A bold, brassy commitment-phobic young woman. A wannabe chef whose Michelin star aspirations are constantly thwarted by his ramrod-backed war hero father. A family scandal. A lost recipe book.
Steeped in the aroma of curries and roasts, brimming with love, banter and culinary secrets ancient and modern, The Indian Café in London is a tale of lost recipes, lost loves, and lost identities.
“If books and cooking are your relaxation mantra, how can you not read The Indian Café in London?” When I received this message from the author regarding the book review, I knew I had to pick it up. After all, how could I refuse a book about food and lost recipes? The generous dose of nostalgia as an army brat was a pleasant surprise.
At its heart, The Indian Café in London by Veena Nagpal is a story about food. Relationships with food. Relationships around food. Lost families. Found families. It is a love story in all its forms. Romantic, filial, and above all, with food. A story woven around three primary characters who cannot be different from each other but are linked by a common thread.
“Relationships develop around food – not just cultural memories of particular foods but how they fit into a person’s individual experience, his family values and history.“
Akhil, the son of a larger-than-life war hero who wants to pursue his culinary dreams. A dream that takes him from the cozy comfort of the cantonment to the bylanes of Chandni Chowk and eventually the streets of London. In search of his great-grandmother’s lost recipe book. In search of his grandfather and a promise to fulfill.
Jamila, a bold, brassy, wild child. Always surrounded by friends but perennially alone. Who wants to set roots but is commitment-phobic. Daughter of a war hero who came back wrapped in the Indian flag. Something she is yet to come to terms with.
Puru, an octogenarian, a former restaurenteur dealing with loneliness. A family secret that brings his life crashing down. Coming to terms with decades of deceit. A yearning to belong. A yearning for family.
The story also has well-etched supporting characters who add to the narrative. Khan Chacha a.k.a. Khanu, the voice of reason in the Khanna household. Akhil’s caretaker and sounding board. Ustad, an eccentric old-school bawarchi who shares some of his culinary secrets with Akhil along with some valuable life lessons too. Bebe, a loud and brash Punjabi woman, the only family Puru really had in London.
“Find what you truly and firmly believe in. And when other people tell you to think otherwise, keep believing.”
The charm of the story is the evocative writing. The lyrical prose and the descriptive narration have you turning the pages. You are transported to the kitchens and almost smell the heeng tadka. The author is a master storyteller. Narrated in first person through the three central characters, the tone and vocabulary effortlessly switch to match the characters. Be it spunky Jamila or a quiet, defeated Puru. It also switches between multiple timelines with equal ease.
The book does take a detour towards the end reflecting the divisive nature of modern-day politics. Where members of the minority need to prove their patriotism. Where they need to choose between country and religion. I wish we had more insights into Jamila’s thought process here.
If you are a foodie, you are in for a treat. The book is peppered with food trivia and recipes in the form of Akhil’s journal. I would definitely be returning to the book again and again for the recipes.
The book is an ode to lost recipes. Some are only being kept alive in army messes and an occasional continental food festival. Tipsy pudding. Baked Alaska. I could well be listening to the food stories shared by my grandmother or my mother. Or browsing through their recipe diaries.
“Pickling she used to say, is an act of love – of preserving the past and having faith in the future to come.”
A love story of two army brats, kids of two brother officers, cannot be without a generous dose of army nostalgia. The mess food. The tricolor sandwiches and those ever-popular pineapple-cheese-cherries on toothpicks. The MES furniture. The three-tonner school bus. And the unmistakable smell of the CSD canteen.
A love story. A recipe book. A book on food trivia. It is difficult to box the book into a genre. The book is meant as a tribute to all grandparents who have left behind love-infused food memories. An attempt by the author to gather food memories and recipes for the coming generation to cherish.
I enjoyed reading the book and would highly recommend it. A delectable read that will warm your heart.
About Veena Nagpal
“Though she be but little, she is fierce….”. When it comes to her writing Veena Nagpal lives by Shakespeare’s words. Through the years; raising a family, shifting cities and jobs in Corporate Communications; she has always fiercely guarded her ‘writing time’. Born an army brat, she studied English literature at Lucknow University. Today, at the age of eighty, living in Noida with one husband and around five hundred plants, she still spends her day sitting at her roll-top desk, tap-tapping stories on her laptop. The Indian Café in London is her fifth novel.
I want to thank the author Veena Nagpal for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.