Astute epicures might sit at a table, lift a fork or spoon to their mouths and trace each ingredient in a given dish.
Place a plate before Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, and she starts tracing lines on a map. She connects dots between people, and across eras. And flashes of memory whisk her back in time, into kitchens where people have not only shared recipes with her but offered their stories.
“I can’t help myself,” Furstenau said. “When I look down, I’m seeing history. I’m seeing food identity, and who feels what foods represent their culture. It just deepens the experience for me.”
Furstenau applies this perceptive palate in her latest book, “Green Chili and Other Impostors,” available via University of Iowa Press next week. Within its pages, the Columbia-based food journalist deepens, then extends, understanding of cuisine as culture by visiting distinct Bengali communities in Kolkata and around India.
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A journey from ‘Heartland’ to heritage
Furstenau’s previous book, 2013’s “Biting through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland,” won the M.F.K. Fisher Grand Prize for Excellence in Culinary Writing for its soulful look at her childhood as a first-generation immigrant in Pittsburg, Kansas. In Furstenau’s work, the line separating food writing and lyrical biography is quite thin; our living and coming alive is bound up with food and the people who make it, a truth the writer underlines so well.
After the success of “Biting Through the Skin,” Furstenau longed to travel back a generation, to India and the deeper roots of her own relationship with family and food. A Fulbright scholarship propelled her to India for nine months before the pandemic.
In that time and place, absent an American lens, her already-rich vision of the world expanded.
“Looking at history when you’re standing in Asia is a little different — at least it was for me,” Furstenau said.
She crossed India’s threshold with an aim fixed in her mind — studying the “heritage foods of Bengal.” As the region opened