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Serving ‘seviyan’ without borders

A new anthology on Muslim cuisine stirs the connections between India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

A new book explores Muslim foodways in South Asia. (Freepik)

By Jahnabee Borah

LAST PUBLISHED 26.11.2023  |  02:33 PM IST

The urus-i behri kebab from Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, is made with the freshwater fish sanwal, “cooked, ground and reconstructed to resemble a fish two feet long—with scales, tongue and tail, each of which has a different flavour." This fascinating dish from pre-Partition now exists only in memory and in essays such as the one by Pakistani writer Muneeza Shamsie written for the book Forgotten Foods: Memories And Recipes From Muslim South Asia.

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The evocative title has resonance with culinary interests of the present. Chefs, diners and food enthusiasts of all manner are exploring history, anthropology and culture to forge a deeper understanding of cuisine. This curiosity spanned menus like “Forgotten, Foraged and Fermented" at Noon in Mumbai this year; food-centric events such The Nilgiris Earth Festival that will be held in December and showcase little-known produce of the Western Ghats; and books like Sabita Radhakrishna’s Paachakam (2022), with recipes defined by regional communities of Kerala, and Sonal Ved’s Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? (2021), which views Indian food through a historical lens.

Edited by Tarana Husain Khan, Claire Chambers and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Forgotten Foods stitches personal narratives, history and recipes to spotlight the foodways of Muslims in South Asia. The essays are written by authors, researchers and historians from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At a time when war, religious conflict and food bans are becoming common (Uttar Pradesh banned the sale of halal products last week), a book about Muslim kitchens serves as a tangential tool to understand a community and how they shaped world history. For many, especially those who have been displaced from their homes or feel threatened, authenticity in food is a means to protect culinary identity, an idea that is captured well in London-based Kashmiri journalist Aliya Nazki’s essay, On Kashmir Food And Authenticity. In this essay, there are references to Palestinians—who are now facing an onslaught from Israel—being similarly protective of their culinary identity.

Themes of displacement, migration and food as emotional nourishment underpin the anthology, which began as a research project, Forgotten Food: Culinary Memories, Local Heritage And Lost Agricultural Varieties In India (2019-23). It was led by British author Claire Chambers, global history professor Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and writer Tarana Husain Khan, who focuses on the cuisines and culture of Rampur. In 2020, findings from this project were released as short stories and essays in the book, Desi Delicacies: Food Writing From Muslim South Asia. While it received positive reviews for nuanced writing, critics pointed out it largely focused on the food of the elite.

Forgotten Foods includes subaltern narratives from home kitchens, cookbooks and the diaspora community. In fact, to take a break from food as sustenance and celebration, there is an essay, Food Myths And Unani Recipes, on diets for better health and beauty (roop ronak).

Regionality is imprinted across the pages, and the chapters on Ladakh and Manipur are worth paying attention to. Fermented fish or ngari is integral to the diet of the Muslim community in Manipur known as Pangals, going into salads, chutneys and mains. Culinary influences from the Meiteis are embedded in their recipes through ngari, bamboo shoot and the signature umami-rich vegetable mash eromba.

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Then there is a sumptuous description of food, such as the qiwami seviyan in Muneeza Shamsie’s essay, Across India, Pakistan And Britain: A Family’s Culinary History: “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."

For those looking for forgotten and rare recipes, there’s Ladakhi Yarkhandi pollo (pulao), the unique Rampuri adrak halwa, and an appetising Sri Lankan pickle of Malay Muslims. One of the most elaborate recipes is a sweet preparation with 15 eggs, mutta mala and pinjanathapam by writer Aysha Tanya in her essay Eggs In Mappila Cuisine. Mutta mala are sugar-dipped noodles made entirely with yolks, and pinjanathapam are steamed barfi-like triangles of egg white, sugar and cardamom. The contrasting yellow and white colours of this delicacy are a visual treat, and it is a pity the book has no photographs of the final dish.

One gap is that there’s nothing about Muslim kitchens in Lakshadweep, Gujarat, Assam and the Konkan region—and one hopes it will be filled by another book in the future.

Forgotten Foods: Edited by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Tarana Husain Khan, Clair Chambers, Picador India, 296 pages, 499.

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