Across the border

Zubaida Tariq: The grandmother Pakistan turns to for recipes, household tips or just plain comfort

A bastion of daytime TV for decades, Zubaida Apa has an answer for everything, whether it’s how to treat dandruff or how to cook korma.

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.

Play

Decades-long career

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.

Play

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.

Play

Unpretentious granny

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.

Play

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.

Play

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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

What are racers made of?

Grit, strength and oodles of fearlessness.

Sportspersons are known for their superhuman discipline, single-minded determination and the will to overcome all obstacles. Biographies, films and documentaries have brought to the fore the behind-the-scenes reality of the sporting life. Being up at the crack of dawn, training without distraction, facing injuries with a brave face and recovering to fight for victory are scenes commonly associated with sportspersons.

Racers are no different. Behind their daredevilry lies the same history of dedication and discipline. Cornering on a sports bike or revving up sand dunes requires the utmost physical endurance, and racers invest heavily in it. It helps stave off fatigue and maintain alertness and reaction time. It also helps them get the most out of their racecraft - the entirety of a racer’s skill set, to which years of training are dedicated.

Racecraft begins with something as ‘simple’ as sitting on a racing bike; the correct stance is the key to control and manoeuvre the bike. Riding on a track – tarmac or dirt is a great deal different from riding on the streets. A momentary lapse of concentration can throw the rider into a career ending crash.

Physical skill and endurance apart, racers approach a race with the same analytical rigour as a student appearing in an exam. They conduct an extensive study of not just the track, but also everything around it - trees, marshal posts, tyre marks etc. It’s these reference points that help the racer make braking or turning decisions in the frenzy of a high-stakes competition.

The inevitability of a crash is a reality every racer lives with, and seeks to internalise this during their training. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, racers are trained to keep their eyes open to help the brain make crucial decisions to avoid collision with other racers or objects on the track. Racers that meet with accidents can be seen sliding across the track with their heads held up, in a bid to minimise injuries to the head.

But racecraft is, of course, only half the story. Racing as a profession continues to confound many, and racers have been traditionally misunderstood. Why would anyone want to pour their blood, sweat and tears into something so risky? Where do racers get the fearlessness to do laps at mind boggling speed or hurtle down a hill unassisted? What about the impact of high speeds on the body day after day, or the monotony of it all? Most importantly, why do racers race? The video below explores the question.

Play


The video features racing champions from the stable of TVS Racing, the racing arm of TVS Motor Company, which recently completed 35 years of competitive racing in India. TVS Racing has competed in international rallies and races across some of the toughest terrains - Dakar, Desert Storm, India Baja, Merzouga Rally - and in innumerable national championships. Its design and engineering inputs over the years have also influenced TVS Motors’ fleet in India. You can read more about TVS Racing here.

This article has been produced by Scroll Brand Studio on behalf of TVS Racing and not by the Scroll editorial team.