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Barnali Dutta - Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake

Culinary Practices and Ethnic Identity: A Study of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

In the present era of globalization and immigration, the issues of ethnic language, ethnic cultural activities, ethnic costumes and ethnic cuisine have contributed in the formation of the diasporic identities in the foreign countries. In the mainstream culture, the immigrants or the diasporic communities generally endeavour to cling to the native land through forging the ethnic culinary practices to a great extent. The gastronomical factors exert an impact in the construction of the national identity and ethnic identity apart from the diasporic identities of the diasporic groups or the immigrants. Moreover, rather than the national cuisines, regional cuisines have enriched the kitchen of the diasporic communities in the alien atmosphere. The culinary items serve the purpose of prompting the distinction between the different ethnic identities in the foreign countries. From the socio-cultural perspective, gastronomical practice carries the significance. In addition to this, for the diasporic communities or the immigrants, culinary items generally provide an rich arena to excavate the complexities of the incidents and events involved with memory and nostalgia. In this article, my central concern will be to unearth the interconnection between the nostalgia and the ethnic cuisine in the foreign country. Nevertheless, I will focus how the cuisines are treated differently by the first and the second generation immigrants in the foreign culture.

In my discussion, I would like to project the manipulation of the interplay between the local and the global concerning the culinary practices, in the formation of nationhood within the diasporic groups in the foreign countries. Through the lens of ‘global-local’ phenomenon, cuisine as an effective element bridges the gap between the different countries. More clearly, it can be construed that the diasporic identities are formed in the clashes of the native and foreign culinary dishes. Scholars like Wilk have viewed the formation of Belzian cuisine, the new generated form of cultural production is the consequence of the global-local turmoil (1999, 2002).

Hence, in the foreign domain, when on one hand, gastronomical factor carries the national identity, on the other, the intertwinement between the global and local builds up the diasporic identities apart from their national identities. Nonetheless, the sustenance of national cuisine can be illustrated as the method for resistance of the mainstream foreign culture to ethnic minority culture. The discourses of immigration of diaspora have focused on the interconnection between the identity construction of the communities and the food consumption. Highlighting this issue, I shall demonstrate how food recipes of a homeland impel the exiles or the diasporic groups to reminisce the historical moments. Again, the examination over the national belonging and national purity which is embedded in gastrophilic histories is relevant here in this respect. The relationship of the food consumption with the diasporic identity can be explicated as ‘an expression of identity’ or ‘flags of identity’ as viewed by the critics like Murcott (1996) or Palmer (1998). Scholar like Mintz (2003) argues over the national cuisine and identity by articulating the national cuisine as an amalgamation of political and touristic artifact:

… a national cuisine primarily possesses a textual identity; produced textually, it can help to achieve a desired touristic and political effect. But there is no doubt not only that the particular foods or food habits may be chosen either for national self-definition or to stereotype others, but that they may emerge as strikingly convenient condensed symbols of identity conflict or division. (p.32).

As national cuisine basically has been endowed with national belongingness, some specific culinary practices function as a contour line to differentiate the culinary practices of other nations. In the present era of globalization, the proliferation of the food items of a particular country is no more restricted for this country, but infiltrates the other countries across the borders. Hence, different kinds of culinary practices usually pervades all over the countries. Similarly, the rapid increasing of the restaurants across the national borders with the availability of the different ethnic food embodies not only the identity of a single monolithic ethnic food habit; rather it indicates the diversion of food practices of different nations and regions. Regarding this perspective, I can mention here that the chicken tikka masala, a sumptuous dish around the globe locates the commingling of Indian cooking styles with those from central Asia. Indian cuisine is accepted worldly popular. Even, this kind of cuisine is relished among the Indian diaspora in North America, Europe, Australia and parts of Africa. The survey of 2003 has projected the calculation of expansion of 10,000 restaurants for catering Indian cuisine in the US. The statistics of 2007 has reported that since 2000, more than 1200 Indian food products have been commenced in the U.S. in 2007. Moreover, Britain’s presumed national dish, chicken tikka masala has replaced the dishes of fish and chip which are previously accounted as popular in Britain. According to the survey, it seems that there are 8000 Indian restaurants in Britain, 70,000 workers. hence , the rapid acceleration of the Indian culinary practices a and restaurants across the globe results in the popularity of the Indian cuisine This discussion of food consumption in the construction of the identities is articulated in the structure ofhyphenated position. The proliferation of the Indian immigrants in the First world countries and expansion of the restaurants with serving the Indian foods has constructed a bridge between the native and the foreign cultures.

