A "platto di Mussolini" is a plate of mussels, not the dictator on a dish – Richard Morais, The Hundred Foot Journey
As I worked my way though Richard Morais’s first novel, intriguingly-called The Hundred Foot Journey, two other books came to my mind and neither have anything much to do with India, France or gourmet food: Graham McCann’s biography of Morecambe and Wise and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and for somewhat similar reasons. Just hold that thought in mind for the moment while I tell you a bit about The Hundred Foot Journey.
First of all, how it came to be written. One of Richard Morais’s friends was the late film director Ismail Merchant of Merchant and Ivory fame and apparently whenever the two of them would get together they would end up in the kitchen. Morais said that Merchant should look for a project that would marry his love of film making with his love of cooking, in fact he said he would help him look but once he couldn't find a novel that fitted the bill Morais sat down and wrote one himself. Unfortunately – and unexpectedly – in 2005 Merchant died. By this time, however, the book was well underway – an early extract of The Hundred-Foot Journey was a semi-finalist in the 2004 William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition – and no doubt encouraged by this he continued. It first appeared in short form in 2008, released by HarperCollins India, and the full version has now been published in eighteen countries throughout the globe. It is also apparently in active film development, although I don’t see any entry on the Internet Movie Database yet.
Your typical “Merchant-Ivory film” would be a period piece set in the early 20th century, usually in Edwardian England, featuring lavish sets and top British actors portraying genteel characters who suffer from disillusionment and tragic entanglements. The Hundred-Foot Journey is nothing like that. It is set at the end of the 20th century mainly in French kitchens – I’m being facetious but only a little. There are genteel characters but the main protagonist is actually an undistinguished Indian boy ably supported by his colourful family and a larger-than-life (not that he’s not pretty large-in-life) father. The story is not without some tragedy – whose life isn’t? – but you really couldn’t call Hassan Haji a tragic figure, not in the classical sense, not in any sense. Although he could have been – all the ingredients are there.
Hassan Haji is a hard-working boy, the second of six children, born “above [his] grandfather’s restaurant on the Napean Sea Road in what was then called West Bombay, two decades before the great city was renamed Mumbai.” (The English name was officially changed to Mumbai in November 1995.) Some sixteen years later in a small village in France an elderly French chef makes this observation:
“Talent”, she said through the muffled clutch of her napkin. “Talent cannot be learned. That skinny Indian teenager has that mysterious something that comes along in a chef once a generation. Don’t you understand? He is one of those rare chefs who is simply born. He is an artist. A great artist.”
The evidence was there right from the start although it takes a little time before anyone, including the boy himself, realises it, but this is how he opens his story:
I suspect my destiny was written from the very start, for my first experience of life was the smell of machli ka salan, a spicy fish curry, rising through the floorboards to the cot in my parents’ room above the restaurant. To this day I can recall the sensation of those cot bars pressed up coldly against my toddler’s face, my nose poked out as far as possible and searching the air for that aromatic packet of cardamom, fish heads and palm oil, which, even at that young age, somehow suggested there were unfathomable riches to be discovered and savoured in the free world beyond.
Madame Mallory calls him “an artist” but what he is is a natural. The first evidence of this comes early on:
One monsoon afternoon I found myself with Papa and Ammi around a table in the back of the restaurant. They pored over the wad of chits on spikes that stood between them, determining in these scratched orders which dishes had moved more in the last week and which not. Bappu sat opposite us in a stiff-backed chair, like in a court of law, nervously stroking his colonel’s moustache. This was a weekly ritual at the restaurant, a constant pushing of Bappu to improve the old recipes. It was like that. Do better. You can always do better.
The offending item stood between them, a copper bowl of chicken. I reached over and dipped my fingers into the bowl, sucking in a piece of the crimson meat. The masala trickled down my throat, an oily paste of fine red chilli, but softened by pinches of cardamom and cinnamon.
