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Understanding a culture, bite by bite
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, especially in India. Like its cuisine, India is vast, complex and defies easy categorization. To say that you are eating Indian food is not nearly specific enough. Is it Southern or Northern? Did you put tomatoes in the Rogan Josh, or did it take its red color from the peppers? Like the people of India, the country’s food varies from region to region, with no simple consensus on how to prepare anything. But in Jaspreet Singh’s outstanding debut novel, as the characters learn to understand the origins of their food, they begin to understand each other.
As Chef opens we learn that Kirpal Singh (known by most as “Kip”) is a former military chef who has been out of the service for 14 years. After years of silence, his former commanding officer has asked Kip to cook for him once again—only now it is at his daughter’s wedding, outside the auspices of the military and under the weight of painful memories. Until this point Kip has led a quiet life, cooking and caring for his ailing mother, but as he begins his journey north to the beauty of Kashmir and the sublime oppression of its glacial border with Pakistan, the trappings of his former life come flooding back. Through a series of flashbacks, Chef becomes a coming of age tale in which a young Kip learns how to understand the people and the world around him through food and its infinite complexity. When a Pakistani “terrorist” with long hair and her own ideas about a “proper” Rogan Josh washes up on the Indian side of the river, the course of Kip’s life—and cuisine—is changed forever. Brilliantly interleaved with the memories of Kip’s awakening is his current journey north into the twilight of his existence as he prepares to cook a meal that could save his life.
Quintessentially Indian, Chef is a book that eschews complex prose in favor of authenticity. Touching in its deft handling of Kip’s journey into maturity, Chef helps its readers realize that true understanding comes when you recognize not only how people are alike, but also how they are different.