A New Book Lovingly Retraces Cherished Mealtime Memories
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SHE has prepared a vast degh of firni and then poured it into earthenware bowls, brought in dozens from the local kumhar (potter). The firni is made with milk, ground rice and sugar. It sets when cooled into a firm, pudding-like consistency and looks stunning in the little bowls, garnished with delicate slivers of almonds, a sprinkling of desiccated coconut and a silvery shimmer of chaandi ke warq.

This description of the dessert by Tabinda Jalil Burney in her wholesome book Fabulous Feasts, Fables and Family is just a small glimpse into her rich relationship with food and the central role it played in her life. 

From childhood feasts and khansamas to a diverse repertoire of dishes, many no longer available, this book is an ode to a lost way of life that was enriched by large families, sumptuous meals, and unique recipes, while successfully recreating the sights, smells and tastes of lovingly prepared dishes. 


Reminiscing about her family members and their innate talents, especially the women in the extended family, brought about a deep desire in Burney to delve into her family history.

“I discovered that over the years many of my various aunts had perfected a specific dish to such an extent that it came to be known as their specialty, one that they used to prepare with great pride and finesse. These dishes were not unduly elaborate or complicated, but extremely special and delectable nonetheless. A true mastery of home cooking is one that takes many years to perfect,” she shares.

Though living abroad as a busy doctor and mother, she decided to recreate these dishes in her London kitchen, celebrating both the food she grew up eating and the amazing women who prepared it. The resulting anthology of stories recounts a childhood and its celebration of life through food and feasts.

The impact of her growing up years in Uttar Pradesh is evident and she states, “It was wonderful! As we did not have the distractions of mobile phones and modern electronic gadgets, we would have wonderful convivial meals, sitting together, peppered with lively conversation.”

The biggest challenge in writing the book was that there was no record of recipes and there were no notebooks as such passed down through the generations, which made recreating them a lot of work… a bit of trial and error apart from intense phone discussions with her mother and aunts to get the details spot on.


What the book succeeds in is creating interest in dishes that were once ubiquitous but are no longer common. Be it Khageena (a desi version of scrambled eggs); Hari Matar ki Ghungi, made when fresh green peas were in season; and Uttar Pradesh’s breakfast dish made in the monsoons, Dal Bhari Roti, it presents an assortment of dishes many from the younger generation might no longer be aware of.

For Burney, this book (part autobiography and part food memoir) is a trip down memory lane and a chance to visit her personal treasure trove of food memories. “I sometimes long for the fruit sold by a vendor outside our school gates many years ago, namely kamrakh (starfruit), jharberi ka ber, phalsa, and khinni (a yellow berry-like fruit), sold in paper cones with a sprinkle of fiery masala powder. I do not see these fruits in shops anymore,” she adds with a touch of wistfulness.

Much has changed from what the author describes, from a way of life where slow cooking and using seasonal produce were the norm, to the current times when we mindlessly order off food delivery apps. The author adds, “We have lost the appreciation of simple, wholesome food and crave the instant gratification of takeaways or ordered food.”

As conventional Indian lives are upended due to stressful jobs and smaller living spaces, Burney has simple tips and tricks to ensure that the magic of the meals we consume is carried on to the next generation. “A weekend meal together that everyone can help prepare, whether it’s pitching in with food prep, laying the table or washing up (is a great idea),” she says. “Also use that fancy crockery you got years ago at your wedding, which is still lying in its box!”

Using heirloom serving dishes, setting fresh flowers in a tiny glass of water at the table, and of course, no TV or phones for the duration of the meals, are her top recommendations to enhance mealtimes.

With photographs, Urdu couplets, folk songs, memories and recipes, this book recalls a time when life was contingent on food, where elaborate meals were the norm. Of mangoes eaten from petis (wooden crates from orchards), of special Shami Kebabs, of knitting in wintry afternoons, and of women cooking in aangans (courtyards of homes). It is a memoir of a time that is slowly fading from collective memory. 

Burney, who implores the current generation to celebrate home-cooked simple meals with the family and treasure our food legacy, answers in a trice when asked about her most abiding food memory. “I think the rain and its association with freshly fried pakodas, Anarsey ki Goliyan, and Dal Bhari Roti always transport me to the happy monsoon and summer holidays of childhood,” she says, and smiles.