Forgotten Foods Memories and Recipes from Muslim South Asia
Edited by Tarana Husain Khan, Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers, Forgotten Foods is an anthology of food writing and recipes from writers across South Asia. While heritage foods still abound in the streets and kitchens of South Asia, it may just be a matter of time before many of these historic dishes and culinary traditions, especially of Muslim provenance, pass into oblivion. In Forgotten Foods, historians, literary scholars, plant scientists, heritage practitioners, writers and chefs come together to document precious stories and memories, histories and recipes in a valiant endeavour to stem this lamentable tide.
Introducing us to the legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s modest, homely tastes, his daughter Moneeza Hashmi draws our attention to dishes that continue to cut across the seemingly impermeable India–Pakistan border. In Sri Lanka, Rizvina Morseth de Alwis finds comfort in the ‘strange’ recipes of her country’s Malay cuisine. A lost kitchen cabinet in Bhopal holds the secret behind the tenderest shami kababs. A journey through the rich foodscape of Manipur’s Pangal community depicts its close ties to the dietary traditions of marginalised groups. Tarana Husain Khan visits Rampur’s paddy fields on a quest for heritage rice varieties, even as we experience the sweeter side of Hyderabad’s cuisine generally notorious for its heat. A cornucopia of other essays familiarise us with uncommon items such as Kerala’s jeeraga kanhi, Kashmir’s saada saag and the delicate murgh qorma of Awadh.
The culinary diversity showcased in Forgotten Foods not only comes as a delightful surprise, it also proves just how profoundly Muslim kitchens have reshaped alimentary practices, enriching South Asian food and making it what it is today.
Across India, Pakistan and Britain: A Family’s Culinary History
I grew up in post-partition Karachi, in a family where cooking was considered an art.
My father, Isha’at Habibullah (1911–1991), a company executive at Pakistan Tobacco Company (PTC), was a gastronome. Cooking was his great hobby and he loved to prepare meals for friends. The range of his cooking is encapsulated by his famous brunches. The dishes at these brunches ranged from those considered desi nashta such as paya, nihari and aloo puri, to an eclectic mix of Euro-Anglo-American food including paté de foie gras, waffles, scrambled eggs and several salads. In the center of the table, there would be a cake prepared by my mother, Jahanara Habibullah
(1915–2003): for example, devil’s food cake or Christmas cake in winter. Cake- making was my mother’s contribution to household cooking. Sometimes she would make a pickle or chutney to supplement those created more frequently by my father.
My mother was very particular about every household detail. In our home, at every meal, the dining table of gleaming dark wood would be laid with placemats, matching table napkins, good cutlery and china. All our meals were served by a bearer or two in white livery. The food was almost always reviewed while it was being eaten; each dish was expected to be exactly right. This was invariably followed by a ‘post-mortem’ – a comment on this or that ingredient which my parents would elaborate on with their incomparable cook Maqbool. He was pivotal to our household and its culinary traditions.
Maqbool joined us as a young man two or three years after partition. By then, my younger sister Naushaba had been born and we were living in Karachi in a block of company flats – a colonial building of yellow Gizri stone – on Clifton Road. In our breezy apartment, with its arches and verandahs and patterned floor tiles, the back verandah ran past the dining room and led off at a right angle towards the pantry and a traditional kitchen. The latter was equipped with a chula built into the far wall, with holes on top for cooking and another underneath where burning coals glistened; a dark sooty chimney rose up overhead.
In the mid-1950s, the company replaced this colonial building with a modern block of nine spacious flats. We lived on the top floor. There was an enclosed verandah with big windows, but the remaining area – hall, drawing room and dining room – were open plan, divided by the angle and structure of walls. The dining room, however, had a side door which opened into the pantry from which another door led
into the kitchen with a modern gas cooker and possibly a metallic sink.
My memories of Maqbool preparing our meals, and indeed those of my
parents’ brunches, date back to this era. I associate Maqbool with the modern rather than the old-fashioned kitchen, always dressed in an apron while preparing food.
By this time, both Naushaba and I had been sent to boarding school in England, as my father and his brothers had been a generation earlier. This was the norm in our Anglicised milieu in Karachi (though mostly for sons) with due foreign exchange permissions. I was nine when I left and Naushaba joined me after she turned eight. We came home for good a full ten and nine years later, respectively.
My parents visited London every other year during the summer holidays. Naushaba and I came to Karachi in the alternative summers and would also visit our widowed grandmothers in Rampur and Lucknow. All this provided a huge contrast to our lives in England and, of course, the food we ate there. We had inherited our father’s genes and were plump little girls devoted to food, to the despair of our slim, elegant and restrained mother.
Eid, Christmas and events for ‘ladies only’
In 1961, my father was appointed chairman and managing director of PTC and became the first Pakistani to head a major multinational corporation in the country.
We moved into the chairman’s house next door, a two-storey colonial building with a white exterior, sloping red-tiled roof and windows with green wooden louvres to filter the summer sunlight.
In this house we ‘inherited’ Rahim, an exacting, super-efficient majordomo. He was well acquainted with the social demands of a chairman’s life as well as the British company directors who came from London on official visits. They stayed with us, as was the norm. On these occasions, daily meals were very formal, consisting of cut-glass tableware, the finest cutlery and china, and three courses of English or European food, followed by coffee.