“Only three order dish last week,” said Papa, glancing back and forth between Bappu and grandmother. He took a sip of his favourite beverage, tea spiked with a spoonful of garam masala. “We fix it now or I drop
They all stared at the offending dish and its failings.
“Make it drier,” I said.
“Wah? Wah? Now I take order from boy?”
“Let him speak.”
“Too oily, Papa. Bappu skims butter and oil off top. But much better he dry-fries. Make a little crunchy.” “No like my skimming now. That right? Boy know better—”
“Be quiet, Bappu,” Papa yelled. “You always going on with your palaver. Why you always talk like that? You an old woman?”
Well, Bappu did follow my suggestion after Papa had finished his verbal battering, and it was the only hint of what would become of me, because the chicken dish established itself as one of our bestsellers, renamed, by my father, Hassan’s Dry Chicken.
The Hajis are a lively bunch: vocal, irreverent, loyal, passionate and affectionate. And under the leadership of his father – “known to everyone as Big Abbas” – the family prosper, although they never make it quite as big as their rival Uday Joshi but Abbas is confident of his family’s future:
“Listen to me, Hassan,” he roared over the traffic. “One day the Haji name will be known far and wide, and no one will remember that rooster. Just you wait and see. Ask the people then, ask them who Uday Joshi is. ‘Who he?’ they say. ‘But Haji? Haji,’ they say, ‘Haji are very distinguished, very important family.’”
Shortly after that during a violent Muslim uprising the Hajis suffer a tragic loss and in order to protect his children Abbas decides to leave India for London.
Do you know how to kill an octopus?
The fisherman darts in, grasps the octopus’s gill-like opening on the side of its head, and turns the entire head inside out so that the internal organs of the octopus are exposed to the air. Death is fairly quick.
That is what England felt like. Wretched from the comfort of our rock, our heads were suddenly turned inside out.
They never settle. Abbas tries his hand at a number of new businesses:
He imagined himself as an import-exporter of firecrackers and party favours, then a wholesaler of copper kitchenware made in Uttar Pradesh; this was followed by an enthusiasm for selling frozen bhelpuri to the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain.
but he simply can’t find his place there.
After two years the whole clan heads off seemingly intent on eating its way across Europe via a tricolour caravan of used Mercedes-Benzes. And they are doing not a bad job of it when one of the cars decides to break down in front of a stately mansion in the little town of Lumière in the Jura Alps. Abbas heads off and returns not with a mechanic but with a provincial real-estate agent. The family needed a fresh start and you couldn’t imagine one fresher than this.
On the opposite side of the street, a hundred feet away in one respect but worlds apart in another, stood “La Saule Pleureur – The Weeping Willow – a several-crowned inn” the pride and joy of one Madame Gertrude Mallory:
[She] was an innkeeper from a long line of distinguished hoteliers, originally from the Loire. She was also very much the culinary nun, a chef who had lived alone in the attic rooms above La Saule Pleureur for thirty-four years … Just as the Bach family turned out classical musicians, so too the Mallorys had reared generation after generation of great French hoteliers…
So you can imagine when she learns that Abbas intends to turn the mansion into an Indian restaurant she is not best pleased; it is only a matter of days before the two begin butting heads. This section of the book is by far the most entertaining as these two slug it out – metaphorically speaking of course.
So how is it that the quiet and unassuming Hassan’s abilities come to be known by Mallory? Quite simply because on the opening night she makes a point of attending so she can say that she has seen with her own eyes and tasted with her own lips, but what she tastes is not what she expects:
She looked down at her plate, her brow knitted. She took another forkful, chewing methodically, letting the flavours sensually toll across her tongue.
“Ah, non, non, non,” she moaned. […] “He has it. […] The boy,” she croaked. “The boy has what… Oh the injustice of life.”
In time she decides that the only right thing to do would be to take the boy under her wing, to educate him in the art of French cuisine. So all credit to her for recognising the boy’s potential and being willing to be the first to extend the olive branch (even though she was the first to begin hostilities) but you know it’s not going to be that easy.
