Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland

Note to self:  Request from library

By JENNY ROSENSTRACH  Published: December 13, 2013 in the NYT

In Nina Mukerjee Furstenau’s memoir, BITING THROUGH THE SKIN: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland (University of Iowa, paper, $19), the author uses family recipes to bridge two worlds: the small Midwestern town of Pittsburg, Kan., where she grew up, and, a universe away, her parents’ and grandparents’ native Bengal. The book is structured in the format preferred and perfected by Molly Wizenberg (“A Homemade Life”), Luisa Weiss (“My Berlin Kitchen”) and food bloggers everywhere: personal story followed by recipe featured in personal story. If one of the metrics of success in this genre is to get you into the kitchen, Furstenau’s got that one covered.

Her food memoir, though, is less concerned with the proper amount of ginger in the dal than it is with the classic immigrant’s search for belonging. “There I was playing softball, riding my 10-speed, and going to the Dairy Queen,” she writes, “eyes bright, fingers sticky, all the while losing my identity.” Her childhood was one where chickpea flour sat in the pantry beside the all-purpose white, where Huntley and Brinkley read the national news as the family dined on murgi and payesh. These dishes “spelled trouble” to her father, who feared the clingy clove-y aromas would make the house smell of “otherness.” He worked out an elaborate venting system for just such occasions.

Furstenau’s struggle becomes particularly acute in the late 1970s, when she’s an angst-ridden teenager suddenly frustrated that her friends don’t understand the world she comes from, even as she struggles to understand it herself. In a chapter called “All Our Tupperware Is Stained With Turmeric” (nailed that one) she decides the answer is to be found — where else? — at the dinner table. She will help her mother prepare a traditional Bengali feast for her burger-and-fries-loving pals. “What is this exactly,” one of them asks, and in one swipe of her fork brushes both the curry and the author’s search for who exactly she is to the side of the plate. It should be noted that the recipe for the keema — a minced meat curry — following this story had me combing the county for cardamom pods.

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