The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais
Allen & Unwin, $35
I picked up this book based on the cover recommendation by travelling gastronome Anthony Bourdain: "Outstanding! Easily the best novel set in in the world of cooking ever. Absolutely thrilling from beginning to end."
As it turns out, that is a bit of an exaggeration. But had he said "some of the most mouth-watering descriptions of food ever written" he'd have been closer to the truth.
Morais, a long-time writer for Forbes magazine, begins his first novel in India where young Hassan Haji grows up in and around his family's modest but successful restaurant in Mumbai. When tragedy strikes, this colourful, rowdy family uproots and moves, first to England and then on, nomadically, through Europe to finally settle in the small French village of Lumiere.
There they take take up residence across the road from revered French chef Madame Mallory and her double-Michelin starred restaurant. To Mallory's horror, the family immediately opens a "cheap and cheerful" Indian restaurant, which soon finds fans among the locals.
The outraged master chef's attempts to outwit and thwart the Haji family's business and place in the village knows no bounds until, after another near-tragedy, she is forced to accept that young Hassan is that rarest of things - a chef who is born, not made.
Morais' knowledge of food and cooking, as well as the cut and thrust of restaurant life, is vast and he brings it to the reader in full technicolour, all dusted with a pinch of nostalgia and yearning for home.
The pages particularly come alive when he is describing Hassan's life in India with a devoted mother and a larger-than-life father.
You can practically smell the spices in the air and taste the incredible-sounding food.
And the battles of will between Hassan's father and Mallory are hugely entertaining; two massive egos locking horns, pretending it's merely a cultural clash and refusing to back down no matter the consequences.
Mallory is a fantastic, acutely observed character and the book misses her when she's not on the page for much of its final third.
Although the pages still melt with food - mostly French by this stage rather than Indian - towards the end Hassan's growing ennui begins to affect the reader, and the story becomes a little less engaging. You want it to end with a sharp palate cleanser when what you get is more akin to supermarket brie, perfectly palatable but a little bland.
Morais' point seems to be that nobody escapes the things that have shaped them but he doesn't seem quite sure what to do with it.
The book is a light, entertaining and engaging read - something of an achievement in itself for a book set at least partly in India, so often home to Booker-milking tomes lost in their own worthiness.
Mostly it is highest-quality "food porn", which is reason enough to read it, perhaps with a banquet of Indian food before you. And it's a perfect summer read for the bach.