Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur)
But does it taste Muslim?
No single-volume anthology could do justice to the diversity of any of the subcontinent’s dominant cultural strands, but tries
On April 12, after a culinarily themed episode of Browned Off, her fabulously arch podcast in conversation with publisher Faiza Khan, the Uk-based Pakistani author Moni Mohsin posted her first “cooking” video on Facebook. She wrote, “immigrants’ food is only of merit to white people if it’s authentic and traditional. So here I am sharing an ancient recipe for an authentic Pakistani dish I grew up eating in my grandmother’s house in Lahore.”
All plummy diction and poker face, Mohsin proceeded to mash shammi kebab on to processed white bread, before producing another ingredient, saying “it’s traditional, it’s customary, treasured and much-loved.” That pièce de résistance was tomato ketchup.
Mohsin’s hilariously truthful insight provides useful context for the curious, eclectic
Asia, like Tabish Khair’s Quick Seafood Broth, which heroes (admittedly debatably) non-halal shrimp and mussels, while omitting any archetypically desi ingredients other than a teaspoon of garam masala and a handful of coriander.
To be sure, the food of Muslim South Asia does necessarily comprise endlessly disparate multitudes, to reflect the tastes and traditions of over half a billion individuals.
In fact, like Hindustani, the lingua franca of north India and Pakistan, which nationalists keep attempting to tortuously —and often fatuously — cleave into ostensibly distinct Hindi and Urdu, it’s probably functionally impossible to meaningfully parse most South Asian food (beyond obvious taboos) by religion. For example, Sauleha Kamal shares her recipe for baingan ka bharta in Desi Delicacies, and Sarvat Hasin adds one for kali dal, yet, besides biographical vicissitudes situating both women across the Wagah border from India, what’s distinctively Muslim or Pakistani about the food they’re writing about?
Awkward contextualisation isn’t exclusive to Forgotten Food, and doesn’t substantially detract from the gems in Desi Delicacies. I savoured Rana Safvi’s impressively magisterial exegesis on the cultural, social and political history of the signature speciality of Mughlai cuisine. Qissa Qorma aur Qaliya Ka includes hard-and-fast cooking rules, an antiquarian recipe, and the author’s grandmother’s delightful maxim: Masala aisa bhuno jaise dushman ka kaleja! our oldest aunt’s home.” The three kept eating, “each new mouthful sending us deeper into our memories” until — no spoilers here — the mystery is heart-warmingly resolved.
In her afterword, Lambert-hurley says Forgotten Food was “conceived broadly to incorporate Muslim communities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as the diaspora. The main justification is the vicious assault that Muslim communities have experienced on their food cultures in contemporary India.” She adds, “our response is to target those intensely rich food cultures from India’s cities with significant Muslim heritage for recovery, preservation and renewal. Such an approach enables exchange across South Asia’s deadly borders too.”
These are creditable aspirations. Still, it is impossible to overlook that Desi Delicacies focuses narrowly on upper-class and uppercaste narratives from less than a handful of Indian states, along with the two big cities of Pakistan, and just a cursory couple of diaspora locations. Haq’s Alhamdullilah: With Gratitude and Relish, and a lone story each from Bangladesh (Mahruba Mowtushi and Mafruha Mohua’s evocative Jackfruit and Tamarind) and Kashmir (Asiya Zahoor’s haunting The Hairy Curry), only serve to highlight the slant. In this way, it’s both inexplicable and ironic this “rich helping of the histories and cultures of Muslim South Asia” conspicuously omits the history and culture of the original Muslims of South Asia. The 9 million Mappilas of Kerala — whose ancestors built the Cheraman Juma mosque in 629 AD, one of the first outside Arabia — find no place in Desi Delicacies. Neither do 11 million Assamese Muslims, and over 5 million Tamil Muslims. The madly piscivorous Konkanis? The Hyderabadi briyani snobs? The thoroughly thaalified Bohras? Nope, nope and no again.
It’s true no single-volume anthology could do justice to the mind-boggling diversity of any of the subcontinent’s dominant cultural strands, which is why the slight, well-meaning, overtly British Muslim-oriented Desi Delicacies would have benefitted from less tonedeaf framing. That would have allowed its own standout contributions to shine without detraction, especially Sanam Maher’s riveting The Rise of Pakistan’s ‘Burger’ Generation. Tracking nine brothers who pioneered the iconic American fast food in Karachi, Maher describes how “the burger kid” generation of urbanites has catapulted Imran Khan (who is himself called “burger boy”) into power. What’s Muslim about this story? Who cares, it’s great!