Naben Ruthnum. Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race. Coach House Books. $14.95, 144 pp., ISBN: 978-1552453513

Naben Ruthnum. Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race. Coach House Books. $14.95, 144 pp., ISBN: 978-1552453513

A Review of Naben Ruthum's Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race

Review by James Francom

It’s not unreasonable to get hungry while reading Naben Ruthnum’s essay, Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race.  Descriptions of savory gravies, enticing vegetable mixes, spicy prawn concoctions, and comfortingly warm naan or rice make it difficult to read Ruthnum’s extended essay on an empty stomach. By framing his discussion of race and food and the assumptions it places on writers of colour around the popular genre of ‘ethnic’ cook books (or “curry books”, as he calls them), Ruthnum must have known that his descriptions would trigger some of the very food nostalgia/exotic interest that these types of books are designed to provoke. In Curry, though, he writes against fetishizing the exotic, arguing that this kind of cultural cook book celebrity is based upon an impossible search for cultural authenticity — an imagined fantasy at best, and a restrictive trope at worst — that privileges a marketable, predictable, and above all safe version of South Asian diasporic experience, and excludes others that fall outside of its boundaries.

The essay is broken into the three sections as listed in the subtitle. In the first section, Eating, Ruthnum intersperses some of his personal history with descriptions and critiques of what he labels "curry books" — a genre of food writing that trades on the search for "authentic" Indian food. As he traces the evolution of curry houses in the UK and the subsequent emergence of food writing about South Asian cooking, Ruthnum argues that such books draw their popularity from the idea that to be authentic, one must search into a lost cultural past in a far away world, an idea he argues is both impossible, and ignores the immensity of South Asian diasporic experience.

His critique is nuanced and subtle: while clearly uncomfortable with the boundaries of such versions of South Asian identity, he reminds his readers that the nostalgia or cultural exoticism they trade on is not necessarily false — a writer focusing on the Northern Indian dishes that dominate the UK and North American restaurant scene might actually trace their roots to the North of India — and he asks readers to be aware of the power-dynamics and history inherent in trying to write about identity through this lens. 

While Ruthnum centres his essay on the idea of curry as a marker of South Asian experience, at his core he is clearly a writer and not a cook: Eating can at times feel a touch disconnected and meandering — an essay where the central idea can be difficult to parse amidst complex sentence structure — but the subsequent Writing and Race sections display a clarity and poise that show him in his true area of expertise.  In Writing his breadth of reading experience is on full display as he intersperses ideas on writing and race from such giants as Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri with honest and thoughtful critique of works by lesser-known writers such as Amulya Malladi’s The Mango Season, and Sonia Kamal’s “My Authentic is Your Exotic”. His voice becomes far more personal and powerful as he rejects the past as the only location to search for cultural authenticity as “an injustice to the true complexity, hilarity, danger, and weirdness of life as a brown person living anywhere in the world."

This passion continues in Race, as he discusses the way in which representations of South Asian experience in literature and popular culture both challenge and conform to audience expectations. His discussion of how much Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle would have meant to him had he seen it as a teen and his questions of why every brown person should have an opinion on Aziz Ansari are deeply personal and moving (reminiscent of Roxanne Gay’s excellent discussion in 2014’s Bad Feminist, where she recounts the experience of both seeing and not seeing herself as a black teen in the uniformly white Sweet Valley High series characters).  In fact, it’s at this point in the essay that you realize that the earlier, meandering style Ruthnum employs in Eating is not vague, but rather shows a writer who holds deeply ambiguous feelings towards writing his own cultural experience — one who dreads being shelved among "curry books," and yet recognizes that the fact that these books are popular doesn’t necessarily mean they are inauthentic.

Curry is a challenging, but refreshing take on the politics involved in our reading and choices, and one that reminds us of the messy ambiguity of racial identity, particularly in diasporic communities. Ruthnum’s mixing of personal history and vast reading experience makes it a valuable contribution to discussions of race in writing and popular culture.

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James Francom is a Vancouver-based teacher and photographer.