Prof. Siobhan Lambert-Hurley has been leading a fascinating project at Sheffield University that is focused upon reviving strains of crops that are no longer in use — “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”. This is usually happens due to modern farming techniques where new seeds or even genetically modified seeds are introduced. But this has affected the way dishes are made using old recipes. It has particularly affected tastes and cooking times. So she has been working with laboratories and farmers in India to rescue and revive seeds that are no longer in use. She has discovered some of these seeds were being used as part of the regular crop cycles in India as late as the 1990s. Samples of these seeds exist in some laboratories and research centres. Another aspect of this project has been that Prof. Lambert-Hurley and her team have been focused upon reviving old recipes as well. As part of this initiative, the team has been publishing regular articles on Scroll as well. Apart from this various other initiatives are planned such as seminars, papers and of course, a volume of stories/memories revolving around Muslim cuisine in South Asia called Desi Delicacies. Who better person than Dr. Claire Chambers, Senior Lecturer in Global Literature, University of York, to edit it. Claire has an incredible list of publications focused upon Muslim writers. She is a columnist for The Dawn as well.
Desi Delicacies ( published by Pan Macmillan India) is an interesting mix of stories, memories, personal encounters, and recipes. The contributors are South Asians but it includes people still residing in the region and the diaspora. It makes for a curious combination of stories. Some like Nadeem Aslam share a story about being reminded of his aunt’s cooking while eating with his siblings at a local restaurant in UK only to discover that the newly hired cook, a recent immigrant, is their aunt’s daughter. Sanam Maher’s essay on the “Rise of Pakistan’s ‘Burger’ Generation” is an absorbing account of the Raza family, nine brothers, who created a MacDonald version of a burger chain in Pakistan. Asiya Zahoor’s story on cooking lotus stems in Kashmir is an incredibly well-textured story. Tarana Husain Khan’s “Aftertaste” is superb for it delves deep into that dark and uncomfortable space of death and funerals and memories and yet, food is such an integral part of it all….as is the role of women and their memories that they lock away within themselves but hold dear forever. So many little little connections are made in this splendid story by Tarana. Here is a sample:
‘Jameela, do you remember how Abba used to drink the curry and his moustaches would turn yellow?’ Sayedani said to herself. She smiled and sat down on the little stool by the heater, warming the rotis on the skillet, dipping bits into the darker-than-usual curry. She fished out a piece of meat with the roti and put it in her mouth. ‘Arre, who uses coconut? It’s just made the curry sweet! All we used was fried onions and the basic masalas. Hmmm. . . these deceitful cooks didn’t even bother to peel the garlic! They just want a thick curry.’
The magic recreated by this story dwells not only upon the incident itself but hearks back to the kind of food made in the past as opposed to what is being created now. A sentiment that I can definitely relate to. This may be the information age when there are splendid websites offering recipes, the cookery books become more and more gorgeous in their presentation but the methods are more and more elaborate, while taking many shortcuts. Sometimes it is easier to refer to old cookbooks, where recipes are written in a few steps and methods explained simply. Yet, the creations are wondrous.
There are two ways of responding to Desi Delicacies. One is to give a brief history of the project and describe the book as has been done in this blog or write an essay in response to the book describing one’s personal experiences regarding recipes, culinary inheritances, the importance of recording recipes — whether orally or written and the treasure trove of knowledge related to food processes and masalas that were usually perceived to be a woman’s domain. Food writing, food memories and commentaries on cuisines are an art. It is also a very personal domain. It is incredible how many conversations revolve around food and how memories are triggered by tastes one samples. Meanwhile, suffice to say that Desi Delicacies is a fascinating attempt at gathering a bouquet of memories, experiences and cultural traditions revolving around food. It provides a glimpse into way Muslims create food and observe traditions. Yet the concept of Jhootha that Tabish Khair refers to is a desi trait that exists across regions and religions in South Asia. There will be puritanical responses to this book where some will say that recipes need to be observed as is and passed on from generation to generation, others will say modify it to suit modern palates and time constraints. I too have a grouse in that I was expecting all the recipes to be traditional dishes made in Muslim households but I am not very sure at some of the recipes included in it. Nor do all the recipes included at the end of the contributions match the expectations that the essayists/storytellers create. Having said that this is an interesting collection of recipes and reminiscences. But there is one more aspect that needs to be touched upon and perhaps one of the conferences organised around this can address it — is the influence of Muslim dishes upon other communities. This is definitely apparent in Christians who have imbibed and modified recipes of various communities and adopted it as their own. Perhaps that can be reserved for another book?
All in all, I am glad I read Desi Delicacies. It has now been added to my large collection of recipes/cookery books.
4 Jan 2021