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This is a unique anthology based on Muslim food culture—perhaps delectable would be the correct word. In the subcontinent, biryani is the food of choice on celebratory occasions, especially in Bengal where a new variant was devised on the exile of Wajid Ali Shah from Awadh to Calcutta.
But, apart from that, Muslim food is noted for its richness and variety of textures, though there is a persistent belief that it is mainly carnivorous and kebab dominated.
In her introduction, Chambers talks of Muslim bawarchis as alchemists of a different kind, transmuting ingredients into golden qormas and halwas. Always evocative of emotion, food for Muslims is associated with festivals like Ramadan with its emphasis on fasts and preparations for sehri and iftar before and after, with ceremonies of mourning, weddings, and even coming of age. The Prophet himself laid importance on the ceremonial aspect of food and on disciplined eating.
All these come together in this anthology. Chambers gathers together writers from the region, along with food historians and chefs. Desi Delicacies is divided into essays and stories with recipes in both sections. For the Muslim world of South Asia, food and the excellence thereof is a way of judging the rest of the world–you are what you eat, after all. There is food from Bangladesh and Bengal, ilish served with a sauce of mustard paste, the melt in the mouth texture of payesh and kheer–Bengal food is at one level complex and at another very simple.
There is a story on how the samosa came to be the perfect accompaniment with chai and how for some like Annie Zaidi, secret recipes are more of a thrill than anything else.
However, while the essays are as enriching as the food, the stories bring a note of sadness since a story cannot all be about food, unless it is something like Joanne Harris’ Chocolat. Jackfruit with Tamarind, in the story section in fact comes across more as an essay as it puts together the constituents of a Bangladeshi table. Nadeem Aslam’s unexpected meeting in a London restaurant as he tastes a dish that only one person could have cooked could in fact have been a story rather than an essay.
The dividing lines between the two are thin–the story of The Hairy Curry is an experience that is solely based on food. The vessel for Shab-e-Barat becomes the cusp for an almost ghost story when grandfather descends from heaven on the evening of forgiveness in search of kebabs on earth.
As the world is changing and Muslim students find new spaces, there are experiences with pasta and burgers to broaden horizons. Both essays and stories are accompanied by recipes that range from the simple to the complex, allowing readers a chance to recreate the flavours evoked for themselves and tuck the book on kitchen shelves rather than in libraries.
Desi Delicacies does have a deeper purpose behind it – to record culinary memories, local food heritage and forgotten grains that are being rediscovered in villages in India and will surely spread to Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is also an attempt to write down the oral histories of food cultures which would otherwise soon be lost by putting them between the covers of recipe books and perpetuating traditions of memory and deliciousness.
Picador India Rs 450
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