The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant restrictions have ignited a trend for home baking and eating in. Just look at the transnational craze for banana bread over the past year. Millions of delicious images have been uploaded on Instagram, attesting to the universality of food, its ability to act is an accessible point of entry into a culture and often a positive representation of it.
This was part of the thinking behind my decision to edit an anthology on food. Entitled Desi Delicacies, the book collects 18 life-writing essays and short stories about food from Muslim South Asia and its diasporas. The anthology was produced as part of a research project, Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This Scroll.in series also belongs to the project.
Desi Delicacies diverges from the issue-based or problem-centred subjects South Asian Muslims are often expected to write about. Instead, it aims to offer an exploration of the adage “we are what we eat”. Put differently, food is an important marker of identity for any culture. What people consume (or refuse to consume) becomes a detectable or, indeed, delectable identity marker in the context of (post)coloniality and migration.
Food’s flexible, identity-oriented qualities evidently whetted the writers’ creative appetites. The subject of food from Muslim South Asia was interpreted broadly by them, including by Nadeem Aslam, Tarana Husain Khan, and Kaiser Haq. They interpreted the theme as encompassing ideas of hospitality, family, domesticity, sexuality, social class, and lack of food, among other issues.
In his essay for the book, Tabish Khair quotes William Robertson Smith, one of the founding fathers of anthropology, as saying, “Those who sit at meal together are united for all social effects; those who do not eat together are aliens to one another, without fellowship in religion and without reciprocal social duties.”
With their everyday concerns and varied tonal palette, the contributions contradict damaging ideas about the otherness of Muslims. They challenge stereotypes about halal meat, abstemiousness and carnivorous tastes, at a time of deep socio-cultural divisions, food shortages and beef lynchings. The chapters reflect on sociability, prejudice, sensuality, privilege, hunger, bereavement and other subjects. In the words of the writers, it is possible to see the truth about their lives and others’.
The first half of the book comprises life-writing essays, while its second half consists of short stories about food. Whether fiction or nonfiction, each piece is accompanied by a recipe. I have tested the recipes on my own vegetarian taste buds or, where necessary, on my carnivorous family. We confirm most of them are tasty or easy to make or both. More seriously, the embedded recipes suggest an imparting of culinary skills as well as a pooling of ideas and stories.
The volume also includes illustrations by emerging young artists based in Britain, some of which accompany this article. Meanwhile, Bhavi Mehta’s cover image features a painting from the Nimatnama, a collection of recipes accompanied by miniature paintings. This historic compendium was partly assembled during the reign of the moustachioed Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din (1266-1287) of the Delhi Sultanate, and the hungry sultan looms large on the jacket design.
In a section from the sultan’s Book of Delights dealing with paan and supari, readers are instructed:
[T]o achieve immortality, it is necessary to chew pān […]. [I]f the pān is perfumed and if flowers and scent are rubbed into it, the benefits are as follows: […] seminal fluid increases, well-being is established, the body becomes comfortable, bad sight is prevented and feverishness, restlessness and stiffness are reduced.
The quote shows that food provides more than sustenance. For centuries, people around the world have looked to it for medicinal help and a physical and mental lift. Yet, the passage anticipates my hopes for the anthology: to be seminal, successful, achieve longevity, and help with wellbeing (especially at this difficult time).
Desi Delicacies hopes to sate the hunger for self-expression among under-represented Muslim writers. There are many books about South Asian food, from Amulya Malladi’s novel Serving Crazy with Curry and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s The Settler’s Cookbook to the recent Dishoom cookery and travel book (I wrote about it for Scroll.in here). However, the attempt of this book is to bring together essays, stories and recipes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir, and the British and American diasporas.
What have I learnt from editing this volume? I have discovered that while food can divide us, it can also build bridges. I echo here what Forgotten Food’s Principal Investigator Siobhan Lambert-Hurley writes in her afterword: ‘Food can divide us, but also bridge the gaps. Over a meal or even one dessert, friendships are forged and a lifetime of adventures launched.’ The bonds forged over refreshments are hard to break – this is one reason why worldwide lockdowns and the shuttering of cafes and restaurants have been hard on people.
Alchemy of Flavours
The South Asian Muslim kitchen is associated with biryani, qormas, haleem, kebabs, and no alcohol. Like most stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in this – and the book contains recipes for the first two dishes. But there is so much more to this diverse cuisine than rich, meat-heavy food (halal, of course) and teetotalism. Rana Safvi writes about the qaliya as a conspiracy cooked up to sneak healthy vegetables into meat lovers’ daily repast. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi sisters Mahruba T Mowtushi and Mafruha Mohua liken the veggie-heavy macher jhol their protagonist’s aunty makes to “walking through a virgin jungle with a machete in hand”. Some authors draw attention to Islamic precepts against wasting food, looking at the dessert maleeda, which uses leftover chapatis, and examining the permissibility or otherwise – for Hindus and Muslims alike – of eating discarded food, jootha.
Author, chef and MasterChef contestant Sadaf Hussain shines a new light in the book on that everyday pairing of tea and samosas. Writers in the diaspora speak of their longing for ingredients unavailable in Britain or America, and of nostalgia for the fasts and feasts of their childhoods. What comes through above all is that with such a blend of influences – Hindustani, Persian, Central Asian, Western, the list goes on and on – this is at once an integrally desi cuisine and one that is comfortably global.
At times like these, with a pandemic still causing havoc and the infection of division raging in body politics around the world, we all need a little soul food. As one of the contributors Uzma Aslam Khan writes, “We meet around a communal table at a time when this pleasure is denied us, making the book feel both celebratory and urgent.” Food can divide us, as when bigots disparage the other’s cooking as rank. It can also act a ball and chain, especially for women charged with putting it on the table thrice every day. But cooking can, at the same time, be a kind of alchemy, turning simple ingredients into something precious. Sitting around the dastarkhwan works magic, helping us to forget our differences as we eat to nourish body, mind and spirit.
This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Husain Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.