When the monsoon clouds gather over Delhi, I am reminded of a friend’s recollection of open-air feasts that marked the end of a scorching summer. Back in the 1950s, as homage to a cloudy sky, the Delhiite would venture out for a picnic. The venue was often Mehrauli, for the now bustling locality was then considered a quiet and scenic picnic spot. Tongas were hired, and family and friends travelled to Mehrauli carrying their picnic fare: small hillocks of parathas, huge pots of keema, and sacks of ripe mangoes.
Forgotten Foods: Memories and Recipes from Muslim South Asia
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I was reminded of these joyous food fests when I read Taran Khan’s “Life as a Picnic” in Forgotten Foods: Memories and Recipes from Muslim South Asia. It is springtime in Afghanistan, Khan is out on a picnic and recalls the tradition of monsoon picnics back home in Aligarh. She describes the food in detail: sautéed potatoes cooked with cumin seeds and dry chillies, flatbread for which the dough has been softened with cream or milk, and spicy minced meat. “Sometimes there was khageena—scrambled eggs with tiny pieces of golden fried onions, green chillies and tomatoes,” she writes.
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Forgotten Foods, edited by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Tarana Husain Khan, and Claire Chambers, emerged out of a 2019 research and public engagement project called “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”. The project led to the publication in December 2020 of Desi Delicacies: Food Writing from Muslim South Asia. Forgotten Foods, the editors write in the preface, is a kind of Desi Delicacies II, but with a much wider canvas.
The collection comes on the heels of quite a few books focussing on the Muslim food of India. I remember in particular Degh to Dastarkhwan: Qissas and Recipes from Rampur Cuisine and Daastan-e-Dastarkhan: Stories and Recipes from Muslim Kitchens. What makes Forgotten Foods different is that it spans a vast spectrum of cuisines and customs from South Asia. Peppered with recipes, it dwells on, among other themes, the elite kitchens of Karachi, eggs in Kerala Muslim cuisine, the hunt for a fragrant rice variety called Tilak Chandan, Hyderabad’s nihari, and the food of Manipur’s Pangal community.
I enjoyed Sheikh Intekhab Alam’s piece on the tradition of bakhra, a cultural practice unique to Odia Muslims of making and distributing food during festivals and other events. He writes: “The tiffin and wooden utensils would be wrapped in a special ostentatious cloth, with the food and its attractive packaging reflecting respect and love for the receiver.”
There is more to the book than food, of course. I read with interest the chapter on Sri Lankan Malay cuisine by Rizvina Morseth de Alwis. The cuisine, she writes, shares roots with present-day Malaysian and Indonesian food but developed its own identity by embracing local ingredients and adapting to local tastes. But within this “broad spectrum” is the “less appreciated and much shunned babath-puruth, a tripe curry… associated with Sri Lankan Malays, often with derogation”. As a child, she adds, she was called “babath”, a slur directed at Malays.
She explains: “This epithet reflects a history of racialised stereotyping of communities based on what they eat, particularly food perceived to be undesirable. The strong emotional reaction, if not revulsion, that babath or any offal dish evokes is a reflection of the fear of ‘strange’ unfamiliar foods, prejudice against other cultures, and sheer ignorance. Offal is a big part of Malay cuisine that encourages the prevention of waste in line with Islamic teachings.”
““Offal is a big part of Malay cuisine that encourages the prevention of waste in line with Islamic teachings.””Rizvina Morseth de Alwis
Many of the essays are engaging. Take, for instance, Moneeza Hashmi’s recollections of her father’s frugal diet in “Memories of My Father Faiz Ahmed Faiz”. The poet, a busy man, seldom joined the family when they sat down for a meal. But, the daughter recalls, he enjoyed his koftas with gravy: “I can still see him breaking his roti into small pieces, and picking up the meatballs one by one.” Breakfast mostly consisted of a fried egg on toast, which he ate with a fork and knife. “We were not a meat-eating family, probably because of the strains on our parents’ finances,” she writes in a piece that is vastly different—food-wise, that is—from Muneeza Shamsie’s recollections on life in post-Partition Karachi, where the family cook, Maqbool, crafted soft koftas and shami kababs with a core of chopped coriander leaves, green chillies, and onions, and conjured up a pudding that looked like corn on cob, dotted as it was with yellow and white cream, and flanked by green marzipan.
The food served at Bina Shah’s grandfather’s bungalow in Pakistan’s Hyderabad was equally rich and varied. “At 17 Civil Lines, guests attended formal sit-down dinners with ten or 12 courses served on Royal Albert crockery and Sheffield-made silverware with bone handles. For dinners like these, Nabi Bux [the cook] prepared almond or tomato soup, fruit or shrimp cocktail, then roast meat; his specialties were saddle of lamb, mutton chops with mint sauce, and steak and kidney pie. He made baked fish with tartar sauce, followed by a heavenly almond soufflé or a steamed pudding for dessert. His showstopper was a basket made of delicate orange peel, filled with carved oranges and Chantilly cream.”
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A few of the chapters drag a bit, and there is an element of sameness in some of the pieces. I think this is a book that needs to be savoured over a long period of time so that you do not overdose on food descriptions. It is not easy digesting long reminiscences of a feudal way of life, with liveried staff serving food course by course. Often, after reading the elaborate descriptions, I found myself reaching out for an antacid and thinking fondly of weak tea and toast.
Rahul Verma lives in Delhi, cooks for friends and family, and writes about food.