Takeaway

Come home to a whole meal

Latha Srinivasan | Updated on December 26, 2020

Food for thought: In Desi Delicacies, writers challenge stereotypes of the carnivorous, biryani- or kebab-loving South Asian Muslim   -  PTI

From taco parties to lotus root slow-cooked in yoghurt, and from khichri to barfi, a new book looks at all that is being rustled up in South Asian Muslim kitchens

* One only needs to think of the maxim ‘we are what we eat’ to see that religion and food are intricately intertwined

* Amid concerns about animal welfare, a desire for food that is tayyab or wholesome, and fears about the climate catastrophe, many Muslims are turning to vegetarianism or becoming flexitarian

* Each of the 18 pieces is accompanied by a recipe and a black-and-white illustration

***

Claire Chambers is Irish, lives in Britain and loves south Asian food — especially a plate of dal makhani. Not surprisingly, Desi Delicacies (published by Picador India/Pan Macmillan India and edited by her) looks at how food shapes human relationships and kitchens — and travels across borders. With stories and recipes from Muslim South Asians, the beautifully compiled book takes the reader to the heart of every writer’s home through food.

Local flavours: Claire Chambers developed a taste for South Asian Muslim food during the gap year she spent in Pakistan   -  ALEX FOX

 

In an email interview to BLink, Chambers, a professor at the University of York, UK, talks about diverse food practices, and how the coronavirus pandemic has seen many go hungry.

Excerpts:

Considering you are Irish and non-Muslim, what was the attraction towards Muslim South Asian food?

I live in Britain but have an Irish passport too. However, my taste buds are almost exclusively attracted to South Asian food! My love for South Asian Muslim culture, literature, and food was sparked by my year off before university. I spent that year in the mid-1990s teaching in Mardan and Peshawar, in the northwestern Pakistani region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I celebrated my 18th birthday there, and it genuinely was a coming of age. The year set me on a course of reading and writing on the topic of South Asian Muslim literature, and many courses of South Asian Muslim food. I have been pursuing these interests with hardly any interruptions ever since.

Religion and food are intricately intertwined, aren’t they? What has moved Muslim South Asian food beyond religion today?

One only needs to think of the maxim ‘we are what we eat’ to see that religion and food are intricately intertwined. Put differently, food is an important marker of identity for any culture or religious group. What people consume (or refuse to consume) becomes a highly detectable or, indeed, delectable identity marker. But in recent years, these markers have become fraught fault lines. One thinks, for example, of beef lynching in India, and Islamophobic hysteria in Europe around halal animal slaughter. This volume seeks to challenge this kind of othering and to provide a space for some gifted writers from Muslim backgrounds to talk about their diverse food practices.

Desi Delicacies: Food Writing from Muslim South Asia; Edited by Claire Chambers; Picador India; Non-fiction; ₹450

 

People automatically associate Muslim food with meats and rich foods. But they have a variety of vegetarian fare as well...

In Desi Delicacies, writers (including young British-Pakistani novelist Sarvat Hasin and author and Indian Masterchef contestant Sadaf Hussain) challenge stereotypes of the carnivorous, biryani- or kebab-loving South Asian Muslim. Indeed, the picture that we get of Muslim South Asian food is extremely eclectic, taking in everything from taco parties to lotus root slow-cooked in yoghurt, and from khichri to barfi. I myself am pescatarian and haven’t eaten meat since I was 19. Additionally, amid concerns about animal welfare, a desire for food that is tayyab or wholesome, and fears about the climate catastrophe, many Muslims are turning to vegetarianism or becoming flexitarian. For instance, Shanon Shah has written an essay about his choice to be a ‘part-time vegetarian’. So it’s a complicated picture and it would not be accurate to assume that everyday fare is rich and meaty.

How did you choose the contributors to your book?

Desi Delicacies comes out of an AHRC Global Challenges-funded research project ‘Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage, and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India’. What underpins the project is the idea of academics (historians, literature scholars, plant scientists) working together with practitioners (writers, influencers, film-makers, performers, chefs, and foodies). Many of the contributors, including but not limited to Rana Safvi, Tarana Husain Khan and Farah Yameen, are project partners. Others among them (are people) I knew from my long relationship with Pakistan’s literary scene, or from my newer and growing interest in Bangladesh (where I went for the first time in 2015).

As the project developed, contacts seemed to snowball, with authors recommending other people they knew to be good writers who were interested in food. In the end, we collected together nine essays and nine short stories. Each of the 18 pieces is accompanied by a recipe and a black-and-white illustration.

The Covid-19 pandemic put a spotlight on food and the millions who went hungry. Did this change your thoughts about food as you put together this book?

Great question. You’re right that the pandemic has presented political leaders from South Asia and beyond with an impossible conundrum. On April 4, Imran Khan tweeted: In the subcontinent, with a high rate of poverty, we are faced with the stark choice of having to balance between a lockdown necessary to slow down/prevent the spread of Covid-19 & ensuring people don’t die of hunger & our economy doesn’t collapse. So we are walking a tightrope.

Even if he, Narendra Modi, and Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina have chosen very different approaches, they are all dealing with the same problem. And in the UK, where I am, poor people’s hunger and the economy’s fragility are also very real concerns. This has been heightened with the new, highly-transmissible strain of Covid-19 being revealed at the same time that Brexit looms.

I have always loved shopping for food, cooking, and eating, but this year these activities have become sites of anxiety amid changing work patterns, panic-buying, and ingredient shortage. But I recognise my privilege as compared with people who don’t know where the next meal is coming from. That’s why any royalty payments from the Desi Delicacies book will go to charities working to provide food for people in need in South Asia.

What are some of your favourite Muslim South Asian delicacies?

As an ultimate comfort food that’s also packed with protein, I love dal makhani with rice or roti. We have a recipe for that in the book. I have tested all the recipes either on myself or (for the meat ones) on my family. We confirm they’re delicious and mostly easy to make! The ilish pulao recipe that accompanies Bangladeshi sisters Mahruba T Mowtushi and Mafruha Mohua’s story Jackfruit with Tamarind has become a staple in my repertoire — but I make it with salmon as I’m unsure where to source ilish fish in Britain amid the current restrictions. It’s really tasty!

I haven’t got much of a sweet tooth, but I was also won over by Uzma Aslam Khan’s recipe for barfi in the book. During lockdown we were allowed to go outside for exercise once per day, and I found it worked well to wrap some pieces of barfi in aluminium foil for great portable feeds to take on walks or bike rides.

Latha Srinivasan is a journalist based in Chennai

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on December 26, 2020
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor