The Connection of Food and Culture

Local author’s latest book explores ties between personal, culinary histories.

Photos by L.G. Patterson

Growing up, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau was raised between two cultures.

As a toddler, her family left India and immigrated to Chicago and then to Pittsburg, Kansas. While her parents spoke Bengali at home, Furstenau otherwise had a typical Midwest upbringing, with summers spent playing softball and going to county fairs.
So Furstenau’s Indian identity was centered around culinary experiences at home, where she absorbed the sound of her mother’s silks as she moved around the kitchen and the chiming of her bangles as she rolled out bread. It heightened as she watched steam rise to curl the hair at the frame of her mother’s face as she poured curds through a cheesecloth to make chhana, a soft cheese similar to ricotta. The daughter of an English teacher, Furstenau found a love of writing and began to explore it as a way to address topics of both food and culture.

Now, Furstenau, a Columbia resident and winner of the M. F. K. Fisher Book Award as well as the Grand Prize for Excellence in Culinary Writing from Les Dames D’Escoffier International, has taken that cultural and culinary exploration further in her latest book, “Green Chilis and Other Impostors,” released in late October. The book is the result of Furstenau’s experience in 2018 and 2019, when she traveled to India as a U.S. Fulbright-Nehru global scholar to conduct research on the food stories of Bengal. The experience also allowed her to spend time with family who still live in India, sharing recipes and learning from one another.
Those nine months, which Furstenau recalls as some of the best of her life, resulted in the food journey of the book — one that delves into the history of how different foods moved around the world, where they come from and what cultures claim them as their own.

Take chili peppers, for example. Today, chilis are a staple of Indian food, with their flavor often married to Indian cuisine. But the history of how chilis arrived in India is less familiar. According to “Green Chilis and Other Imposters,” South American chilies in India can be traced to Vasco da Gama, the first European explorer to reach India by sea, in 1498. As the Portuguese brought chilis from their travels to South America into India, the rich soil allowed for them to grow everywhere.

Earlier in history, the eastern world and India were a nexus where several food stories overlapped as they came through ports. “Green Chilis and Other Imposters” traces the origin of foods including limes, potatoes and tomatoes, and encourages readers to consider what makes food, or even people, foreign and how they then become integrated into a culture.

For Furstenau, the food we consume exists as more than just physical sustenance. Each time we sit and share a meal with family or friends, personal memories and associations are being brought to the table, inspired by the aromas and tastes of the food being served. This is our individual, edible archive, as a chef in India once told Furstenau. It’s a place that exists in the mind and can be accessed again and again, giving emotional, caring sustenance that can also foster an appreciation for how people and cultures entwine through food.

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