Edited by Claire Chambers, this book is a compilation of personal stories and recipes by 18 eminent writers, historians and authors from Muslim South Asia
Food creates memories and food creates bonds. Each story in this anthology is a unique expression and each recipe is a delight. Meat dishes are popular in Muslim cuisine, but Claire is a vegetarian and that makes this project even more interesting. It’s more about preserving a culture and keeping the tasty dishes alive. The Rise of Pakistan’s ‘Burger’ Generation by Sanam Maher is quite an interesting read. And I revived my love for the black carrot kanji after going through the recipe by Rosie Dastgir. Jackfruit with Tamarind by Mahruba T. Mawtushi and Mafruba Mohua is another story that I would love to read again. The good part is that each story is complete in itself, which means that you can read them after an interval also. And accompanied by recipes means you get to try new dishes too.
Claire Chambers is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York. She teaches literature from South Asia, the Arab world, and their diasporas. Claire is the Editor-in-Chief (with Rachael Gilmour) of the Journal of Commonwealth Literature and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Her earlier books include British Muslim Fictions (2011), Britain Through Muslim Eyes (2015), and Making Sense of Contemporary British Muslim Novels (2019). She co-edited (with Nafhesa Ali and Richard Phillips) A Match Made in Heaven: British Muslim Women Write About Love and Desire (2020). In an e-mail interview she talks about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the book:
Please share some food experiences from your stay in Pakistan.
There are so many, but I’ll just share with you the story of the English burgers. A British friend and I worked for an academic year at Islamia Public High School in Peshawar’s University Town during the 1990s. I was still sarvaahaari at that time, and hadn’t yet given up meat. There I lived with the headmaster—a dry, twinkling Punjabi—and his family. One day there was a local fair, and the head teacher had a stall for selling bun kebabs to fundraise for the school. But since my friend and I were quite unusual as goriyan in the North West Frontier Province of those days, he had the idea of marketing these bun kebabs as ‘English burgers’. We put up a big sign, and the burgers sold like hot cakes, even though the UK is not known for its burgers as the US is! But this anecdote does show how food and travel are quite linked in our minds.
In the process of choosing authors, what was your most important criterion? How challenging is this task?
In the process of choosing authors, obviously I was looking for authors of Muslim heritage who were interested in food. On top of that, it was important to me to find writers from across the South Asian subcontinent, including north and south India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir, and the diasporas in Britain and America. I also wanted to showcase a range of ages, genders, class identities, etc. This was quite a challenging task, and that’s why there ended up being a full 18 pieces in the book: nine life writing essays, and nine short stories. And I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this diverse and rich culinary world.
How is Muslim South Asia different from any other Islamic region (Middle East), as you have specifically chosen stories from this region?
I think the collection shows just how diverse Muslim South Asian food is, with its hybrid interchange with Hindu, Parsi, Anglo-Indian, and other cuisines. There are continuities with Persia and the Arab world too, of course, and several of the essays explore this interchange. However, I think the main difference is that Muslim South Asian food tends to be hotter than the Middle Eastern food.
The book comes out of a project entitled Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India. This research project centres on food, including bringing back lost heritage rice varieties, from Muslim South Asia. You can find out more from this series we have been editing for Scroll.in: https://scroll.in/topic/56278/forgotten-food It’s funded by the Global Challenges Research Board, and we have to keep quite a tight focus on Muslim South Asian food, which is anyway the region I and the other researchers (historians, plant scientists, and writers) work on.
Which of the dishes from the book have you tried to make or eaten?
It was important to me to make all the recipes in the book, though I must confess I didn’t try two of them. I knew Sadaf Hussain’s recipe for warqi samosa would be brilliant, as he was an Indian Masterchef contestant and is a very experienced chef. And Kaiser Haq’s recipe for biryani was contributed by the estate of the late Bangladeshi food writer and Chef Shawkat Osman, so again I knew it was tried and tested. But if I’m totally honest, both of these recipes were also quite complicated, and since I don’t eat meat I was reluctant to go through all the steps for something only my family could enjoy and not me! I tried all the other ones, and my carnivorous family and pescetarian me confirm they’re easy and delicious recipes.
Have you traveled to any Islamic country, besides the teaching stint in Pakistan?
The other Islamic country I’ve visited is Bangladesh. My culinary experience there was really great, as the veggie- and fish-heavy food fits perfectly with my tastes. The Pakistani diet is comparatively more meaty, though people eat a lot of dal, sabziyan, and roti day-to-day. I was in Bangladesh towards the end of Ramzan in 2015, so it was quite a magical experience, having iftar with friends each evening as the usually frenetic streets of Dhaka emptied out for people to break their fasts. Most Westerners go to the subcontinent and lose weight due to stomach upsets, but each time I go I tend to gain several kilos — in the happiest way possible, of course!
You are Irish and enjoy certain privileges. Would you like to share what these privileges are and how Muslim South Asian communities don’t get the same?
I’m actually someone who holds both a British and an Irish passport and has lived most of my life in northern England, so I’m more English than Irish. Either way, you’re correct that I enjoy many privileges. Until the Covid-19 pandemic and Britain’s withdrawal from the UK in this lamentable Brexit, one of the greatest privileges was to travel easily and without much scrutiny. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught me it’s not to take these privileges for granted. And you’re absolutely right that Muslim South Asian communities don’t get the same good treatment. I was really pleased that one of the first things Joe Biden did on taking office was to reverse Trump’s deplorable Muslim ban on travel to the US. But this is just one small step in the right direction.
And in both the UK where I live and India where (I think!) you are, Covid has been used as a stick with which to beat minoritized Muslim communities. You’ll know better than me what’s going on under the Modi-Shah government in India.
Here, when cases started surging again last autumn in Leicester, Greater Manchester and parts of West Yorkshire (the latter region being where I am based), Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock put the blame on individuals in northern England for failing to distance properly. Rather than looking at the government’s inconsistent communication and systemic failures, a Conservative MP named Craig Whittaker, from one of the affected areas, West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, declared that the ‘vast majority’ of those breaking the lockdown come from ethnic minorities. Few of his fellow right-wingers have been quite so explicit in public. However, dog whistles about multigenerational families causing the virus to circulate are evidently directed at British Asian and, to a lesser extent, Black British communities, and are read as such. And yet, these same Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority people are the ones who have disproportionately worked and died as key workers in the pandemic.
So to conclude, I am really lucky to have white privilege that means I don’t have to defend myself against reductive, stereotypical, racist/Islamophobic charges like this. Having this privilege, I want to use it to be as good an ally as I can be without falling into a white saviour mindset.
Publisher: Picador India; 1st edition (21 December 2020); Pan Macmillan UK
Paperback: 272 pages
Price: INR 450
If you like this interview, do share, like and subscribe to our blog. And do share your thoughts in the comments box below.