A New Anthology Examines South Asia's Muslim Cuisines
Image Credit: Detail from the cover for Forgotten Foods

FORGOTTEN FOODSMemories and Recipes from Muslim South Asia, edited by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Tarana Husain Khan and Claire Chambers, is a portmanteau of stories that transform food from being an urgent necessity into a way of life and portal to nostalgia.

An anthology that celebrates the richness and repertoire of Muslim cuisine, it is a collection comprising many little gems. From Moneeza Hashmi, who draws attention to her father’s (the legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz) modest tastes; to Aliya Nazki’s delightful tales about Kashmiri Rogan Josh; from the Bhopali mutton delicacy, Rezala; to the Ladakhi slow-cooked dish, Yarkandi Pollo; this collection brings together several little-known wonders that make up the vast cuisines of South Asia. Explored within these pages are the rich food cultures among Muslim communities in various parts of South Asia, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. With a focus on food memories, histories and literature, positive attention is drawn to an increasingly marginalised group, especially within the Indian polity.

With an assortment of historians, literary scholars, plant scientists, heritage food enthusiasts, chefs and writers coming together and talking about food myths, forgotten grains and culinary customs, this collection is of value not only for its literary quality but also for what it reflects of food as culture. “The texture of regional cuisines is really at the heart of this endeavour,” explains Siobhan Lambert-Hurley. “And thus we look not just to Delhi, Lucknow, and Hyderabad, but also to Manipur, Kerala, Bengal, and many other locations with significant Muslim heritage too. We hope readers will delight in the sheer diversity of stories and recipes captured in this collection, with its emphasis on recovery, preservation, and renewal.”

The recipes move from delicacies commonly associated with Muslim kitchens — kebab and biryani, keema and qorma — to delicious grains, dals and vegetables, tangy pickles and tantalising sweets. The book’s attention to family favourites and regional specialties enables it to highlight how food and flavours can be specific to a locale and its history, even as they remain in flux. There are about 30-odd stories and recipes to which the authors contribute. The personal accounts, culinary rituals, focus on royal kitchens and hyperlocal cuisines are what make Forgotten Foods exceptional. In a world divided by strife, this anthology reminds us that the simple acts of cooking, serving, and eating food are universal and the threads that bind us all.

Historian Rana Safvi, who contributed to Forgotten Foods, says that it places memories before recipes. “With modernisation, laborious meals, long meaningful table conversations, table manners, and the etiquette of eating have all taken a hit. South Asian Muslim homes, with their elaborate formalities at mealtimes, have borne the brunt of this shortage of time. Thus, sharing culinary memories and traditions becomes as important as the recipes themselves,” Safvi says.

Forgotten Foods is also a reminder that recipes can be custodians of culture. It seems timely when you consider the resurgence of interest in heritage foods especially here in India, where events like Sanchaari Sanskritik Parv in Allahabad, the Mahindra Sanatkada Lucknow Festival, or the Chettinad festival are gaining popularity by celebrating local cuisines.

“Each of my stories in the collection talks of the cultural relevance of the dish prepared, its associations with tradition, as well as the way the food is prepared and served,” says Safvi. “Food becomes a reflection of customs, heritage, and identity, fostering social bonds and reinforcing shared values within the community as well as showcasing regional diversity.”

Cuisines serve as tangible links to cultural roots, providing a means to pass down recipes and culinary customs across generations. Small wonder then that the yearning comes across clearly in Muneeza Shamsie’s wistful piece about Karachi in the 1950s and 1960s.

“I grew up in a home where cooking was an art and thus an expression of self as well as a means of communication with others, regardless of faith, nationality, borders, and boundaries,” she shares and adds. “The English, European, and subcontinental dishes my father prepared embody his multi-hued life, including his feudal Lucknow childhood, his education in imperial Britain, and his migration to Pakistan in 1947. My mother’s knowledge of food and the way it was served and prepared by her staff was that of an exacting housewife, but the recipes she recorded are both a reclamation of her upbringing in the princely city of Rampur as well as an assertion of Karachi life.”

What is food but memories? It offers insights into a way of life, provides anecdotes from the past, and helps us reflect on the future. As the book notes, “Particular dishes bespeak memories; others foretell futures.” By sharing stories of deghs, delicious dishes, and diversity, Forgotten Foods is a heartfelt documentation of one of the greatest joys of life.