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

- Vivek Menezes

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!

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India