Colleen Taylor Sen met her husband Ashish at a college dance. It was the early 1960s, when she still went by Colleen Taylor. She was born and raised in Toronto, the child of two white parents with ancestral roots in England.
She had never eaten Indian food before meeting Ashish, an Indian immigrant who came to Canada for university. On one of their first dates, Ashish cooked a Bengali curry. The taste left Sen spellbound: It was unlike anything she’d ever had.
Since meeting and marrying Ashish, Sen has spun the study of Indian cuisine, in all its nuances, into her life's great passion. Sen, who lives in Chicago, is now 72 years old, and she has written six books on Indian food. Her latest, Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, may be her most ambitious. She has taken on the herculean task of mining India’s ancient texts, stretching as far back as the time of the Vedas and Indus Valley Civilization, to create as comprehensive a culinary profile as she can of one of the largest countries in the world. The 336-page tome is a reckoning with the country's culinary magnitude, a promise to offer clarity where it can.
When I first came to know of Sen’s work last year, I approached her with a mix of suspicion and fascination. I'd never encountered anyone with my surname who looked so different from me. (I've confirmed numerous times that we're not related.) I wanted to know how this woman came to be such a bastion of knowledge of a food she hadn't grown up eating—the same food I had grown up eating.
When we spoke earlier this week, Sen told me that she feels an endeavor like Feasts and Fasts is a matter of necessity. Indian cuisine has so many valences that it has been flattened into a monolithic as it's traveled outside the subcontinent. For many Westerners, a sense of it far beyond the rich, creamy, Northern varieties served in restaurants hasn't evolved. Sen is devilishly precise about her language, and often frustrated with the way Westerners talk about Indian food.
“Most restaurants still offer the same hodgepodge of Punjabi and so-called ‘Mughal’ food,” she explained to me, speaking of ahistorical references to the Mughal Empire. “Mughal is a word I avoid like the plague because it is has been co-opted by restaurants. What the Mughals ate has nothing to do with what these restaurants serve. It’s a word totally invented by restaurants to add cachet to food. A catch-all to lavish North Indian food. Mughals actually were very austere in their cuisine, but the phrase ‘Mughal cuisine’ hardly appears before 1938.”
The Toronto of Sen’s childhood was a culinary wasteland. Her diet growing up was rather bland and unexciting. “There was nothing in Toronto in the way of so-called ethnic food,” she told me earlier this week, when we spoke on the phone. “My grandparents were all from England, so we had traditional English food at home.” Her meals consisted of lunches with Campbell’s tomato soup and grilled cheese, or dinners of oxtail stew or pork chops with potatoes and vegetables.
The parents and grandparents of most of her schoolmates had emigrated from the British Isles, too. There were few South Asians in Toronto. This gave her no opportunities to try food from the South Asian subcontinent. Ashish was the first person she’d ever met from India. In Toronto, people treated him as a subject of anthropological curiosity—he stood out so starkly in Canada back then that people would stop him on the street and ask him where he came from.
Ashish gave her a window into Bengali food's rich flavor profile. Through him, she met his mother, the late Arati Sen. Arati was a former food columnist at Desh, one of the most widely-read print Bengali-language publications in South Asia. It was through Arati that Sen began to complicate her sense of Indian food, and to process its density and breadth.
“[Arati] loved Bengali food, especially fish, which she would select herself at the market,” Sen told me of her mother-in-law. “However, her husband Ashoka, who was born and grew up in Delhi, was allergic to fish, so they often ate separate dishes at meals. He enjoyed a light meal of chapattis, kebabs, vegetables, a little dal.” Her mother-in-law introduced Sen to a number of food scholars, including Kundan Lal Gujral, founder of global restaurant chain Moti Mahal. Sen also came to know of K.T. Achaya, the pioneering food historian whose books she treated like bibles.
"My mother in law was a very interesting person," she told me. "I never really got to know her since she died at the age of 60 and we only met a few times. Now that I am older, I wish I had made an effort to know her better.”
Sen's pivot to studying Indian food may seem rather swift and difficult to explain if you glance at her biography: She holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Columbia, and spent a decade working in energy. But over time, Sen explained to me, her fascination with Indian food deepened.
The circumstances of her job, which had her traveling often, made her decide that she wanted to study the history of Indian food. She began devoting her time to writing about Indian food in 1998, researching the Portuguese colonial influence on Bengali cuisine and presenting a paper on it at the Oxford Food Symposia. Soon after, she began working on her first book, Food Culture in India, eventually published in 2004. She followed it with what was perhaps her most famous book, 2009’s Curry: A Global History. The popularity of Feasts and Fasts, however, was unprecedented—it has sold better than any of her previous books in India.
Her days keep her busy. She gets up at six in the morning each day and makes herself some chota haazri, a cup of strong black tea with milk and sugar. It was a custom she adopted at her in-laws’ home. She writes for a few hours before breakfast, which, depending on the day, are either Western or Indian. Indian breakfasts include parathas (thin, fried breads), halwa puri (fried breads with sweet carrots and stewed chickpeas and potatoes), cheela (a spicy crepe, made from the same batter as dosa), Moghlai parathas (fried bread stuffed with keema, or minced meats), and masala omelets (omelets with onions, turmeric, and chilies). She calls Indian breakfasts “one of the great unsung glories of South Asian cuisine,” and it is a matter she is so passionate about that she’s currently drafting a book proposal on it.
Sen spends her afternoons and evenings doing research. In addition to her book on Indian breakfasts, Sen is now hard at work with food writer and critic Sourish Bhattacharyya, with whom she is planning The Indian Food Companion, a multiyear effort with many authors that aims to be “a comprehensive overview of Indian cuisines and history.” She envisions it as the Indian analog to the Oxford Companion of Food.
There’s no dancing around the fact that the space Sen occupies is fraught. She is a white scholar writing about the cuisine of a country with a particularly gruesome colonial past. If this statement of fact may strike some as needlessly infused with politics, I'd argue that the matter merits scrutiny in 2017, when the field of food writing, whether scholarship or journalism, has begun to look inward and interrogate its own diversity.
The notion that we shouldn't question the efficacy of Sen's voice in this world also does a disservice to Sen herself, and her intelligence. As a scholar, she is especially cognizant of both her voice's powers and limitations. Sen shies away from seeing herself as any kind of authority figure, in spite of her many achievements. Her work has, in some ways, been an attempt to make sense of why the Western understanding of Indian food has barely matured beyond curries and tikka masala, and how she can change that.
“Since I’m married to an Indian man who is passionate about food, I think I bring an objective, yet also detached, perspective,” she explained. “I don’t feel particularly chauvinistic about any particular cuisine, be it Bengali or any other, and am quite open to experimentation.” She expressed some ambivalence, for example, of not knowing how to speak any Indian languages. Though she developed a working understanding of Sanskrit for Feasts and Fasts, she decided not to learn Hindi or Bengali, as English is one of India’s official languages.
She conceded, though, that there are still histories of regional Indian regional cuisines waiting to be written, especially by voices that aren’t hers. Food history is more nascent a field in India than it is in the United States. This work will come from writers who are native to India that can draw upon the historical literature in the languages she can’t speak or read. Sen will do what she can to promote the works of other scholars who do what she couldn’t write herself. But she’s willing to profess ignorance on everything she still doesn't know about Indian food. There's a lot left to learn.
Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India is available for purchase.