Colleen Taylor Sen is a Canadian-America author and culinary historian based in Chicago. She was born in Toronto, Canada and has lived in Chicago since 1968. She is the author of six books, including Food Culture in India; Curry: A Global History; Turmeric: The Wonder Spice; A Guide to Indian Restaurant Menus; Street Food Around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, and, most recently, Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India. Colleen Sen has a B.A. and M.A. from University of Toronto and a Ph.D. from Columbia University, all in Slavic Languages.
Introduction: Tell us about yourself, your background and what you do currently
I am the author of six books about South Asian and world cuisine. My books are not cookbooks, although they may have recipes; my focus is on the history and culture of food. My most recent book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India was originally published by Reaktion Books in London in 2014. It is the second history of Indian food after the work of K.T. Achaya. In 2016, Speaking Tiger Books published it in India. The reception in India has been very positive.
Indian cuisine is perhaps the most multifaceted and fascinating in the world. Not only are there countless local and regional variations, but also there are differences based on religion and social group. My book is a general overview: I hope and expect that many more books will be written on this important topic. Interest in food and culinary history is extremely high in India. In big cities, you can find restaurants serving Assamese, Naga, Bihari, Bengali, and many other cuisines that didn’t exist during previous trips to India.
What I found amazing in my research is the continuity of Indian food over thousands of years the inhabitants of the Indus Valley used turmeric and black pepper in their dishes, while the veneration of the cow and the love of ghee are expressed in the Vedas. The ancient Indians grew and ate eggplants, jackfruit, various millets and lentils, mangoes, ginger, cardamoms, turmeric, tamarind, and black pepper – all still prevalent in Indian cuisine. And India gave many of these items to the rest of the world.
Tell us about any current projects or initiatives you wish to promote
My next project is ‘An Encyclopedia of Indian Food’, with a well-known food writer and critic, Sourish Bhattacharyya.
What has been your biggest challenge in achieving your success?
Writing about the history and culture of Indian food as a non-Indian was daunting. However, my husband, who is Bengali, has always been interested in food and his late mother Arati Sen was a well-known journalist who often wrote about food. I started writing about Indian food for newspapers and magazines in the United States in the 1970s, with a focus on regional cuisines. In the 1980s, I began attending the Oxford Food symposium, where I delivered papers and met publishers who commissioned my first books. I have a doctorate in Slavic languages, so I am familiar with the techniques of scholarly research and writing which enabled me to take on these larger projects. Unfortunately, I don’t read Indian languages so I had to rely on translations. For works in Sanskrit, I enlisted the help of scholars.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing?
I have worked for over 30 years at an energy research institute in Chicago. During that time, I travelled extensively and made over a dozen trips to India. When I retired a few years ago, I was able to devote myself full time to writing, which is what I love doing most of all.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
My husband, Ashish Sen, who is the greatest food lover I know.
What does the future hold for you?
I want to continue to expand my knowledge of India and its cuisine and keep on writing.