To Lahore with Love by Hina Belitz – a tale of cookery, magic and romance in two countries
Cooking, for some, is a passion. For Addy, the young woman at the centre of this novel, who narrates it, cooking is what shapes a life, improves it, changes it for the better. It is not the food itself, although that is lovingly described, but the actual process of cooking, creating a meal that can have significance for all who share it. Throughout the book there are recipes for “Commitment Cake”, “Amorous Chilli Chocolate” and “Despair – Dissolving Mustard Spinach”, all written in a notebook kept by Addy from her earliest years. She has grown up with her Irish Catholic mother and her Pakinstani Muslim Nana, mixing her heritage and faith. Her father has left the family and returned to Lahore, where he has died. Addy has always had many mixed emotions about her background, but has always found that the process of cooking with her Nana has made things feel better. One day she makes a discovery that completely shakes her world and which cannot be made better by cooking a memorable meal. This is a book which combines cookery, choices and crisis to superb effect to create characters which really live, even when in a very different setting. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel which combines traditional ideas with modern choices to great effect.
Addy wants to cook, and much to everyone’s surprise is content to work in a small restaurant. Her friend Jen introduces her to Gabe, a Phd student who soon asks her to marry him, with all suitable ceremonies. Addy is blissfully happy and describes herself as such at a cookery course, so much that she admits “What a smug bitch I must have seemed”. There is a problem of fertility, but she and Gabe seem happy together. Then one day she makes a discovery that rocks her world, and she collapses into a state that is beyond even her Nana’s cookery. One day Jen volunteers to take her to Lahore, and with Nana in tow, they meet a whole new family in many degrees. As she explores a whole new world of food, colour and experiences, she is forced to readjust so many expectations and take in so much information. The stories and sites that she visits makes her question everything. The wonderful character of Nana dominates the Lahore experience that even when she makes outrageous suggestions and truths are revealed, she is still much loved.
This is a book which effortlessly combines the ancient and the contemporary, the old practices and beliefs, with the sort of choices that contemporary women must make. It talks knowledgeably about dual identity and its effects on a life, how it means that Addy only has one real friend in the form of Jen, and how Gabe is a dream man from the beginning. It is absolutely lyrical about cooking, and each section is headed with a list of ingredients and the taste, the artistry and the purpose of the meal proposed. The link is made with the effect it has on those who eat it in an almost magical way, and in some ways this is a most magical novel. I recommend it for those interested in traditional cookery and what it can mean in a life, as well as romance and the reality of other lifestyles.
Meanwhile I have found myself doing a lot more cookery over the last few days than normal. Partly because we have been given a lot of potatoes ( from a cancelled lunch) and partly because I have more time. Nothing as well cooked as the recipes in this book, but very solid food in all respects! I have my usual back up pile of tins of soup if all else fails (some have probably been there since we moved in…)