Review: Desi Delicacies: Food Writing from Muslim South Asia edited by Claire Chambers
On April 12, after a culinarily-themed episode of Browned Off, her fabulously arch podcast in conversation with publisher Faiza Khan, the UK-based Pakistani author Moni Mohsin posted her first “cooking” video on Facebook.
She wrote, “immigrants’ food is only of merit to white people if it’s authentic and traditional. So here I am sharing an ancient recipe for an authentic Pakistani dish I grew up eating in my grandmother’s house in Lahore.”
All plummy diction and poker face, Mohsin proceeded to mash shammi kebab on to processed white bread, before producing another ingredient, saying “it’s traditional, it’s customary, treasured and much-loved.” That pièce de résistance was tomato ketchup.
Mohsin’s hilariously truthful insight provides useful context for the curious, eclectic Desi Delicacies: Food Writing from Muslim South Asia. This new anthology stems from the Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage, and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India research project headed by Claire Chambers of the University of York, and funded by the UK government’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Chambers takes an unusually collaborative approach, which has resulted in something resembling collage. There’s a foreword (by Karachi-based author Bina Shah), and also an introduction, as well as an afterword (it’s entitled “Dessert”) by Forgotten Food’s “chief investigator”, Siobhan Lambert-Hurley of the University of Sheffield.
Each of the nine essays, with an equal number of short stories, is bookended by a recipe. Some are traditional, such as Kaiser Haq’s nigh-phantasmagorical Katchi Biriyani which commences “use castrated Black Bengal he-goat” then expands to 28 ingredients which require 36 steps of preparation. Others - to put it mildly - belong less obviously to Muslim South Asia, like Tabish Khair’s Quick Seafood Broth, which heroes (admittedly debatably) non-halal shrimp and mussels, while omitting any archetypically desi ingredients other than a teaspoon of garam masala and a handful of coriander.
To be sure, the food of Muslim South Asia does necessarily comprise endlessly disparate multitudes, to reflect the tastes and traditions of over half a billion individuals.
In fact, like Hindustani, the lingua franca of North India and Pakistan, which nationalists keep attempting to tortuously – and often fatuously – cleave into ostensibly distinct Hindi and Urdu, it’s probably functionally impossible to meaningfully parse most South Asian food (beyond obvious taboos) by religion. For example, Sauleha Kamal shares her recipe for baingan ka bharta in Desi Delicacies, and Sarvat Hasin adds one for kali dal, yet, besides biographical vicissitudes situating both women across the Wagah border from India, what’s distinctively Muslim or Pakistani about the food they’re writing about?
Awkward contextualization isn’t exclusive to Forgotten Food, and doesn’t substantially detract from the gems in Desi Delicacies. I savoured Rana Safvi’s impressively magisterial exegesis on the cultural, social and political history of the signature speciality of Mughlai cuisine. Qissa Qorma aur Qaliya Ka includes hard-and-fast cooking rules, an antiquarian recipe, and the author’s grandmother’s delightful maxim: Masala aisa bhuno jaise dushman ka kaleja! (Roast the spices as passionately as if they were the enemy’s heart!)”
I also loved Nadeem Aslam’s very brief but deeply affecting The Homesick Restaurant, in which the acclaimed novelist writes, “each Pakistani woman spices her curries in her own way; each pan has a different aroma, the way each human body smells slightly different. The thickness, texture and the width of each woman’s chapati is also unique to her, depending on the size of her hands, the shape of her fingers, and the strength with which she kneads the dough.”
While trying a new restaurant near his home in London, the author and his siblings found themselves “overcome with emotion very soon after we began the meal: the food – the flavour of the mutton, of the samosas – was the best we had tasted since our visits to our oldest aunt’s home.” The three kept eating, “each new mouthful sending us deeper into our memories” until – no spoiler alerts here – the mystery is heart-warmingly resolved.
In her afterword, Lambert-Hurley says Forgotten Food was “conceived broadly to incorporate Muslim communities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as the diaspora. The main justification is the vicious assault that Muslim communities have experienced on their food cultures in contemporary India.” She adds, “our response is to target those intensely rich food cultures from India’s cities with significant Muslim heritage for recovery, preservation and renewal. Such an approach enables exchange across South Asia’s deadly borders too.”
These are creditable aspirations. Still, it is impossible to overlook that Desi Delicacies focuses narrowly on upper-class and upper-caste narratives from less than a handful of Indian states, along with the two big cities of Pakistan, and just a cursory couple of diaspora locations. Haq’s Alhamdullilah: With Gratitude and Relish, and a lone story each from Bangladesh (Mahruba Mowtushi and Mafruha Mohua’s evocative Jackfruit and Tamarind) and Kashmir (Asiya Zahoor’s haunting The Hairy Curry), only serve to highlight the slant.
In this way, it’s both inexplicable and ironic this “rich helping of the histories and cultures of Muslim South Asia” conspicuously omits the history and culture of the original Muslims of South Asia. The 9 million Mappilas of Kerala - whose ancestors built the Cheraman Juma mosque in 629 AD, one of the first outside Arabia – find no place in Desi Delicacies. Neither do 11 million Assamese Muslims, and over 5 million Tamil Muslims. The madly piscivorous Konkanis? The Hyderabadi briyani snobs? The thoroughly thaalified Bohras? Nope, and no again.
It’s true no single-volume anthology could do justice to the mind-boggling diversity of any of the subcontinent’s dominant cultural strands, which is why the slight, well-meaning, overtly-British Muslim-oriented Desi Delicacies would have benefitted from less tone-deaf framing. That would have allowed its own standout contributions to shine without detraction, especially Sanam Maher’s riveting The Rise of Pakistan’s ‘Burger’ Generation.
Tracking nine brothers who pioneered the iconic American fast food in Karachi, Maher describes how “the burger kid” generation of urbanites has catapulted Imran Khan (who is himself called “burger boy”) into power. What’s Muslim about this story? Who cares, it’s great!
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival.