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How do you get to Paris from Bombay? Food, Food, Food.

What better transport is there than a light vehicle that provides a fun and wild ride, taking me out of Midnight’s Children‘s Bombay to my next destination, Paris in July? Thanks to Karen of Book Bath for organizing the trip.

This delightful, breezy read is that speedy transit. It tells the story of Hassan Haji, a Muslim boy who lives above his grandfather’s restaurant in then Bombay and how he ultimately ends up as a three-star chef in Paris.

Growing up immersed in the savoury aroma of Indian food and spices,

I suspect my destiny was written from the very start, for my first sensation of life was the smell of machli ka salan, a spicy fish curry, rising through the floorboards to the cot…

Hassan is endowed with an exceptional gift of culinary talent. After the Partition and the death of his grandfather, religious and political turmoils push his family out of the country. They first land in London, later immigrate to France. The boisterous family finds a home in the resort village Lumière near the Alps and starts its own restaurant Maison Mumbai, serving Indian dishes and bringing a welcome change to the villagers.

Hassan soon is jealously noticed by the veteran, feisty two-star French Chef Madame Mallory across the street. She is the proprietor of the small country hotel, Le Saule Pleureur. Her restaurant is a haute French culinary establishment that plays Satie in contrast to the Indian music from a loudspeaker at the Haji’s. After many animated and almost cartoonish conflicts between Madame Mallory and Hassan’s Papa, Abbas Haji, both concede to the reconciliatory move of allowing Hassan to become Chef Mallory’s apprentice.

Thus, Hassan takes the one hundred-foot journey and crosses the street to stay at Le Saule Pleureur, learn all he can from the great Chef and answer ‘the irrefutable call of destiny’ to be one himself. Towards the end of his apprenticeship, Hassan is left on his own to create recipes for pigeons, gigot, and hare, all to the satisfaction of Chef Mallory. After three years under her wings, Hassan is ready to move on.

Chardin’s Grey Partridge Pear and Snare on Stone Table, one of Hassan’s favorite paintings.

Next step, Paris. Hassan starts as a sous chef with a couple of smaller restaurants. After a few years, he decides to open his own and is approached by a benefactor who offers him reduced rent in an upscale location near the Panthéon. The one-hundred foot journey has brought him fine training, now he can take flight.

Here is his trademark dish:

the Siberian ptarmigan, roasted with the tundra herbs taken from the bird’s own crop, and served with caramelized pears in an Armagnac sauce.

We as readers are privy to the actual cooking procedure beginning with the feathered live bird.

For me, more a movie buff than a foodie, the book conjures up many cinematic images… the colours and conflicts in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the prejudice in Chocolat, the sumptuous offering in Babette’s Feast, and, the training sessions in the The Karate Kid. Dev Patel (Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire) will be perfect for the role as young Hassan. I couldn’t help but think, this book is good movie material.

And then I found out from the Acknowledgements after I finished, the book is an homage to the late Ismail Merchant, the film producer behind the Merchant Ivory productions (Room With A View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day) who met an untimely death in 2005. The bond between the author Richard Morais and his friend Ismail Merchant was food. This book was started with a subsequent movie in mind.

In-depth research has gone into writing the book, culinary history, recipes, game, desserts, soups, the French kitchen, the Indian kitchen, restaurant operations, even for me the uninformed and casual eater, there are plenty to savour. The book is a smorgasbord of gastronomic delights. My only criticism is that its literary treatment may taste a bit raw, simplistic, and at times, didactic. However, read it like a comedy, it can satisfy like a dessert.

~~~ Ripples

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais, Scribner, NY, 2010, 245 pages.

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