Centred on the issue of the food consumption, the present paper will explore how among the diasporic community, Indian immigrant women usually sustains the ethic cuisine, religion and cultural festival to invoke the sense of the nostalgia to produce the past in this unknown atmosphere. In the study of the diaspora, the elements of nostalgia and memory across time and space have propelled the immigrants to invent the image of the homeland which is fragmentary, fissured and “irretrievably lost”. 

The diaspora women who thought culture
meant being able to create
a perfect mango chutney in New Jersey
were scorned by the visiting scholar
from Bombay— who was also a woman 
but unmarried and so different.
    -- Sujata Bhatt, ‘Chutney’ (29)

In the diasporic voyage of the Indian immigrant women abroad, ethnic food symbolizes the retuning of the past in the lives of the immigrant women. The Indian immigrant women as a part and parcel of the domestic sphere provide the ethnic culinary for the older and younger generations of the family. Ethnic food arouses the longing for the nostalgia and simultaneously evokes the national identity. Hence immigrant women through cultivating the ethnic food in the alien atmosphere have constructed and produced the amalgamation of the past and the present. Many scholars like Jameson (1989) have not encapsulated the nostalgic element within the tapestry of the past, but also the present. Therefore, ethnic cuisine is leveled as “intellectual” and “emotional anchor” as focused by an Indian American cultural critic Ketu Katrak. Regarding ethic food Indo-Trinidadian Canadian author Shani Mootoo in the culinary related text Out On Main Street(1993) and Sara Suleri’s memoir Meatless Days(1989) critique nostalgic longings for the native land and emphasize the pangs of the migratory dislocation.

Usually, each individual ethnic group like the Indian retain the ancestral tradition of ethnic culinary, ethnic cultural activity, ethnic religiosity, ethnic language and certainly the ethnic robes in the dominant culture. So, ethnic tradition seldom seems to be shunned by the first generation immigrants. Critics like Sandhya Shukla have focused in the ‘homeland traditions’. In the opinion of Rayaprol, food indicates shared roots of the immigrants. Therefore, food is deemed as one of the preliminary symbols to carry and signify the adherence of the Indian and other South Asian communities to the natal land. As an individual ethnic group Bengali Indians and South Indians generally prefer the cuisines like rice, dal, and fish and dosa, idli and sambar respectively.

In this article, I shall concentrate on how the gastronomical factor plays an instrumental role in the diaspoic or immigration studies. In the enriched works of the Indo-American diasporic authors like Jhumpa Lahir, Bharati Mukherjee and Kiran Desai, cuisine emerges as the leitmotif not only to construct the ethnic identities, but highlights the displacement or dispossession from the root. In the present article, my endeavour will be to explore the relationship between the food and the issue of nostalgia, memory, ethnic identity and national identity in Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003). In The Namesake the gastronomical issue is presented as a pervasive symbol and metaphor to be interwoven with the theme of the alienation, belongingness, hyphenated position and nostalgia as studied by Lahiri. Like the linguistic borrowings, the culinary borrowings frame the basis of the food cultures overseas countries as “assimilated foods become naturalized and normalized in the course of time” as examined by scholar like Njeri Githire. Nevertheless, Githire has concentrated on the interconnection between the food, diasporic consciousness, identity and belonging (2010; 858). Food as metaphor employed by the Indian writers usually is posited as a counter-culture within the framework of identity. 

