The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #33 (August 12-18,
2003), page 11.
Bharti Kirchner serves up a treat with Pastries
Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries
By Bharti Kirchner
St. Martinís Press, 2003
Hardcover, 352 pages, $24.95
By Sridevi Ramanathan
Special to The Asian Reporter
As in her previous novels, Bharti Kirchnerís protagonist in Pastries is an unmarried Indian woman. Sunya Malhotra, seemingly average in all ways, shines in one area ó baking. She is a pastry chef and owns Pastries Cafť, located in the Wallingford district of Seattle, Washington.
Sunya has succeeded in creating a unique and innovative chocolate cake. "I orchestrated the usual items along with a few unexpected ones and flew into a creative frenzy," Sunya explains. "Thus was born Ö my signature creation: tender, multitiered, a subtle melding of complementary flavors and chili heat, graced with a silken bittersweet chocolate skin, more delicate than a regular chocolate cake but taller."
Roger Yahura, her recently estranged Japanese fashion-designer-turned- political-activist boyfriend, describes the dessert as "a transcendental experience." And a gossipy, meat-and-potatoes food critic, Donald J. Smith, writes:
"Sunya Cake is tasty, beautiful, hypnotic, and lyrical. Itís an accomplishment perhaps only my mother could match. But my mother doesnít have the secret recipe. Only Sunya Malhotra has it ó and she isnít telling."
The tactics heíll use to get that recipe are only one ingredient to the Pastries story.
What other ingredients complicate a story centered on the wholesome activity of baking?
Stir in her motherís impending marriage to a man Sunya finds abrasive at best.
In a separate bowl, beat together the haunting curiosity Sunya has about a father who abandoned her two days after her birth and the question of why he named her Sunya, the Sanskrit word for emptiness.
Blend that into the mix and then spice it up with a dash of potential new romance with an up-and-coming film director whom Sunya knows nothing about.
Next, add heat by tossing in a loiterer seen near the cafť, who has found Sunyaís home and dropped off an overseas business card.
Increase temperature with a lurking chain-store enemy that has plans to move into the neighborhood and gobble up her clientele.
And, finally, top off with Sunya losing her magic for baking!
Most lumps in this batter quickly dissolve when Sunya takes a trip to Japan. She learns to practice baking as a form of therapy under a master baker, Mori Matsumoto, at the Apsara Bakery. Though some surprising events test her calm, she manages to return with a rejuvenated attitude. She finally digests that "Sunya is an emptiness thatís full ó that has the potential to open up to all of life." Sheís ready to take on life, whatever it might whip up for her.
Kirchner captures the diversity of desserts and cultures in Pastries. The novelís pages, baked with enchanting aromas and scrumptious images, entice readers to add more sugar to their coffee and continue turning the pages.
* * *
Prep work for Pastries: An interview with Bharti Kirchner
By Sridevi Ramanathan
Special to The Asian Reporter
Asian Reporter: Youíve written four novels so far and the protagonists in all four are single Indian women around 30 years of age. Why the fascination with this character profile?
Bharti Kirchner: Yes, that around-thirty age bracket fascinates me. Major life transformations begin to bud at that age. My fiction writing is intuitive. I donít start out with the notion of writing a novel about a woman of a particular age. Rather, it works out that way.
AR: Another observation is that most of your protagonists are Indian women raised in the United States. Many would agree that you describe their perspectives and dilemmas extremely well Ė though you were raised in India. How did you develop such insight?
BK: Thank you! I believe this group is poised to do great things. I also think that less has been written about them thus far than the first generation or those living in India. I know something about them from being friends with them. A lot of it has been imagining their joys and struggles. Ultimately a writer has to depend on her imagination, and I quite often do.
AR: Prior to becoming a novelist, you were an established cookbook writer. Was this book a bridge back to your cookbook-writing days? In what ways did your cooking background influence Pastries?
BK: I love baking and always wanted to do a book on baking. That didnít pan out and now I am entrenched in novel writing. I was delighted when the story idea for Pastries came to me. I could finally express my passion for baking on the pages!
However, to give the bakery setting its authenticity, I had to do tons of research. I interviewed bakers and read piles of restaurant trade magazines. Iíd walk into a bakery and try to get a feel for the place and its customers. A bakery is, literally and otherwise, a warm place. Itís easy to form bonds with co-workers and customers there. These relationships are the heart of Pastries.
AR: Speaking of ideas, how did you come up with the idea for this book?
BK: I was on a trip through Japan about seven years ago. The hotel where I was staying had a bakery that overlooked a large formal garden. I expected to see familiar Asian pastries, heavy dough stuffed with bean paste. Instead, the showcase was full of exquisite French pastries, cakes, tarts, petit fours, ťclairs, palmiers. I began to wonder: Who is this Japanese baker who makes these beautiful French pastries? The face of a middle-aged Japanese man flashed into my head and I knew he had a story, but I couldnít tell any more than that.
When I got back to Seattle, I made an attempt to start writing but got nowhere. So, I forgot all about it. Then two years ago I could see the beginning of the story. It was entirely different. It started in Seattle and as it turned out, the Japanese part came much later in the book.
AR: How consciously did you work to bring diverse cultural themes, characters, etc. in Pastries?
BK: It wasnít conscious at all. For me that is the natural mode. Iíve always embraced diverse cultures and believed that thatís the only way weíd survive as a species. In my very first novel, Shiva Dancing, the protagonist has two close friends, one Mexican, another Japanese. So that manner of thinking was always there.
AR: Sunyaís mother, Dee, decides to remarry in her 50s to a non-Indian. This is not commonplace for Indian women. Did you use the novel as a forum to make socio-political statements? If so, in what ways?
BK: I didnít start out thinking in socio-political terms at all when I constructed the Dee character. As I went on, I found her to be unusually strong, resilient, loving, and ready for remarriage. I do hope, however, that Deeís story will inspire some readers of that age group to consider the possibility of new relationships.
AR: Finally, you chose your home city of Seattle to base Pastries. Why this novel and not any of the previous ones?
BK: Again, it came rather naturally to me that this was the time and the plot to write about the city that has been my home for the last 18 years. It could also be the process of maturation for a writer. I love Seattle as a city and am convinced that it has contributed to my being a writer. I was a software engineer when I first moved here and remained so for many years. With Pastries, I felt compelled to leave my usual setting aside and explore Seattle and Japan. This is a risky proposition, but a writer must travel unknown territories from time to time. From readersí reactions Iíve received so far, I am glad I did.