Bengali vegetarian fare for Narendra Modi. A rich biryani for Napoleon Bonaparte.
Nobel laureate Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee laid on a spread of recipes and more at a session on the opening day of the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet (Kalam), held in association with the Victoria Memorial Hall and The Telegraph.
The session borrowed its title, Cooking to Save Your Life, from a cookbook by Banerjee where he has documented his passion for food and cooking. The 2019 Nobel winner for economics, along with artist Cheyenne Olivier, discussed the book with Anuvab Pal, author and stand-up comic.
Olivier, who has done the illustrations for the book, came to live with Banerjee and wife Esther Duflo as an au pair for their two children and ended up cooking with Banerjee.
Banerjee had been writing about a lot of recipes for years, for his brother-in-law. Every Christmas, Banerjee would give him a chapter, as a present. The “professionalism of producing a cookbook descended” on the authors after a meeting with the publisher, said Banerjee.
“We are specifically here to talk to a great Nobel prize winning economist, not about economics but about a cookbook. This is Kolkata. This is, I assume, a reasonably large Bengali audience. I think that there might be a bigger audience for food than economics,” Pal said at the outset.
Food for thought
Pal had some “rapid fire” questions for Banerjee. His first — if Banerjee had to cook a meal for the Prime Minister of India, what would he cook?
Banerjee said he wanted to establish the idea that Bengalis did not just eat fish and rice. “May be the most spectacular vegetarian cuisine in the country. I would cook a very proper Bengali Vaishnav or widows’ cuisine. I think the range of Bengali vegetarian cooking is unbelievable,” said Banerjee.
By doing that, Pal said, Banerjee might be able to achieve what “we haven't been able to achieve in the past 10 years, which is to get the Prime Minister to like us”.
“Yes, once he understands that we can make good vegetarian fare,” Banerjee said to rolls of laughter from the audience.
Pal asked what Banerjee would serve Napoleon Bonaparte.
“Maybe for him, a proper heavy biryani with lots of ghee. It would calm him down. He used to apparently sleep for three minutes on horseback. But maybe this would make him go to sleep and stop him from invading every country and save his life,” said Banerjee.
Pal asked for the speakers’ opinion on the “build-up” in a Bengali meal.
“Would you say that there is also a building-up when Bengalis serve food. It is not a decline but aaro aschhe, aaro aschhe (more on the way). What’s your view on that,” he asked.
Banerjee said a “certain degree of flirtation is a good tonic for life”.
“Not telling people everything. That's one of the beauties. The surprise in the course, let them taste it. I think that's nice. It's gratifying and makes the experience very different,” he said.
Olivier interjected, saying she had seen many of Banerjee’s guests “regretting” that they had eaten “way too much way too early”.
Banerjee said in America, that was the “problem”.
“In America, people are not really inclined to interfere in people’s choices. It is not naturally necessary to tell people to stop eating now. It is a little bit of a dilemma. You will be seen as a Communist or something,” he said.