The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

How do you get to Paris from Bombay? Food, Food, Food.

What better transport is there than a light vehicle that provides a fun and wild ride, taking me out of Midnight’s Children‘s Bombay to my next destination, Paris in July? Thanks to Karen of Book Bath for organizing the trip.

This delightful, breezy read is that speedy transit. It tells the story of Hassan Haji, a Muslim boy who lives above his grandfather’s restaurant in then Bombay and how he ultimately ends up as a three-star chef in Paris.

Growing up immersed in the savoury aroma of Indian food and spices,

I suspect my destiny was written from the very start, for my first sensation of life was the smell of machli ka salan, a spicy fish curry, rising through the floorboards to the cot…

Hassan is endowed with an exceptional gift of culinary talent. After the Partition and the death of his grandfather, religious and political turmoils push his family out of the country. They first land in London, later immigrate to France. The boisterous family finds a home in the resort village Lumière near the Alps and starts its own restaurant Maison Mumbai, serving Indian dishes and bringing a welcome change to the villagers.

Hassan soon is jealously noticed by the veteran, feisty two-star French Chef Madame Mallory across the street. She is the proprietor of the small country hotel, Le Saule Pleureur. Her restaurant is a haute French culinary establishment that plays Satie in contrast to the Indian music from a loudspeaker at the Haji’s. After many animated and almost cartoonish conflicts between Madame Mallory and Hassan’s Papa, Abbas Haji, both concede to the reconciliatory move of allowing Hassan to become Chef Mallory’s apprentice.

Thus, Hassan takes the one hundred-foot journey and crosses the street to stay at Le Saule Pleureur, learn all he can from the great Chef and answer ‘the irrefutable call of destiny’ to be one himself. Towards the end of his apprenticeship, Hassan is left on his own to create recipes for pigeons, gigot, and hare, all to the satisfaction of Chef Mallory. After three years under her wings, Hassan is ready to move on.

Chardin’s Grey Partridge Pear and Snare on Stone Table, one of Hassan’s favorite paintings.

Next step, Paris. Hassan starts as a sous chef with a couple of smaller restaurants. After a few years, he decides to open his own and is approached by a benefactor who offers him reduced rent in an upscale location near the Panthéon. The one-hundred foot journey has brought him fine training, now he can take flight.

Here is his trademark dish:

the Siberian ptarmigan, roasted with the tundra herbs taken from the bird’s own crop, and served with caramelized pears in an Armagnac sauce.

We as readers are privy to the actual cooking procedure beginning with the feathered live bird.

For me, more a movie buff than a foodie, the book conjures up many cinematic images… the colours and conflicts in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the prejudice in Chocolat, the sumptuous offering in Babette’s Feast, and, the training sessions in the The Karate Kid. Dev Patel (Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire) will be perfect for the role as young Hassan. I couldn’t help but think, this book is good movie material.

And then I found out from the Acknowledgements after I finished, the book is an homage to the late Ismail Merchant, the film producer behind the Merchant Ivory productions (Room With A View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day) who met an untimely death in 2005. The bond between the author Richard Morais and his friend Ismail Merchant was food. This book was started with a subsequent movie in mind.

In-depth research has gone into writing the book, culinary history, recipes, game, desserts, soups, the French kitchen, the Indian kitchen, restaurant operations, even for me the uninformed and casual eater, there are plenty to savour. The book is a smorgasbord of gastronomic delights. My only criticism is that its literary treatment may taste a bit raw, simplistic, and at times, didactic. However, read it like a comedy, it can satisfy like a dessert.

~~~ Ripples

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais, Scribner, NY, 2010, 245 pages.

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

22 thoughts on “The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais”

  1. Ooh, I thought of Babette’s Feast too. Sounds like a lovely book; I predict you are right about future casting…Thanks for sharing, Arti! Food truly is the great Connector.

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    1. I only suggested one. For Madame Mallory, I’ve Judi Dench in mind. 😉 In the interview at the end of the book, the author said a movie is already in development. I wonder who’s in it…

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  2. I have this book sitting on my shelves but had completely forgotten about it! Didn’t even think about it for Paris in July! Will have to go and find it!

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  3. I tend to avoid foodie books although I’m not sure why. I think it’s because I feel the focus on food often comes at the expense of things like character development! But that’s just prejudice, and I did enjoy Julie and Julia. What a coincidence that the novel should be dedicated to the memory of Ismail Merchant – your cinematic eye spotted the clues very early on, yes?!

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    1. litlove,

      As far as I can remember, this is my second ‘foodie’ book. The first being Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody, which is the prequel to the better-known The Elegance of the Hedgehog. So, I’m not much of a foodie reader either.

      Your observation about characterization is totally apt when applying to The Hundred-foot Journey. Well, maybe another way of looking at it is, these are more like caricatures, stock characters for stark contrasts, as I mentioned, a comedic cartoonish sketch rather than the deeper, literary rendering. You can treat it as a dessert, but it’s no main course I’m afraid. 😉

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  4. I’m so happy – thanks to you, I know Judi Dench now, and from what you’ve said about Madame Mallory, I can see her playing that character.

    Long, long ago I was married to a fellow who’d spent years in India in the Peace Corps. He fell in love with India, was quite a good cook and brought home many recipes. He taught me that grocery store “curry powder” is to be avoided at all costs, and that the richess and diversity of dishes made even with the lowly lentil are nearly inexhaustible. I’m not really a fan of French cooking, but Indian? I’m right there.

    I’m glad to know about this book – it’s quite appealing.

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    1. Linda,

      Looks like you’ve had much more experience with Indian cuisine than I have… and I suppose maybe a good cook too yourself. 😉 I don’t know what else to use other than store bought curry, mind you, I avoid using powder too. I like the Malaysian and Japanese versions as well. Anyway, I can see this can be turned into a colourful and aromatic movie, with proper casting, could easily be more appealing than the book.

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  5. My reading list is getting larger every day!This looks like a must-have, though. Loving all things Paris, Brit and adoring Indian cuisine, I’m thinking it will be “delicious!”

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    1. It’s delicious if you’re a foodie. If you’ve too many on your TBR list, I’d just wait for the movie, maybe that could bring out sights and aroma better. But you can’t wait, this is a breezy read that won’t take you more than a few days.

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