Food is accepted as matter of taste which Pierre Bourdieu identifies as ‘the basis of all that one has – people and things – and of that entire one is for others’ (1984; 56). In the opening section of the novel, the Bengali immigrant Ashima Ganguli, the female protagonist in Massachusetts, craves for the rice krispies with other ingredients like salt, lemon juice, red onion, mustard oil, planters peanuts, salt and thin slices of green chili pepper during pregnancy. This gustative concoction not only appeases Ashima’s craving, but moves Ashima back to Calcutta where the sight of selling this kind of mixture is very frequented on the railway platforms. Hence, the taste is associated with the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, of belonging and not belonging. Through the lens of the reminiscence, Ashima visualizes the real or the imagined past in this faraway country. What can be demonstrated here is the recreation of the homeland by revisiting to the ‘imaginary homeland’. Her recollection of the past and the imagination of the present moment of the Calcattan family life are encapsulated within the tapestry of the isolated life in the USA. Her sense of the nostalgia captures the very moment of the faraway Calcuttan life where “a servant is pouring after dinner tea…arranging marie biscuits on a tray” (p-5). In the novel, the minute elucidation generally explores the first generation immigrants like Ashima’s mooring to the ethnic identity of the natal land embodied in the culinary items. The readers must observe that in Cambridge during Ahima’s pregnancy, the menu of the American cuisines like warm apple juice, Jell-o, ice cream and cold baked chicken rather than the Indian food, are served to Ashima. This American food seldom emerges as sumptuous even during Ashima’s pregnancy when she has no other option than to feel the aloofness through the foreign food consumption in the solitary country. Food seems as conduit to ventilate Ashima’s sense of emotion, nostalgia and alienation which are captured in the novel through Ashima’s retrospective mood. Food acts as conducive to facilitate between the past and the present during the immigrated and diasporic circumstances. Regarding this issue, Valeri Loichot agree with the view of Edwidge Danticat that food as “an unavoidable and complex form of language necessary to remember the past and to heal the self and communities in the aftermath of diaspora, immigration and exile” (2004; 92). Ashoke Ganguli, Ashima’s hubby, the Bengali immigrant in America, still knots to the ethnic culinary items like rice, dal and lamb curry with potatoes. Ashoke’s gustation of the Indian cuisines rather than American embodies his adherence to simple ethnic food. 

Apart from these culinary practices, liquor like champagne is the emblem of celebration on the auspicious occasion like birthday, wedding ceremony etc. But in the western culture, champagne is gifted to Ashoke and Ashima when Ashima is blessed with a baby son. Champagne may be considered as a symbol of the celebration of the auspicious occasion. Unlike the American culture, in Indian culture, in accordance with the norms, the guests are generally served lassi instead of wine as Ashima has done this in serving to Maxine. The peripheral characters like Maxine’s family members in the novel add an equal importance to distinguish between the continental dish and the sub-continental dish. In the country like America, Gogol is well acquainted with the Americam custom of drinking before the elders. Hence, Gogol is little astonished in drinking wine before the elders of Maxine’s family. Gogol nonetheless indulges enjoys the food like cheese or pate or single malt scotch and glasses of wine, The dichotomization of the two cultures as well as the second generation Bengali immigrants is repetitively focused by the author. In spite of endeavouring to the negotiation with the alien culture, yet he indulges himself to the preference of the samosa with tea rather than coffee. Bengali immigrants like Ashoke and Ashima prefer Indian culinary item samosas to any foreign cuisine like pates, cornichons and chutney as gifted by Maxine. Nevertheless, Gogol and Sonia, the second generation immigrants are more attached with Italian, French and American and Chinese culinary items. In spite of prolonged staying in America, Ashoke and Ashima tie to the native India by the sustenance of the ethnic Bengali and other Indian cuisines

