Shoba Narayan

"Monsoon Diary: A Memoir With Recipes"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte SEP 24, 2003)

At a time when "fast food" is a strong component of America's food vocabulary, Shoba Narayan's memoir Monsoon Diary is a nostalgic ride to the past where, among other things, food was always made from scratch and milk was obtained the old-fashioned way, straight from the cow. Narayan, a food writer, has often remarked that food and culture are intricately linked together and she makes her point well in her memoir.

Read excerptA TamBram (Tamilian Brahmin), Narayan's earliest memories are intricately connected with food. "The first foods that I ate were rice and ghee," says Narayan, "I know this because my mother told me so." As a very young child, Narayan went with her mother to her Nalla-ma's (grandmother) house just so her mother could deliver Narayan's brother under love and close supervision. At the end of the confinement, Nalla-ma pleaded that Narayan be allowed to stay a "while longer." That little while turned out to be four years, all of which Narayan remembers fondly: "In the morning I would sit in my grandmother's warm kitchen, nursing a cup of Ovaltine and watching her combine spices and vegetables with dizzying aplomb." Nalla-ma's rasam, a "vegetarian equivalent of chicken soup--a comfort food that perfumes the air and soothes the soul," set the family standard against which all others were measured.

Monsoon Diary brims with simple descriptions of food and family that all come together. Her accounts are uniquely Indian, even uniquely South Indian, yet there is a universality to her accounts that many a non-Indian reader can identify with. "A smell can carry a memory, and certain foods can compress the memory of an entire childhood into them," Narayan says in a statement that holds true pretty much in all instances. In her case, those "certain foods" included "coffee and idlis (a steamed rice dumpling)--the twin bastions of TamBram cooking."

Many years later, when Narayan decided to pursue a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College in the US, her family was in an uproar. As her brother Shyam put it, "it isn't just about education. It's about juggling cultures, straddling lifestyles, never fitting in anywhere, questioning the values that you've grown up with, and having your kids grow up as Americans." Narayan's way out was again through food. If she could whip up a satisfying South Indian meal, the elders said, she could go to America. She did and the rest, as they say, is history.

The second half of Monsoon Diary is set in America and Narayan's wide-eyed embrace of things American is appealing to read for its innocence. She recounts with ease her days at Mount Holyoke College, her minor fights with roommates, and her summer jobs as camp counselor. The one jarring account in the memoir is that of her thesis dispute with Memphis State University. When speaking of her disagreement with her professors who had some issues with her presentation of her Masters thesis, there is a slight tone of bitterness that does not belong in an otherwise ebullient book.

After an arranged marriage to Ram, Narayan tries to turn her husband into a "fusion cuisine" lover by, for example, adding Japanese umeboshi paste to rasam. She finally comes around full-circle to cooking authentic South Indian recipes because husband Ram prefers it that way; he would rather not "entertain the United Nations in the kitchen."

Narayan's memoir, which also includes a few South Indian recipes, is a light-hearted look at growing up in South India. It is also a good glimpse of an India that is not seen very often in books--that of a solidly (upper) middle class household. My peeve with the book is the title, which is quite irrelevant to its content. These days, the word "Monsoon" seems to be more of a hook to draw the Western audience in. There is nothing wrong with some good marketing but it can be carried too far. Of course, like that other hit "Monsoon" offering, "Monsoon Wedding," Narayan's loud and happy family is very similar to Nair's cinematic one. Her charming writing, very visual in its makeup, entreats us to pull up a chair and dig in. Idlis anyone?

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About the Author:

Shoba NarayanShoba Narayan has written about food, travel and her native India for many publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Saveur, Newsweek, Beliefnet and House Beautiful, among others. Her essays and commentaries have appeared on NPR's All Things Considered Weekend.

In April 2001, Shoba won the James Beard Foundation's MFK Fisher Award for Distinguished Writing for her story, "The God of Small Feasts" which appeared in Gourmet's January 2000 issue. This is widely considered the most prestigious food writing award in the United States.

Shoba graduated from the Columbia Journalism School with a Master of Science degree in 1995. The school awarded her a Pulitzer Travelling Fellowship given to the top three graduating students in the class.

She lives in Singapore with her husband and two daughters. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014