Zubaida Tariq is not your average television cook. At a time when cable TV is saturated with glamorous celebrity chefs and Instagram is an endless curation of “food porn” by hipster foodies, Zubaida Apa, as she is known across Pakistan, is a phenomenon of her very own. She hit the screen in the nineties on Dalda ka Dastarkhawan, a cooking show sponsored by the cooking oil giant Dalda, and was an instant trendsetting success – she was Pakistan’s first celebrity cook and quite likely among the first non-film star celebrities in the country.
Tariq comes from a prodigiously talented set of siblings. Among the ten of them are poet Zehra Nigah, writer-actor Anwar Maqsood, playwright Fatima Surayya Bajiya, fashion designer Sughra Kazmi, and former Chief Secretary of Sindh Ahmed Maqsood. Zubaida Apa embodies the fascinating trope of the old-fashioned begum sahib: immaculately turned out, quietly authoritative and preternaturally ready to put on a smashing feast with nary a wrinkle on the forehead. The begum sahib is the equivalent of the western Lady, and both cultures are fast losing them to modernity and a rising middle class that is more egalitarian and also has no time to match their bangles to their sari, let alone wear one.
There is also the undeniable fascination with Urdu-speaking culture in Pakistan. “Urdu-speaking” refers to the migrant communities that moved to Pakistan from India during Partition. They came largely from Uttar Pradesh – from places like Lucknow, Allahabad and Muradabad – but also from the Deccan, where Zubaida Tariq was born in 1945. The Urdu-speaking communities retain certain cultural norms that do not adhere to provincial culture – women of Zubaida Apa’s generation will, like her, most probably have worn saris their entire life; chances are there will be an abundance of halwa, a paandaan in the house, a penchant for Urdu poetry and flawless diction. These are clichés, but clichés born of cultural affinities that have been preserved across generations and continue to represent a certain refinement and eccentricity.
Most of the national narrative in Pakistan is dominated by Punjabi culture, and yet most television dramas – by far the most popular manifestation of media consumption – feature stories about Urdu-speaking families, who are seen as cultured and quirky, quick-witted and sophisticated. Zubaida Apa is an archetype of this image, with her vibrant saris and jewellery, her tongue-in-cheek humour and her impeccable Urdu.
Her career has followed a steady trajectory. She began work with Dalda, and wrote a cookbook. She has developed spice mixes that make cooking easier, and has done a radio show called A Complete House. Her real niche, though, has been television, and she has hosted a cooking show on one television network or another for decades in a career that includes thousands of episodes.
She is an emblem, a nostalgic and trustworthy relic of a better time – she refers to practices like qalai, or tin glazing of copper and brass cooking pots that used to be done back in the day when stainless steel had not captured the degchi market; one of her famous totkay or household tips include cutting off one’s split ends into a bowl of water under the light of a new moon. Every caller who phones into her live show Handi (cooking pot, in Urdu) are blessed with a “live long, ever happy in your home with your children and elders” kind of blessing that only your grandmother would say.
Zubaida Apa is your granny, your kindly aunt and your practical mother all rolled into one thin, immaculately coiffed woman. She looks like she uses all the totkay she suggests, and that has inspired generations to trust her. Apa cooks like you would, except with a mise en place – she forgets to add things, tosses them into the pan later, uses utterly ordinary utensils. Not for Zubaida Apa are KitchenAid mixers or stainless steel measuring spoons; a table “ispoon” is a regular old tablespoon snatched out of your cutlery drawer.
When listening to callers tell rambling stories on the show, she wipes off the stove with a tissue. While the set she cooks on has evolved over time, there are still no pans hanging from ceiling hooks or herbs growing in windowsill pots like a Pinterest-perfect kitchen. Her set looks like your kitchen, if it had an enormous island, and her sous chef Abeel Khan, who co-hosts the show, is like your daughter doing all the heavy lifting – move this pot, pour the sponsor’s oil from the enormous bottle, take the phone calls, gently prompt or steer the conversation when needed. They natter together cozily – Is this pot too big? Hm, let’s use the other one. Should we make the rice first, or the chicken? Chicken cooks faster so we can do the rice first.
The show is obviously unscripted, and that spontaneity is what endears their audience. They feel like they are part of this scene, the camaraderie of women in kitchens. And then unpretentious Zubaida Apa says things like if your rice is not the right quality, you will never have a beautiful dish. A few months ago, on her return to Handi after a break, she candidly groused about how one’s children cannot be relied upon to keep you company, no doubt warming the cockles of every disgruntled South Asian parent.
Perhaps that is Zubaida Apa’s secret, the ultimate little something that makes her enduringly sought after, still a thoroughly practical and relevant bastion of daytime television in Pakistan. She has no airs. Unlike Martha Stewart, Zubaida Tariq has never presented herself as someone eager to please or out to charm anyone. She has always just been herself, and there is something reassuring about how she has remained the same over decades. She is not on social media, even though the Facebook page for Handi has almost 400,000 followers. Except for one disastrous whitening cream endorsement, she has not evolved into a lifestyle guru, selling candles or fancy frying pans. She has published several cookbooks and runs a restaurant with her son, but has never thrust herself into the spotlight. Perhaps this is why callers to her show can ask her for her famous tips, or totkay, for just about anything under the sun. They are not intimidated by Apa, despite her otherwise reserved demeanour. I’ve got diabetes and a gamy knee, one will confide, live on national television. What should I do? Someone else will call just to tell Apa and Abeel about how they got soaked going to a wedding in a torrential monsoon downpour.
A segment of the show is dedicated to Zubaida Apa’s famous tips, and videos for them have thousands of hits on YouTube. Use olive oil for dark circles (use your ring finger and always massage outwards), aloe vera for sunscreen (cheap and easy) and when giving yourself a pedicure at home, throw a boiled, mashed turnip into the water – after all, Apa smilingly says, you can judge what a girl is like by her feet. Only Apa could get away with whoppers like that.