As I was reading this book I turned to my wife at one point and said, “You know, this book isn’t a novel, it’s a fictional autobiography.” Checking other reviews I’m pleased to find that I was not the first to note that. Is a novel better than a biography? Is a knife better than a spoon? They’re different. Biographers have to deal with the facts and they can’t make their subjects more interesting than they are which is fine if the subject is an interesting one, Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi by Bob Woodward, is probably as good an example as any.
I thought of Morecambe and Wise. Now, for the record let me just say that I am a huge fan of their work on the small screen but I found their biography a bit dull. As their biographer says of them in a newspaper article:
Morecambe and Wise were as decent as they were talented. If that causes some of today's television executives to snort and sneer, more fool them. These were two working-class people who had lived through a depression and a world war, and grown up wanting simply to lead good lives while entertaining all of their fellow citizens. – Graham McCann, ‘Morecambe and Wise bring us sunshine – and a lesson in comic timing’, The Independent, 26 December 2010
Unlike Belushi they were two lads who just got on with it. They had setbacks, yes (their first TV outing was savaged by the critics), but basically they got where they ended up by hard work; that they were talented was a bonus. There were no scandals, no dirt, no one got hooked on drugs they didn’t even squabble off-screen.
And Hassan Haji is just like that. He starts off with nothing, next to nothing anyway, and ends up a success. I’m really not giving anything away by letting you know that things work out well for the young man. But he’s not a particularly interesting young man out of the kitchen. Kitchen work involves notoriously long hours and so Hassan doesn’t have much time to do anything bar hone his skills. In London we see him get involved with his first girlfriend proper and in Lumière he has his first prolonged relationship but the only dramatic thing that happens there is that when he decides it’s time to leave and head for Paris, she chooses to stay in her hometown. The next years pass by in a blur but then what is there to write about? He gets up, cooks and goes to bed. Destiny takes care of the rest. We get a few anecdotes along the way but once the highly-strung Mallory and the rumbustious-at-best-bombastic-at-worst Abbas are out of the picture we start to see just how much we’ve enjoyed and (crucially) relied on the supporting cast. This is why The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sprung to mind because its hero, Arthur Dent, is really not very interesting on his own and neither is Hassan. The death of a friend, a famous chef, shakes him a little personally and the recession rattles the whole industry but he survives. So the last 100 pages lack the dynamism and colour of the rest of the book, particularly the opening chapters set in Bombay. The narrative is effective but, and this is often the cases with biographies, we get times, dates and places to the exclusion of deeper insights.
Most of the reviewers jump on the fact that this is a novel about food:
- Easily the best novel set in the world of cooking ever – Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential
- A mouthwatering debut novel of colliding cultures and cuisines – O Magazine
- Precise descriptive writing offers much to savour in this bouillabaisse of a first novel. – Kirkus Reviews
and I’m not going to argue with them. (That said none of them gave the book more than 4-stars.) Food porn it is not and actually for a book about cooking it is often spare when it comes to cooking or preparation instructions. Often it just lists ingredients or names dishes or touches on some small nuance of procedure. It suggests more often than not and that’s fine by me. The problem is there are no aromas to set our juices flowing and so Morais has to do the best he can with words. I’m honestly not sure how this description makes me feel:
I found myself tasting on the broad back of my tongue the rich flavours and textures of his crayfish, a masterpiece of paper-thin slivers of grilled goose liver layered delicately between the pudenda-pink meat of freshwater crustaceans.
Food aficionados will enjoy all of these touches. I'm about as far away from a gourmand as it’s possible to get. I like plain food and as much as I can be entertained by the occasional episode of MasterChef I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Perhaps this is why the book failed to dazzle me like it did some reviewers because I was more interested in the people and not enough happens to them; most have next to no lives apart from when they are not working.