This was the house where, as a child, I had attended Christmas parties, Santa Claus and all. Once my parents moved in, the rituals of Eid and Ramzan became the major house festivals. At the former we ate mince pies, Christmas cake and sandwiches; for Eid we were served traditional fare including samosas, seviyan and halwa.
Rahim also supervised the ‘ladies only’ events held by my mother: coffee mornings, bridge and mahjong parties as well as milads where two or three women with beautiful voices would sing or chant verses celebrating the life of the Prophet. At these milads, guests would sit against bolsters scattered on white cloths spread over the drawing room carpet before enjoying a sumptuous tea.After my father’s retirement as Chairman of PTC, we moved into our own home: the modern house my parents built in the then comparatively new Defence Housing Society. Maqbool and his family came with us, as did Rahim.
This new house was divided by a central courtyard with patterned floor tiles and edged with potted plants and a small fountain in one corner. The kitchen was long and rectangular and had a small storeroom at the far end for crockery and glassware. There was no pantry. The gas cookers and sinks were located near the wide windows. Opposite, smaller, windows were created higher up for cross- ventilation, but most of that wall was lined with cabinets at upper and lower levels.
A sliding serving hatch opened out onto the adjoining polished wooden cabinets in the dining room. My father’s kitchen utensils bought on his trips to England – special kitchen knives, different thermometers and cutters, together with the various beaters, processors and cake tins that my mother used – were all stored in this section of the kitchen; the gas cooker my parents used stood nearby. My father now had more time to spare despite many distinguished appointments in the corporate sector, and would prepare food for his friends, children and grandchildren. I particularly remember the soup or stock he would leave to cook on the stove for hours on end. The gas cooker that Maqbool used daily was further down in the same row.
Maqbool, a great cook Throughout this time, Maqbool held his own, producing the finest food. He managed this whether he had to cater just for the family (and later Naushaba’s little children and mine), or on a grander scale for the formal and informal dinners my parents hosted. At these, there were both Pakistani and visiting (mostly British) guests as well as diplomats and public figures – the latter were often old family friends.
My parents were aware of the traditional culinary world of both Lucknow and Rampur to which they belonged. Maqbool also came from Rampur. He had clearly revealed his talent early, because he had worked in the royal kitchens of Khasbagh Palace, albeit in a junior capacity when he was very young. He understood the careful melding of spices which my mother often declared to be the essence of good cooking. This was considered one of the great attributes of Rampuri food and included the restrained use of chillies. In Karachi, Maqbool was trained further by my father, who
greatly valued Maqbool’s culinary skills.
Maqbool’s repertoire was vast and he paid great attention to detail. The koftas and shami kababs he made were stuffed with a very fine-chopped mixture of green coriander, green chillies and onions. The qiwami seviyan were cooked in such a way that each seviyan strand, plumped by the sugar syrup it had absorbed, glistened with the sheen. Then there was the crisp toffee he shaped into baskets with curving handles above – one basket per serving – filled with fruit salad in thick cream.
There was one specialty that I have never seen elsewhere: a pudding made of a large Swiss roll covered with thick white cream and dots of yellow-coloured cream, to resemble a corn cob and with green leaves made of marzipan on either side. Once, in my early twenties, before I was married, I asked him if he would teach me to cook. He said, Arre, aap! Aap ko kiya seekhaoonga? Aap to khansama rakheingi!’ (What, you! What can I teach you? You will keep a cook!) In my parents’ homes in Karachi, spicy desi food was usually a special treat two or three times a week. Most days we ate ‘Angrezi’ food, which included those everyday dishes so popular in the subcontinent and which I never encountered during my years at boarding school in England: potato mince cutlets, cock rolls and crumb chops. Then there were the usual soups, roasts, spaghetti, salads, baked fish and fried fish. Sometimes we had soufflé or lobster thermidor or crab au gratin. Maqbool also made the lightest pastry imaginable – flaky pastry for vol-au-
vents and mille feuille and short crust pastry for quiches, jam tarts and other puddings.
at first. I was never told by either my parents or my husband Saleem Shamsie what I should or should not cook. Somehow, I seem to have collected recipes, and made kheer, andey ka halwa, gajar ka halwa, sheer khurma and qiwami seviyan long before I made cakes: I can still see my father sitting there at the end of his dining table, sometimes flicking through a cookery book or two, at other times just giving me the details straight from
memory/experience, pausing to ponder a little as he dictated these recipes to me. One such recipe is the qiwami seviyan, a traditional dish that my parents always served at Eid, as I do too. In the old days, it used to be decorated with finely beaten silver foil (chandi ka varq) alongside the almonds and pistachios, but these days I don’t risk it unless I can be sure it really is silver and not some unhealthy metal made to resemble varq.
That the faculty of taste is fundamental to meaning making practices is now a commonplace idea. For instance, some food items make us salivate in desire, the consumption of which brings pleasure.
Writer and cultural historian Tarana Hussain Khan captures the lost culinary traditions of Rampur in her food memoir