The first generation immigrant, like Ashoke and Ashima’s attempt to construct ‘home’ in the alien environment is exposed through the adherence with the ethnic food items. The culinary items like stew of the goat and potato and the Bengali sweets which Ashima’s maternal grandmother has prepared, evokes the sense of nostalgia to Ashima. Ashima’s journey to the past has evoked the nostalgia of happiness, gloominess, pleasure and desire. Nostalgia is such an outlet where Ashima recreates the fragmented past. In Massachusetts, in the circumference of the Bengali diasporic group, food is an inevitable consumptive and emblem to facilitate between America and India. Generally to alleviate the loneliness of the foreign atmosphere, the Bengali diasporic female members who discuss of the preparation of the halwa from the cream of wheat and gourmandize cuisines. While on the one hand, aloofness seems to engulf the lives of the Indian immigrants like the other co-ethnic immigrants, on the other, ethnic food impels the immigrants to get attached with the homeland tradition in this alien land. Moreover, during the occasion of the rice ceremony of Gogol, the second generation immigrant, the rituals are performed according to the Bengali customs and tradition encompassing the gastronomical items like payesh. On this occasion the other items like biryani, the carp in yogurt sauce, the dal, the six different vegetable dishes are served to the guests abiding by the norms of the ethnic food tradition to some extent. What appears here is that in this auspicious occasion, the Bengali immigrants like Ashima and Ashoke can not evade the Bengali culture with reconciliation of the foreign culture.

This article has earlier focused on Ashima’s continuation of one of the favourite edibles like the concoction of the salty rice krispies with pea-nuts and red onions is continued probably to taste the flavour of the homeland: “for being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize …feeling out of sorts” (p49). From this perspective, I construe Ashima’s statement with the capturing of the past moments by Ashima to keep it alive in the dominant white culture. The author has employed the significance of food regarding the ethnic identity and reconstruction of the ‘home’ in the US. Gogol, the second generation Bengali immigrant and the central male character in the novel, has been trained to consume food with the Indian tradition of the fingers rather than western culture of spoon. On the festivals of the Thanksgiving and Chrismas, usually the Indian diasporic members like the Ganguli family and other family indulge the roast turkey to a great extent which is rarely found in the Bengali family in India. Similarly, they celebrate the festival of the Saraswati and Durga puja in gourmandizing the vegetarian food. Hence, the concomitance of the Eastern tradition and Western tradition in the field of the culinary practices has maneuvered the Bengali diasporic group in the mainstream culture. This demarcation is well-knitted in the novel. Under compulsion or for the satisfaction of the children, Ashima sometimes prepares Italian dishes like sandwiches with bologna or roast beef which are seldom consumed in the Indian culture. Nevertheless, Ashima is propelled to make an American dinner containing Shake’ n bake chicken or hamburger helper with lamb. Hence, the minute account of the culinary items of the dominant and the minor culture, not only projects the difference of the preference between the first generation and second generation immigrants like Ashoke, Ashima and Gogol and Sonia respectively. In the mainstream culture Gogol’s proneness towards the American cuisine hardly impels him to eschew the Indian culinary items. His hyphenated position between the Indian-American cultures does not indicate his belongingness to pure Indian or the American identity. His oscillating position between the dual identities does not seem to drive him away from the Indian ethnic culture and identity totally. Nonetheless, Ashima’s sense of conviviality is embedded in making the Bengali dishes like lamb curry with potatoes, luchis, thick chana dal, pineapple chutney and sandesh on the auspicious occasion of Gogol’s birthday. Gogol’s gustation of these kinds of edibles is negated by the American children. In this respect Ashima has remarked that preparing these varied cuisine items are less stressful than “the task of feeding a handful of American children…” (p72). This is construed in projecting the disinclination of the American children to the Indian food. Gogol, (American born confused desi) is acquainted with the Indian culture including food. But his preference for the continental dishes than the sub-continental dishes is elucidated by the author where Gogol with his family is on the way to Calcatta. The account of Ashima’s serving the cuisine like herbed omlette with a slice of grilled tomato seems to be sumptuous to googol and Sonia as they are aware of the fact that that “… for the next eight months nothing will taste quite the same”(p81). In the novel, the author has frequently mentioned the varied Indian culinary items which basically imbued with the sense of nostalgia among the Bengali diaspora in America. But the second generation immigrants like Gogol and Sonia as I have earlier mentioned, are unmoved by any kind of ethnic Bengali food as they feel little emotional bond to the indigenous land. Even in Calcutta they hanker for the delicious edibles like hamburgers or a slice of pepperoni pizza or a cold glass of milk which pinpoints the urge for the immediate return to the US. The reminiscence of the American or other continental cuisines evokes the feeling of nostalgia. This picture can be viewed in the dissimilitude towards the Indian and American food between the first generation immigrants like Ashoke and Ashima versus second generation immigrants like Gogol and Sonia. 