I’m not sure how I would describe the ending of the book. On the surface it’s a happy enough ending – if one equates success with happiness – but success has come at a cost and one that I would have liked to have seen explored more. What about his heritage? After he makes the one hundred foot journey is that it? Did he ever make bhelpuri again? I know this was written with the view of it being reduced (in the culinary sense of the word) to a film script when a lot of the depth would be lost; I just wish it had been there in the first place to lose.
In an interview the author was asked:
What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
First and foremost I want my readers to have fun. So, on one level, the book is simply an amusing road trip, driven by lively characters, filled with lush scenery and mouth-watering meals. But I believe good writing should be like daily conversation – at times it is appropriate to be witty and amusing and light, but, at other times, circumstances demand we are serious and thoughtful. So I hope my readers also spot the deeper issues and nuances woven through Hassan’s story: How do we, in this noisy world, find our destiny or calling, particularly when it is at odds with our family and culture? How do we find our “home” in a frenetic world where people are increasingly of mixed heritage and often moving from place to place?
I, personally, wondered why Hassan has such an easy time abandoning his Indian roots but it wasn’t until I read this interview with Morais that I realised that there was more going on here than I perhaps had first realised:
Richard C. Morais: Well, the first thing someone who is homesick will hunger for is food [from back home]. When you move abroad, the first few months there’s the adventure of it all. But when the monotony sets in, it’s the food you miss the most.
ACP: That’s interesting, because doesn’t your protagonist, Hassan, do the opposite? He immerses himself in the cuisine of his new country, France.
Richard C. Morais: Yes, but there’s that moment in Mumbai, when his mother takes him to the French restaurant. In some ways, Hassan is constantly trying to recreate that meal he has with his mother. That’s heightened in his memory bank. He has a calling that’s inexplicable. [His culinary path] is a defiance, but on the other hand, it’s a personal tale, which is why he’s eager to fulfil it.
At the end of the day I’m not sure about this novel. I suspect that Morais’s ambitions for the book have been just beyond his reach but all credit to him for not simply writing a jolly book about food. The New York Times reviewer Ligaya Mishan called the book, with her tongue a little in her cheek I hope, “Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille,” adding, “The novel’s charm lies in its improbability.” I think that’s a bit harsh but I can see where she’s coming from.
If the book could be summed up in a single quote it would probably be this one from the end of the novel:
[I] unceremoniously turned on my heel, to continue on my journey down the Rue Mouffetard, leaving behind the intoxicating smells of machli ka salan, an olfactory wisp of who I was, fading fast into the Parisian night.
And I don’t know about you but that makes me feel rather sad and if Hollywood gets their hands on this they’ll certainly do something about that.
I’ll leave you with a video clip on the author talking about his book:
An American born in Portugal and raised in Switzerland, Richard Morais has lived most of his life overseas, returning to the States in late 2003. He was stationed in London for 17 years as Forbes’ European Correspondent (1986 to 1989), Senior European Correspondent (1991 to 1998), and European Bureau Chief (1998 to 2003.) He wrote numerous cover stories for Forbes, from billionaire profiles to corporate dissections, but he was best known for unusual business stories on everything from the hashish entrepreneurs of Holland, to the ship breakers of India, to the human organ traders of China. Morais has won six nominations and three awards from the London-based Business Journalist of the Year Awards, the industry standard for international business coverage.
Morais started his career in New York as a news intern for the PBS TV program, The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, and eventually rose to selling freelance film features to The New York Times. While he was in the UK, he appeared regularly on Sky News, BBC News, ITV News, and various radio stations, including the influential Today show on the BBC’s Radio 4. In the United States, his work has led to an editorial credit on 60 Minutes, plus appearances on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, ABC, CNN, and various NPR radio stations. His blog-columns are currently carried and featured on The Huffington Post.
Although the Hundred Foot Journey is his first novel it is not his first book: in 1991 he published the unauthorized biography, Pierre Cardin: The Man Who Became a Label. He is currently working on his second novel, Buddhaland Brooklyn, about a Buddhist priest sent across the ocean to build a temple in an Italian neighbourhood in New York City.
Morais is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter.