The Hundred-Foot Journey is narrated by Hassan Haji. It is, in essence, a middle-aged chef recounting the story of his rise to Michelin stardom. We learn of Hassan’s childhood in India and follow the culinary fortunes of the Haji family as they travel from there to France (by way of England) – eventually finding a new home in the French Alps. They open a restaurant directly across the street from Madame Mallory, a draconian French hotelier who will become Hassan’s worst enemy and greatest benefactress. The Hundred-Foot Journey is a charming first novel about the collision of two cultures: spangled India against the tasteful restraint of the French countryside; and between conflicting personalities – Papa the showman versus Madame Mallory the ascetic. But, mostly, it is about Hassan’s struggle to follow his destiny without forsaking his past.
I wasn’t surprised to discover that Richard C. Morais counted the late Ismail Merchant (of the legendary Merchant Ivory film company) and the author Kazuo Ishiguro among his close friends. It made perfect sense. Much like his friends’ works Morais’ writing contains quiet, subtle touches that might easily be overlooked. And I couldn’t help but think that if Ismail Merchant were to have made The Hundred-Foot Journey into a film the screen would have been filled with gorgeous vistas of the French countryside. Ishiguro would have told the tale from Madame Mallory’s perspective – looking back on a life that fell just short of greatness and sorting through the reasons why. Morais’ story is instead as upbeat as a Bollywood film, and he keeps just the right balance of discovery and nostalgia in his narrator’s voice. The plot conveys a real sense of the passing time and of place. And underlying every sentence in The Hundred-Foot Journey is an ever abiding love of food, in all its glory.
Yes, it’s a foodie book. But like everything else in the novel, Morais’ depictions of food are visceral and earthy. At the same time they manage to retain a degree of sharp delicacy, due to his precisely worded descriptions .
I watched the famous chef expertly trim the vegetable’s leaves with a pair of scissors, the smart snips of her flashing tool ensuring each ragged leaf of the artichoke was symmetrically aligned and aesthetically pleasing to the eye, like she was tidying up after nature. She then picked up one of the lemons that had been cut in half, and doused each of the artichoke wounds – wherever she had snipped a leaf – with a generous squirt of lemon juice. Artichokes contain acid, cynarin, and this neat trick, I later learned prevented the sap-oozing leaves from discoloring the vegetable around its wound.
Next, Madame Mallory used a heavy and sharp knife to cleanly take of the top of the artichoke with a firm downward crunch of the blade. For a few seconds her head was down again, as she plucked some pink, immature leaves from the plant’s center. Picking up a new utensil, she cut at the inner artichoke and elegantly scooped out the thicket of thistle fuzz called the choke. You could see the satisfaction in her face when she finally and surgically removed the soft prize of the artichoke’s heart and set is aside in a bowl of marinade, already heaped with succulent and mushy cups.
Morais provides his reader with the clean, concise explanations of how a dish is prepared, allowing it to speak for itself unburdened by adjectives. His writing is all the more powerful because of its austerity. And while he preserves the inevitable link between love and food within his story – I was glad to see that he doesn’t fixate on the romantic or sexual, but instead equates it with more familial bonds. In the end, I felt that Morais was writing about food in a new and different way. Not the typical “food porn” as described by Anthony Bourdain in the blurb – which to me implies artifice, a need for enhancement and ultimately fantasy. The food in The Hundred-Foot Journey is honest and authentic. Morais has done something much more difficult than creating food porn. He has pin-pointed the beauty in what is real.
All through the month of July I will be reviewing books that share a common element: India. These will include books by Indian authors, books set in India, or simply books about Indian culture. The Hundred-Foot Journey seemed like the perfect place to start. Because don’t most of us first experience a foreign culture in the same way? Through the discovery and appreciation of its food?
Publisher: Scribner, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 0 68407 812 0