by Harini Nagendra
When I started writing The Bangalore Detectives Club, my debut historical mystery set in 1920s colonial India, I didn’t know the plot, victim, or murderer. I knew one thing though, right from the start. I was going to write a book with food and recipes.
I encountered culinary mysteries when I first moved to the U.S. in 1997 to join my husband in San Diego. I was fascinated with the diverse cuisines on offer: Mexican, Thai, Italian, Mediterranean, and even good ol’ American diner food. On weekends, we opened a page at random in the used bookstore Guide to Southern California, and off we drove exploring a new town and a new place to eat.
After a few weeks, a craving for familiar food hit me. It started with the oddest things. I towed my husband along searching for plum cake in store after store. Plum cake, a colonial British legacy in India, is a Christmas recipe, but eaten in Bangalore throughout the year. I did find out that it was called ‘fruitcake’ (and that the word had a totally different second meaning!), but I couldn’t get hold of any. In the US, everything in the stores was organized according to season. If you wanted something Christmassy in June, you were out of luck.
I gave up on plum cake. Indian food, specifically South Indian food, was what I mostly craved for anyway. We soaked and fermented rice and lentils, and made idlis (fluffy, steamed flying-saucer shaped objects), and dosas (cooked like savoury crepes) eating them with coconut and peanut chutney at home. But when we dined out, I could never get the kind of food I ate in Bangalore. The Indian restaurants in San Diego, delicious as they were, served one kind of cuisine: rich, buttery, Punjabi food like naan, butter chicken, and samosas. Now of course, South Indian restaurants are spread across the U.S. But at the time, I craved for sundal, sambhar, paliya, majjige huli, avial, uppittu, and obbattu and burnt up a fortune on the phone calling my mom to ask for recipes. I also started to pick up a collection of international cookbooks from the used bookstores we frequented, so that when we moved back to India, we would have access to the new recipes we had grown to enjoy.
It’s not surprising that I discovered culinary mysteries at this time, going on to devour entire series including Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Bear mysteries and Virginia Potter’s Eugenia Potter books. And, though that was several decades ago, my love for reading about food continues. Even though I was writing a historical mystery, I wanted food to play a prominent role, and for my book to have recipes at the back, showcasing the best of South Indian cuisine for the rest of the world.
Kaveri, my nineteen-year-old protagonist, is a strong feminist who likes solving mathematics problems, swimming in a sari, and solving mysteries. She is also a new bride, eager to learn to cook so she can feed her husband well. As one reviewer pointed out, perhaps feminism could only take you so far in the 1920s!
I’d love to think of Goldy Bear and Kaveri sitting together in a kitchen, swapping recipes as they dig into a meal of bisi bele huli anna (spiced rice with lentils), followed by death by chocolate cake, and taste-testing a double-shot espresso made in a French press followed by steel tumblers of South Indian filter coffee with chicory. That would be a true tribute to the 1920s, the beginning of the era of globalization, and the transfer of ideas across the world – with some time travel included to spice things up.
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