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‘Food has no religion and we must be clear about it’

Chef Sadaf Hussain’s book on ‘Muslim food’ attempts to dispel myths and move away from community stereotypes

Sadaf Hussain’s book explores home kitchens across the country.
Sadaf Hussain’s book explores home kitchens across the country.

Former MasterChef India contestant, food writer and chef Sadaf Hussain’s book Daastan-e-Dastarkhān: Stories And Recipes From Muslim Kitchens, published in 2019 by Hachette India, explores home kitchens across the country to offer a fresh perspective on what is dubbed Muslim food. Edited excerpts from an interview with the author:

What prompted you to write ‘Daastan-e-Dastarkhān’?

I always knew that I wanted to explore the food space but the specifics emerged with time. A growing interest in food history and a love for writing eventually culminated in this book.

The theme for the book emerged from two factors. I grew up in a small town (Ranchi) in a middle-class Muslim household where home-cooked food was the norm. Restaurant meals were few and far between. This is perhaps why I understand the home kitchen better. Again, I wanted to bust the myth that Muslim food is all about biryani and kebabs. These dishes are the brand ambassadors of Islamic cuisine in India and abroad but there’s so much more to explore and appreciate.

However, at the same time, this book is not about labelling something as Muslim food and something else as not. Food has no religion and we must be clear about it. Food must bring people together, cutting across caste, creed or religious lines.

What are some of the popular notions about Muslim cuisine in India which, according to you, limit a proper understanding of Muslim food?

Most people are of the notion that Muslims only eat meat, specifically red meat. This is far from the truth. I have Muslim friends who are not only vegetarian but vegan. This book is an attempt to step away from typecasting people and communities. Muslim dishes are not something that only Muslims eat. On the other hand, Muslims across the country eat dishes that are local to the land and culture. I for one have grown up on greens like bathua, chakod and gandhari saag and phutka/rugra (local mushroom) in Jharkhand. Individual preferences and food habits also come into play. Again, while most people know about mutton dopiyaza, in our kitchen we make and enjoy a vegetarian version of the dish—kairi kathal dopiyaza. I have shared the recipe in my book.


Can you talk about some quintessential Bihari dishes?

Food in Bihar, religious or other social boundaries notwithstanding, is rustic and close to the earth. It is also full of contrasts. While I will maintain that there’s no dish that is exclusive to Muslim families, some are more popular. There’s akhti, an unctuous dish comprising shredded meat cooked in spiced lentils along with rice flour dumplings; Bihari kabab, in which thin slices of meat are marinated for a few hours with basic spices and grated raw papaya to tenderize it, and then cooked on an open fire; and bhabara, sweet or savoury pancakes that everyone in Bihar loves. However, one dish that deserves special mention is the makhuti (also called dal firni), a rice and moong dal (split green gram) dessert made only during the Muslim wedding season in Bihar. Traditionally, this was only offered by the more affluent families.

Tell us about some of the dishes that are an Eid must in your family.

Apart from biryani—either mutton or beef—which is an Eid essential in our household, there are several other dishes on the dastarkhan that are just as special. One such item is the grill, which is basically spiced lamb chops. Besides, there are several different types of sweet sevai that are made at our place—there’s shirkhurma, chock-full with dried fruits, and qimami, which has orange juice and zest. At our place, vegetarian items like dahi vada and chhole are also a mandatory part of the Eid spread. My mother’s side of the family is from Sasaram and I remember feasting on Eid special aloo chops there. But this aloo chop came with a minced meat stuffing and was dipped in a besan (gram flour) batter and fried.

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