This article moreover will concentrate on the dissemination of the different restaurants like Greek and the Indian in the US. Hence, it can be viewed that the effect of the globalization results in the availability of the varied culinary items. The availability of the Indian restaurants in Massachusetts provides Ashoke and Ashima a sense of delight to feel the native taste and flavour which American or any other foreign restaurants little provide. Reversely, Gogol and Sonia feel detached with the Indian cuisines. Italian dishes like polenta, risotto and the osso buco. Apart from this, the dissimilarity in the customs of serving the food to the guests between the Gogol’s Bengali family and Maxine’s family has been ineluctable to Gogol: “ unlike Gerald and Lydia, who at the center of their dinners, his parents behaved more like caterers in their own home, solicitous and watchful….”(p141). But Gogol feels delighted with the American system of the apathetic attitude of Maxine’s family during serving to the guests rather than the seemingly disruptive method of serving of the Indian culture. In the novel, it is repetitively viewed that the second generation Bengali immigrants like Gogol, Sonia and Moushumi gourmandize to have Italian or French cuisine than the Bengali culinary items. Gogol generally prefers the Italian restaurant and cuisines like pasta, glass of merlot, parcini ravioli and a salad of arugula and pears to the consumption of the Bengali cuisines. Hence, the gap in the different attitude towards the adherence of the Bengali culture emerges between the first and the second generation immigrants in America. But the Bengal immigrants like Askohe , Ashima and other Bengali diasporic community make a bridge between America and India with nurturing the Bengali food in America. Moushumi’s preference for the Italian or French or Chinese cuisines to the Indian cuisine makes her feel that “…my mother is appalled that I’m not making you Indian food” (p209). The second generation’s proneness to the continental food than the Indian, points out the unmooring of the Indian custom including cuisines. Again on the auspicious ceremony of wedding of Gogol and Moushumi reluctantly accept the Indian ritual along with the Indian food: “Gogol and Moushumi agree that it’s better to give in to these expectations than to put up a fight” (p219). Despite the fondness for the American culture they are compelled to succumb to the decision of their parents. 

The present article will moreover demonstrate Moushumi’s penchant for the French culture including cuisine which has provided a sense of apathy to her to the Indian or American culture. Gogol and Moushumi indulge the dish like pasta or broiled fish. Simultaneously they hanker for the basmati rice and the spices rather than eschewing the Indian food. The French, Chinese or the Thai or Japanese cuisine like sushi propitiate their gustation of food. But the craving for the North Indian food items like tandoori chicken and pakoras and kababs is not extinguished. The Indian cuisine usually does not induce emotional anchor for them to knot to the native land. Hence, the sense of nostalgia has not affected the couple as food evokes before their parents. As Moushumi knots to the French culture including the consumptive items like pernods, a kind of alcoholic drink, couscous or choucroute, her little interest to the Indian and ethnic Bengali food is viewed by the author. The inclination of the second generation immigrants towards the alcohol in the name of champagne, pernods and chianti is seldom noticeable in the middle class Bengali family praxis in India. In America, in the domain of the culinary practices, Moushumi is less adhered to the Bengali ethnic culture than the Italian or French cuisine which makes her identity to be vacillated between the multiple positions. The author clarifies it in this way: “She is flattered when they assume she herself is French or half-French” (p253). The gastronomic items like poached fish, creamy potato gratins, golden puffed chickens roasted and bottle of wine are not usually indulged by the first generation immigrants. Again in the Italian restaurant in New York, Moushumi and Dimitri, her French lover consume the dishes like glasss of prosecco, salad topped with warm lamb’s tongue, a porched egg and pecorino cheese than Bengali food items.

