I’m wandering the lanes and alleys of Tokyo with a man who stops at various places to pick up food while hunting for a murderer. First he eats vegetable and shrimp dumplings out of a paper plate and then later, he stops at a cafe and buys gum-syrup coffee and rice balls. I watch him with rapt attention wondering what he is going to eat next.
In case you are wondering, I’m not on holiday – on a kinky murder-themed food walk in Japan. I’m not dreaming either though this would be a really brilliant dream, come to think of it. I’m merely taking you into the world of the latest book that I’m reading. A crime fiction novel called Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolas Obregon based on the unsolved murders of the Miyazawa family in Setagaya, Japan in 2000. I haven’t reached the end so I have no clue who has done the deadly deed of wiping out an entire family of four but I have realized something very important.
Books with food in them turn me on.
Wipe that smirk off your face at once! It’s not a fetish. Obviously I don’t mean it literally. Food in books like slices of cheese squished in between pages or tomato sauce smudges is disgusting. Eyuck. What I mean is descriptions of food. Tantalizing, titillating word pictures of dishes that send me into near orgasmic rapture.
As C S Lewis had famously remarked once, “eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably.” I couldn’t agree more. With several hearty thumps, of course.
Long before I discovered there was a word for people like me – foodie not freak – I remember being drawn to books containing elaborate descriptions of food. It started when I was a little girl beginning to read. My first couple of Enid Blytons brought with them the tea parties. The scones with jam and clotted cream. The slabs of chocolate. I was hooked. I quickly devoured the Famous Fives, the Five Find-Outers and their farmhouse picnics, potted meat and ham sandwiches, ice creams with generous lashings of ginger beer.
While there are many studies about the significance and symbolism of food in popular children’s literature, the lure of tempting food was the prime motivation for this child and a book that was able to convey that deliciousness through excellent imagery became a prized possession.
I read somewhere that reading about what others are eating and feeling is close to being fed. A kind of pleasure that is close to being voyeuristic.
In my case, I’m not sure which came first, the love for Chinese cuisine or the interest in books about the Chinese food and culture. I have a hunch it was the latter that fueled that former. Authors such as Amy Tan, Ha Jin and Adeline Yen Mah helped develop that interest with the most sumptuous descriptions of Chinese dishes in their books.
“I have been envisioning my first real Chinese feast for many days already, a big banquet with one of those soups steaming out of a carved winter melon, chicken wrapped in clay, Peking duck, the works.”
“I was not too fond of crab, ever since I saw my birthday crab boiled alive, but I knew I could not refuse. That’s the way Chinese mothers show they love their children, not through hugs and kisses but with stern offerings of steamed dumplings, duck’s gizzards, and crab.”
(Amy Tan, Joy Luck Club)
Another author I discovered recently, Ankush Saikia, writes superbly-crafted murder mysteries set in North-East of India. Intricate plot apart, what I also like about his books are the vibrant descriptions of the cuisine. Saikia’s books are peppered with descriptions of steamed pork, chicken and vegetable dishes as well as the rich spicy chilly pickles that are a staple of that region.
For readers like me, gustatory imagery makes the entire reading experience all that more authentic and I wish more authors would weave in word pictures of food into their writing. On that hopeful note, I will wait for my next delicious read. In the meantime, I will have to make do with the new book that I bought for my eight-year-old niece. Jolly Good Food, a children’s cookbook inspired by the stories of Enid Blyton. There are recipes for all sorts of scrumptious pies, tarts and scones.
Oh, who am I kidding. I’m sure you don’t believe this anymore that I do. You must have guessed who the book is actually for, haven’t you?
Bon Appetit! Or should I say Bon Reading!