‘I wanted my character’s voice to be the collective voice of a modern-day woman’

Popular food blogger Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta on how the pandemic affected the way we cook, and her debut novel Those Delicious Letters that weaves together recipes and stories

When she began her blog, Bong Mom’s Cookbook, in 2006, documenting the Bengali recipes that she’s grown up with and that she wanted her daughters to cherish, New Jersey-based blogger Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta never anticipated the exhilarating journey it would take her on. Over 15 years and a very successful cookbook later, Mukherjee Datta has now come up with her debut novel, Those Delicious Letters (Rs 299, HarperCollins) that has, unsurprisingly, food at its centre and a newly-turned 40-year-old mum of two trying to hold it all together. In this interview, the writer speaks about her foray into fiction and learning to look at food afresh during the pandemic. Excerpts:

Food, recipes, stories — your first novel, Those Delicious Letters, appears to take off from your own journey into Bengali cuisine. To what extent was the novel autobiographical?

(Laughs) Except for the food, (it’s) not autobiographical at all. However, many readers are messaging me to say how much they can relate to the protagonist, Shubha. I wanted Shubha’s voice to be the collective voice of a modern-day woman, her small trials and joys in everyday life, her sense of hiraeth as she goes further away from her childhood home and her spunk to take risks and grab any second chance that come her way even when she least expects it. I think that is resonating with a lot of Indian women.

When did the idea of the book come to you?

A million book ideas are always bubbling away at the back of my head, mostly on my hour-long commute to work. The challenge is in getting it down on paper, and more so, between two covers of a book.
I love reading food novels and food memoirs. Even when I was writing my first book, I wanted to read a food novel set in the backdrop of the Indian diaspora with Indian food playing a role. However, there wasn’t any. There were food memoirs, food essays, cookbooks but no food novel around Indian food. You must have heard of the quote ‘If you can’t find the book you want to read out there, write it’. I took that to heart and wrote a food novel that I would love to read. It took almost four years for the fledgling idea to flourish into its current form, only because I write in between hundred other things and take my time.

How different was it writing a novel from your anecdotal cookbook (Book Mom’s Cookbook, 2013)?

It was a lot of fun. Fiction lets you take liberties, and, at times, you feel like god, who can make or break lives! It’s scary, a lot of responsibility, but fun.

Since the time you began the blog, how do you see attitudes towards regional Indian cuisine change among the diaspora?

When I started blogging, Indian food was not as regionally divided as it is now. There were a handful of dishes representing India to the masses. Gradually, that changed and we became more aware of food from different regions; regional cuisine pop-ups grew — someone from north India at least now knew that aloo posto was a Bengali dish. I myself have learned about Kashmiri cuisine beyond rogan josh or more about, say, Konkani home food. With time, I see more and more niche cuisine coming up. This is absolutely fantastic and you get to learn so much about different cultures via the food, but I feel, at times, it also creates a divide among people. Sometimes, people can get very territorial about their food.

Could you take us through how your relationship with food evolved?

Like most people, I loved food but never paid close attention to it until I left home. The further away I went from home, the closer I felt to its food.

The need to introduce my daughters to the food of my childhood became more intense and I started cooking more. Gradually, as I found my groove, I found myself wanting to learn more about where a recipe comes from, why we ate what we did and I forayed into reading food essays, memoirs and food history. Now, I look at food with much more love and respect but I also eat mindfully.

I have also grown more open about what I eat. I try to order obscure stuff from the menu, often regretting it later! When we make travel plans to a new place, I spend a lot of time researching the local food.

The pandemic has been a time of deep disparity, especially in India. One of the criticisms that has come up is how the middle class has turned this into an occasion for food porn on social media while a larger population goes hungry. You have posted about this on your Instagram feed but how do you reflect upon this trend?

The pandemic has been devastating at many different levels. As I had said in my post, at times I did feel guilty sharing food and what we are cooking at home while a pandemic raged on. However, there are two sides to this story. On one side, there were the heroic frontline workers, their families, the migrant workers who had lost their jobs and earnings. On the other side, there were people depressed staying at home, some not understanding the importance of social distancing, some not happy with online school, some in fear of losing their income, some unable to travel to their loved ones, some just wanting to get out.

If this second group of people benefitted in any way from the positive content on food, art, music etc posted on social media then I don’t see any harm. The bottomline is that it helped people stay home and stay safe.

Has the pandemic affected how you now approach ingredients?

During the peak of pandemic, our grocery visits were restricted and we had to carefully plan what we would be cooking and eating… Often, the things I would plan to get from my online delivery went out of stock and we had to make do without them. It actually turned out to be a precious lesson in life. We did not buy unnecessary stuff and we used to the utmost what we had. I hope to continue the same in future.

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