Indian Cuisines and Cultural Kinship: A Gastrocritic Analysis

A brief analysis of Thumpa Lahiri’s When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine (2001) from the lens of Gastrocriticism

For decades, literature has been exercised in such a way to fulfill the objectives and vision of its authors. This motive became one to array by Thumpa Lahiri through one of his pieces titled “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” (2001). This story, which involved a heavy association with Indian culture, cuisine, and characters, depicted a heartfelt nostalgia in a story-telling manner, narrated through the innocent voice of young Lilia. Despite the concept of transnational friction between Pakistan and India occupying the spotlight, substantial utilization of food-related exposition was the most eminent throughout the plot.

The critical paradigm which will be employed in this literary critic is that of gastro criticism. First coined by Ronald W. Tobin, gastro criticism is a theory of literature critic which emerged from the Food Study. Citing from Anke Klitzing (2019), gastro criticism can be defined as “a multidisciplinary approach that links gastronomy and literary criticism, relying on extensive research in disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, history, medicine, semiotics, psychoanalysis and philosophy to explore food in all its aspects — what is now commonly called Food Studies.”. In a simplified manner, this theory can be taken as a way to observe how food is constructing an isolated value or quality into the development of a literary work. For this particular novel, I believe Lahiri’s use of food in When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine primarily aimed at the establishment of the characters’ relationships, affinity, and national identities.

Since the very beginning of the story, Lahiri ensured the prominence of foods to be omnipresent. In the first few paragraphs, the readers were served with the emergence of Indian cuisines, narrated through Lilia’s viewpoint. To name a few; ‘fried spinach with radish’, in other words, Mooli Palak; ‘mincemeat kebabs with coriander chutney’ or else known as Shami Kebab; and ‘spiced cashews’. These dishes, all of which are culturally associated with a distinguished ethnicity, collectively reinforce the background of the narrated characters — Lilia and her family as Indians who were residing in India. When imposed upon a different character of contradicting background this nature remains effectual. “They ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands………., chewed fennel seeds after meals as a digestive, drank no alcohol, for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups of tea. “ This excerpt particularizes the identity of Mr. Pirzada, a Pakistani, as someone who performs cultural activities and traditions which paralleled to Indians.

In addition to defining one’s ethnic and national identity, the role of food in the elucidation of characters’ social relations and milieu was abundant. “From the kitchen, my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce. I followed with the water glasses, and the plate of lemon wedges, and the chili peppers…” This passage depicted how the served dishes and the attitude in which it was delivered in play as symbols to show that Mr. Pirzada was indeed treated as one of their very own, despite contrasting ethnic backgrounds. In the following paragraph, Lilia addressed the action performed by Mr. Pirzada on the mentioned food. “…creating a well in his rice to make room for a second helping of lentils.” While this can be perceived as a nonchalant measure one does on the dining table, this holds a deeper sight to the characters’ kinships. By creating a well in his rice in the means to acquire a second portion of lentils, Mr. Pirzada was exhibiting a synonymous manner as the family on the signature dish which belongs to their origin — accentuating the familiarity and kinship between the two entities.

When discussing the use of food in showcasing emotional attachments one established, Lilia became one to pinpoint. “He reached into his suit pocket and gave me a small plastic egg filled with cinnamon hearts.” In this section, the concept of cinnamon hearts was introduced. This specific food later functioned as a groundwork of the affinity between Mr. Pirzada and Lilia. “…steady stream of honey-filled lozenges, the raspberry truffles, the slender rolls of sour pastilles.” In addition to the abstraction of cinnamon hearts, supplementary tokens of benevolence also prevailed, all of which took forms of sweet treats — specifying the identity of the individual he strived to build amity with; a young girl.

As the story approached the peak point, food presence persists and later took form in an analogous manner. “I took a square of white chocolate out of the box, and unwrapped it, and then I did something I had never done before. I put the chocolate in my mouth, letting it soften until the last possible moment, and then as I chewed it slowly, I prayed that Mr. Pirzada’s family was safe and sound.” The presence of sweet treats resurfaced in this central passage. In this fraction, Lilia was delineating her dejections upon the imagery of food; white chocolate which was gifted to her by Mr. Pirzada. She associated her dismay to the uncertain faith of Mr. Pirzada and expressed it into practice using the chocolate which remarked her remembrance of him.

While the presence of food descriptions exceeds discernible levels, it does not translate into automated allure nor fascination. I have found the repetitive nature of the food presentation to be tedious. Though the variabilities of the cuisines are myriad, the consecutive emergence of kindred objects (food) took it to an insipid turn. In a more positive course, however, the structural aspect of the story was quite satisfactory. The dictions were expressed in a heightened creative manner yet still hold a compact format. The sentence structure, being linearly laid out, was almost esculent which amplified the reading experience.

All in all, Lahiri has enabled the function of food to play a significant role in the projection of the characters’ national and cultural identity as well as their relationships to an effective extend. Through Lilia’s simple lens, the consolidation of food was no less than influential in developing the characters’ personalities and connections. Though one may argue the reoccurrence of food or edibles is borderline excessive, the lucid sentence structure, easy-to-follow plot, and diction choices hit the mark, which redeemed the downside of this story altogether.

A free-soul writer. I post writings I’ve drafted for fun. Find me on IG : @debora_karenhs and LinkedIn : Debora Karen

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