Book Review: A Life of Spice

By Mary Mihaly

“When you least expect it, culture shows up.”

That simple, sage thought is reflected in every dish created by chef and food writer Monica Bhide, and it crystallizes her newest book, A Life of Spice (2015).

As an Indian child growing up in Bahrain, Bhide’s earliest memories are of the family kitchen. “I grew up without a can opener in the house,” she writes, and she ate with her fingers: “Eating with your hands makes you aware of what is going in your mouth. It makes eating less of a mindless chore and more of an experience where your presence is required.”

When Bhide discovered red wine she thought it too strong to enjoy, but “the hand that poured the wine seemed so gentle and hospitable…The deep red consumed my attention…How could something so beautiful taste so unfriendly?” But she learned to appreciate it, later calling Merlot “my deep red friend.”

Culture does show up, on every page. We can almost hear Bhide’s grandmother cautioning her not to taste as she cooked: “The first offering…was for the gods.” And we glimpse her early curiosity about “foreign” foods when, as a 10-year-old, the Sesame Street fan writes in her journal, “Grover made something called a peanut butter sandwich…”

Bhide’s kitchen is a warm place where she “spent days learning a dish I already knew, just to be close to my friend…” Her book of stories takes us there. We learn what spices and food and drink mean to her, and how we can use them. And in one of her most engaging vignettes, Bhide reveals the food obsession that soothed her “during hard times and was a reliable friend on sunny days” – but her comfort food was no exotic dish from her homeland. It was, and is, Nutella.

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