Book Review — Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India

For this project, I reviewed Colleen Taylor Sen’s Feast and Fasts book.

screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-1-52-27-pmReaktion Books Ltd., 2015; 349 pages. ($32.40 U.S. Hardcover)

Colleen Taylor Sen takes on quite the task in her 2015 book. That task was encapsulating the history of food and its culture in a country that has the second largest population in the world: India.

Writing about global food is no new task for Sen. She has previously written Curry: A Global History in 2009 and was the co-editor of Street Food Around the World: Encyclopedia of Food and Culture in 2013. She is a food historian who specialized in Indian and Southern Asian cuisines, in which her wide knowledge of the food contributes the rich information found within the pages of Feasts and Fasts.

The book is more than 350 pages and progresses in chronological order, starting at prehistoric times and moving up to modern day food and trends. Feast and Fasts begins with a look at what India has to offer in terms of its “Climate, Crops and Prehistory” to set the stage with what makes this area of the world unique. Other sections include “New Religious Trends and Movements: Feasting and Fasting, 500-1000 CE,” “Food and Indian Doctors, 600 BCE—600 CE” and “An Overview of Indian Cuisines: The Meal, Cooking Techniques and Regional Variations.”

At initial glance or flip of its pages, a copy of Feasts and Fasts can look daunting. With the weight of a small college textbook and enough references to satisfy anyone daring to second-guess how much research she put into her book, people who put this book down or take it out of their online shopping carts are making a mistake. Sen’s book provides an in-depth, thorough look at Indian cooking and culture that allows readers to enter a world that might be completely foreign to them. It touches on the procedures by which foods are grown and harvested, the preparation, as well as how that food ties into religion and spirituality within the country.

What makes the book so accessible is how each chapter is broken down into sub-sections as well as broken up with recipes, information boxes, illustrations, charts and photographs. There are 100 illustrations within the book, making it read like a guidebook. However, if breaking down the entire history of India does not seem like a fun read, the book would be easy to pick up, read a chapter and skip around. It is an eclectic addition to any kitchen library. Feast and Fasts would make a great gift for anyone looking to learn more about another culture through their food and customs. For travelers looking to visit India, Feast and Fasts and Sen’s advice is a great read to separate a clumsy tourist from a respectful guest.







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