narrative mars a writer’s ambitious attempt to explain the connection between food and identity in India through turmeric

Turmeric Nation is a tussle of voices. Writer Shylashri Shankar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, starts out with the ambitious idea of writing a “food biography of India”. Which forces her to open with a complex challenge: just defining her daunting project.

Shankar is the author also of Scaling Justice: India’s Supreme Court, Anti-Terror Laws and Social Rights, where she writes on judicial activism in India and Sri Lanka, ethnic conflict in South Asia, and the politics of anti-poverty programmes. She dives into this book with academic zeal, resulting in an introduction that is informative, if rather dry.

It sets the tone for a book that is meticulously researched and diligently put together, but undeniably ponderous despite her valiant attempts at making it more engaging by weaving in personal anecdotes, stories and trivia. Much of Indian food writing is divided between recipes and personal stories: Turmeric Nation stands out because it attempts to provide a framework for the flavours of this very diverse country.

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The book spans ancestors and genetic coding, cookbooks and pop culture. It discusses the influence of religion, taboos and tradition on food, demonstrating how rich and varied India’s culinary culture is, with little to bind it all together, except — perhaps — turmeric.

Stories and trivia

Explaining how it was found in the cooking pots of the Harappans (2600 BC), she says the craving for turmeric is pan-Indian, hence the name of the book.

The author comes up with an ingeniously neat solution to explain the connection between food and identity in India, borrowing from Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s concept of ‘mosaic bundling’. With it, she suggests that every Indian comes from a context influenced by geography, culture, religion, education, travel, friends etc., and this becomes the unique mosaic of influences that determines what you eat and what you enjoy.

Binding thread

Despite that binding thread, the book moves restlessly from academic essays to personal anecdotes, the narrative losing steam with each turn.

Originally a series of essays, which has been shaped into a book, Turmeric Nation attempts to cover too many vastly different subjects in its 300-odd pages: In chapter one, the author grapples with the ‘shape of an identity’ and in the last she launches into a spirited defence of the joys of dining alone in Mumbai.

The book raises interesting questions, including asking whether an epidemic could change the dietary pattern of a society, then going on to explore how Ayurveda uses food as medicine by studying the link between recipe books and medical texts.

It goes on to reference intriguing cures, like mutton stewed with moonflowers, mercury biryani, and a concoction made by Hyderabad’s hakims featuring ground pearls. But then, instead of diving deeper into the subject, the author digresses into a four-page-long account of her blood tests, cholesterol and a “tut-tutting” cardiologist.

The more focussed chapters, however, are packed with useful information for people interested in culinary history. They are also brightened by charming anecdotes in boxes. For example, there is one on how Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who was vegetarian, would eat vegetables from a patch watered with rose water and musk.

The author says her narrative is deliberately not linear, inviting readers to “dip in”. However, paring down the number of the topics to be covered and tighter editing would have resulted in a more impactful and cohesive book.

Turmeric Nation: A Passage through India’s Tastes; Shylashri Shankar, Speaking Tiger Books, ₹499

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