Kirpal is on the train when he overhears a child ask her mother what people miss most when they die.
He thinks, food. “We miss peaches, strawberries, delicacies like Sandhurst curry, kebab pasanda and rogan josh. The dead do not eat marzipan. The smell of bakeries torments them day and night.”
If you are reading for the Foodie’s Challenge, it would be hard to find another novel which fits so perfectly as Jaspreet Singh’s debut.
His prose is infused with aroma, flavour, and sensory detail.
Kirpal learns his trade from Chef, who was trained at foreign embassies in Delhi, with a particular focus on international cuisine. He has learned to subvert those recipes, claiming the colonizers’ food and taking it for his own.
But this is not the kind of teaching that Kirpal can distill into a recipe book.
“‘Bad’ cooking, of course, draws attention, but so do dishes that are technically considered ‘good’. The ‘best’ preparation is the one that transports people elsewhere, far away from the table.”
It is a way of interacting with food, a way of observing and attending, a way of creating and accentuating. It is art and philosophy and cuisine.
“Before cutting a tomato, give it the reverence it deserves and ask: Tomato, what would you like to become? Do you want to be alone? Or do you prefer company? Apricot, what would you like to become? Would you like to become more than yourself in the company of saffron?”
But Chef is not only about food for food’s sake. Kirpal says that Chef was his “second self or perhaps I am what he was becoming.”
It’s about identity and belonging, about combinations and collisions, about memory and reality.
“The greatest gift he gave me was not food. Not even the foreign cuisines. Chef gave me a tongue.”
The prose style is succinct, but it’s hard to imagine such a sensorily laden work with more complex sentence structure. Kirpal’s tone is not necessarily inviting, but he is not off-putting either.
“There is a small area the size of a pea in our brains. I read it in the paper. This area is just behind the eye. Compassion and empathy lie in this area. When the area gets damaged we torture others more easily, and with less mess to ourselves.”
Areas and regions invite thoughts of borders and Kashmir itself is a contested place, with contested borders. Chef is set here, and more specifically in the Siachen Glacier, where India and Pakistan have fought, intermittently, since 1984.
From one perspective, food offers an escape from political reality, but from another perspective, food is immersed in political reality; what Kirpal learns about cooking and serving changes not only his view of what appears on a plate, but of the world around him.
Although his voice appears to keep the reader at a distance, Chef is an intimate narrative about what we share, what we savour.
This novel also counts towards the Canadian Book Challenge and the POC Reading Challenge.
PS In an interview, Jaspreet Singh recommends these amongst his favourite books: By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño; The Unswept Room, by Sharon Olds; Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald; The Country without a Post Office, by Agha Shahid Ali; and Planet Earth, by P.K. Page. What a fantastic combo of flavours!