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Published on: 08/27/23 5:48 AM

Book review: Digesting India by Zac O`Yeah

When food and literature mix…..

Travel-writer Zac O`Yeah has travelled the length and breadth of India, stopping for double breakfasts,  a handful of lunches, many a bottle of stuff that ranges from grog to branded liquor at many a pub or what passes for a pub in the hinterlands, as well as several dinners, all  in leisurely sequence. The result  is this book, a neat meld of travelogue and food chronicle,  which,  to fall back on that cliched term, really does make for a very entertaining and informative read.

Kicking off from his current place of domicile, Bangalore, the writer raises a warm toast to that city`s OG bar Dewar`s in Bamboo Bazaar, then takes paths that lead him to R K Narayan`s home and the eateries the legendary author  might have frequented, as well as places that might have been the inspiration for Malgudi. He visits a small town called Beershop in the Kolar Gold Fields; in Kerala`s `flavourful pantry,`  he raises a toast to toddy and appams. He tucks into mutton pallipalayam in Tiruppur, tandoori chicken in Chandigarh, bedmi aloo and sundry chaat in Delhi, haleem in Hyderabad, vindaloo in Goa. In Mumbai,  he tracks places writers wrote about like Crawford Market, the Byculla market, the Military eateries, the Irani cafes. In Assam, he tastes the popular Assamese side, kharoli. He waxes lyrical about mustard oil (shorshey tel) in Kolkata food,  saying it  adds a unusual sharpness, `like a winding guitar solo in a 1970s heavy metal tune.`  And he imbibes an astonishing amount of rustic tipple all along, bravely even  eagerly.

Maugham, Forster, Kipling, Graham Greene,  Chatwin, Amitav Ghosh,  Arundhati Roy,  and MK Gandhi (the epitome of a fastidious food faddist,  author of a bestseller booklet titled A Guide to Health) make frequent appearances, their food preferences dissected for the reader.

And for the last bit, the author hops over to Bhutan and gives us a vignette on digesting that land`s many datsis, interspersing his eating spree with musings on the Happy State and its literature.

So yes, the author has been traversing India for almost three decades now (roaming among fresh fishmongers, honey hawkers, pickle peddlers, swine slaughterers, tea traders and the like) and in the process, has become conversant with humble eateries, some of them dives,  that serve up delectable victuals, the kind of places many of his readers won`t know much about unless they are certified foodies. However, it still comes as surprise,  the ease with which he has digested and continues to digest this vast and diverse nation with its umpteen quirks, in the process ingesting some distinctly unusual foods and happily going on marathon benders.

Trademark wit

With his trademark wit, O`Yeah  who variously defines himself as a culinary tourist/ a tummy tourist/ a cholesterol junkie/ a travelling booklover, sends up the dining drunkards of Kerala, the tremulous state of his own stomach, a chocolate chicken dish, travelling with Immodium to `bring up the rear,` the olive oil dosa, and much else.

We get to learn about the origins of currywurst,  that curry- ketchup- spiced pork sausage; Bangaloreans are reminded that once upon a time, where the Hard Rock Cafe now stands,  stood Blighty`s Tearooms.  The author parses the dosa and its multifarious mutations, tells us of Rome`s ancient pepper warehouse which used to stock Thalassery pepper,  and why Thalassery has the world`s best acrobats and circus artistes. Furthermore, he tells us why Erode is known as Yellow City, what Gandhiji thought of cinema, what desert beans are and how to cook them, how a piece of rock art in Bhimbetka reminded him of the mixed grill he often orders at Koshy`s restaurant in Bangalore, how Prayagraj nee Allahabad `s MG Marg was a living museum of sophistication before the `global junk food machine -gunned its way into our tummies.` He touches on the Italian strufoli-Indian jalebi connection,  informs  us it was Indian monks who introduced limes to China and how,  when a tourist asks him if the rhino they are both gazing at in Guwahati zoo is `original or duplicate,` he realises  that indeed,  the animal doesn’t look authentic but more like a shape- shifter stuck in mid-transformation somewhere between a big pig and an amphibious army tank.

Readers who are familiar with this writer`s strongly developed funny bone via the hilarious Hari Majestic books,  will find much to chortle at in this book. The bonus is the many nuggets of information that he has studded the essays with. Given that India earns 200 billion USD annually from tourism (author`s figures) this can only be  a win-win situation for the eater and the eatery, the traveller and the places travelled to.

The author hopes this book will serve as inspiration for people to return to the joys of travel. I predict a run on several little-known eateries and drinking bars across India by the intrepid traveller duly armed with a copy of Digesting India.

 Digesting India by Zac O`Yeah. Speaking Tiger Books. Rs 599. 313 pages.

This ran in The New Sunday Express Magazine on 27 August 2023.

Related Links:

Book review: A Hero for Hire by Zac O`Yeah



book reviewbooksculinary adventures across IndiaDigesting Indiaentertainmentfood writinginformationSpeaking Tiger BooksZac O`Yeah

Sheila Kumar • August 27, 2023

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