Archive for the ‘Richard C. Morais’ Category

Have you heard of The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais?  Despite positive reviews from both NPR and The New York Times, this incredibly descriptive book does not seem to be attracting the attention and wide-spread affection that I believe it deserves.  It is a beautiful, elegant fairy tale in a culinary setting: there are many obstacles to be overcome but also a fairy godmother to guide our hero along and to develop his gastronomic gift. 

From India to England to the French Alps and, finally, to Paris, the novel follows the life of Hassan Haji, who grows from a boy with an extraordinary sense for food into one of France’s finest chefs.  Born to a family of Muslim restaurateurs in Bombay/Mumbai, Hassan grows up in the kitchen, passionate about food from a very young age.  When his mother is killed, Hassan’s father packs up the family and move to Europe, living briefly in England before finally settling in Lumière, an idyllic town in the French Alps, where the family opens an Indian restaurant directly across the street from the livid Madame Mallory, with her French country inn and two-star restaurant.  For Hassan, it is Madame Mallory who changes his life for it is she who recognizes in him “that mysterious something that comes along in a chef once a generation…He is one of those rare chefs who is simply born.  He is an artist.  A great artist” (p. 93).      

The love and attention that Morais gives to the meals he describes almost brought me to tears several times.  My mouth was watering over the fish curries described at the beginning of the novel and I don’t even like fish!  All the descriptions are incredibly sensual, giving amazing impressions of colour, smell, and, above all, taste.  To read this book and not long for the meals described is unthinkable. 

I really can’t think of any other fictional book that is so respectful and passionate about food, that pays such close attention to the details, that understands the interplay of nostalgia and emotion that is tied up in any good meal.  The Harrods food hall scene stands out in particular: in two – not even two! – pages you, like Hassan and his father, are overwhelmed and awed by the sheer variety of what is on offer, by the bounty of so many nations, so many different culinary traditions.  The world, you are reminded just as they are learning, is a very big place where no one cuisine can dominate. 

Morais’ characters do have a tendency to speak in aphorisms, but as least they are sensible ones, my favourites being “…a gourmand is a gentleman with the talent and fortitude to continue eating even when he is not hungry” (P. 170 -171) and “…never forget a snob is a person utterly lacking in good taste” (p. 234).  The characters that make these remarks (Le Comte de Nancy and Madame Mallory) were perhaps my favourite characters in the entire novel, Le Comte acting as Hassan’s patron in Paris while Madame Mallory fills the pivotal role of fairy godmother, introducing Hassan to the art of French cooking, recognizing and fostering this young man with abilities she recognizes and respects as being far beyond her own.    

Indeed, I can give Morais no greater praise than to say that I now consider this one of the best and most descriptive books about food that I have read, alongside my favourites Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard and Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey.  To understand food and to be able to write about it so vividly and so charmingly makes the reader’s experience a pleasure – one that will not be soon forgotten.

Read Full Post »