Apart from these views, the influence of the globalization on the easy accessibility of the cuisine and culinary dishes, I would like to highlight how Ashima clings to the ethnic Bengali tradition by nourishing the preparing of payesh on the occasion of Gogol’s birthday which is never followed in the American tradition. Gogol’s birthday is celebrated with champagne and cake with Maxine’s family instead of his own. What emerges here is that in the Bengali culture birthday is generally celebrated with payesh instead of champagne. It seems that Gogol is in harmony more with the American culture of champagne than the Bengali culture of payesh. The cuisine like payesh does not arouse emotional bond to him. Gogol’s seemingly disinclination to knot the ethnic Bengali culture points out detachment from his family who hardly considers America as ‘homeland’. This demonstration conveys that the sense of displacement and disjunction of the diasporic community from the natal land is embedded in the consumptive items. Though ethnic cuisines or the regional cuisines provide the Bengali diasporic community a temporary solace, still it can not but make them feel the rootless position.

The diasporic community in the US generally moors to the homeland even through the retention of the ethnic rituals on the auspicious occasion or inauspicious moment. In the Bengali custom, generally the simple menu of rice, dal and vegetables is indulged by the mourners instead of fish and meat. After Ashoke’s death, the whole family performs the ritual according to the ethnic Bengali praxis. Gogol seems to be least interested the ritual according to the Bengali norms: “He remembers, back the, being bored by it, annoyed at having to observe a ritual no one else he knew followed, in honor of people he had seen only a few times in his life”(p180). It seems Gogol and Sonia feel less identified with the ethnic Bengali culture than the American. 

On the occasion of Thanksgiving, Ashima, Gogol, Sonia, Moushumi and her parents consume the cuisines like turkey and roasted sweet potatoes and cornbread stuffing and the spiced cranberry chutney. In America, the Bengali diasporic community not only enjoy the Bengali festival with the Bengali food items, but they celebrate the American festival with especial food for the sake of their children who bind more with the American culture than the Indian. After thirty three years staying, when Ashima is involved to prepare the delicious items like croquette, her imagination soaked mind moves back to the past in Cambridge where husband Ashoke and children employed themselves to prepare this item. On this occasion, Ashima feels aloof among the whole family as she thinks the country like America usually seems to be apatheic to the outsiders and so also her half-American children seems to be indifferent to Ashimsa. Her longing to return to Calcutta will not provide solace to her as she is acclimatized with the American culture and customs to some extent. Her brooding over moving back to Calcutta makes her feel that “She will not have to go to the trouble of making yogurt… croquettes (p276). Again she feels overwhelmed … to the city that was once home and is now in its own way foreign” (p278). 

The pervasive use of culinary items through out in The Namesake is not only embellished as sumptuous element, rather to highlight the connection of the food with the adherence of the culture by the diasporic group in the diasporic circumstances. In the present novel, the recurrence of the food symbolizes in the one hand the sustenance of the first generation immigrants to the ethnic Indian culture and on the other, the inclination of the second generation immigrants to the continental food rather than the Indian cuisine as examined by Lahiri. The varied kind of cuisines mentioned in the novel has added flavour to discuss the different aspects of the pivotal and the peripheral characters. Therefore, what can be studied here is that while on the one hand, the first generation Bengali immigrants feel attached with the native land India; on the other hand the seemingly second generation immigrants’ detachment to the ethnic culture is prominent. Hence, needless to say that the culinary discourse has impacted the literature to a great extent.


Bhatt, Sujata. “Chutney”. The Stinking Rose, Manchester: Carcanet, 1995.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of the Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Routledge,1984

Githire, Njeri. The Empire Bites Back Food Politics and the Making of a Nation in Andrea Levy’s Works. Callaloo, Vol33, No. 3, Summer2010, pp857-873
DOI:10.1353/cal.2010. 0042.

Lahiri, Jhumpa.The Namesake, Great Britain: Flamingo, 2003.

Loichot, Valerie. Edwidge Danticat’s Kitchen History. Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationaolism, Vol.6, No1, 2004, pp.92-116

Mintz, Sidney. Introduction: Nation, Cuisine and Embodiment
(http://openacess.leidenuniv. nl /bitstream //1887/1569014/introduction.pdf).

Wilk, Richard. Introduction: Nation, Cuisine and Embodiment
(http://openacess.leidenuniv. nl /bitstream //1887/1569014/introduction.pdf).

New World Encyclopedia. Indian Cuisine


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