Saturday, March 23, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Food Prints – An Epicurean Voyage through Pakistan – Overview of Pakistani Cuisine

Published in Daily Times / 23 March 2013 under the Title, Food for Thought



Every year an international gourmet festival is held at a local military college that features, among other things, the best of Pakistani cuisine including traditional fare from all four provinces. The event provides a platform where regional delicacies are promoted and diversity can be celebrated. The participants dress the part and proudly proclaim their heritage; the gourmands happily savor an assortment of flavors under one banner.

Having a shared heritage can pose a challenge for anyone trying to determine the origins of a Pakistani feast. Shanaz Ramzi came up with an illustrated guidebook that traces the culinary history of food found on the streets of Karachi and the ancient Silk & Spice route, all the way to the mountains of Kashmir giving Pakistani cuisine some much needed context.



She is a journalist / critic / GM Publications and PR at HUM Network Ltd. and Editor of Masala TV Food Mag. Her book takes a sweeping look at the subtle influences that have shaped our cuisine and maps its changing face, serving up juicy little tid-bits about its antecedents.

Sometimes there is more than one version to the story, like the legend of the Mulligatawny Soup (Anglo-Indian specialty) which owes its existence to the district officer of Punjab who dined on Dal Chawal (rice, lentils) at Malik Tiwanas house and liked what he had. His cook, when asked to recreate the dish decided to take some creative liberties. History might have been different had the officer just asked Mr. Tiwana for the recipe.

The research covers a lot of ground bringing in specialties from the country-side and urban centers. The cuisine, at the centre of this discussion is an exotic blend of foreign imprints, royal whims, migrant contributions, cultural preferences and leftover legacies courtesy of conquering armies.



The voyage is made interesting by the arrival of various ethnicities that put their own spin on regional food. It is duly sweetened with tales like the beloved rasgulla which is really a ‘sandesh’ in disguise, born when a 19th century sweet maker tossed it in sweet syrup.

Readers also learn about their cultural quirks; the Bohras treatment of seafood for instance - they only consume fish caught by their own and it must have scales. The inviolate dining etiquette's of eating a ‘Sajji’ – (an Arab delicacy and a Baloch hill tribe specialty) where the scapula, used to foretell the future, is left untouched and the hosts have dibs on certain parts of the animal.

The writer frankly acknowledges the derivative nature of Pakistani food but manages to find the unique strands that set them apart. The ‘Sohbat/Painda’, Bannu’s idea of a hunter’s stew, invented by Pashtun huntsmen is made from curry & shredded rotis. The book also explores the crossover appeal of continental cuisine. Even the Chinese food in Pakistan, Shanaz declares is quintessentially Pakistani, and not really authentic. It has been accepted as such and sold in little plastic baggies by the sea-side.

There are dishes that play recurring roles on both sides of the border which triggered a debate on ownership post publication adding local cuisine to the list of disputed territories. The writer who believes that ‘it is as much ours as it is theirs’ pointed out the lamentable fact that Pakistani food chains are hesitant in putting the word Pakistan on the billboard. ‘We have a colorful variety of dishes and a rich cuisine and we need to broadcast this…’ she insists.

Food Prints’ was originally commissioned as a part of a series of children’s book by Oxford University Press (OUP) seven years ago but once it was underway, the policy changed and the idea was shelved. Fortunately, Shanaz decided to continue on her own and changed the concept to a coffee table book. Though some regional recipes and her personal favorites made it to the collection, this pictorial journey is primarily meant to be a reference book on cuisine catering to an older demographic. Her son’s friends who were amateur photographers came to the rescue since there was no publisher at the time. Oxford did come back on board eventually and ‘Food Prints’, that has been in the market since April 2012 went on to make the bestseller list.

At an informal ‘Meet The Author’ session held by Oxford Press recently, the writer took on queries about how to avoid the wrong eateries, ‘read my reviews’, countered impressions about fast food invasion - ‘given Pakistani’s love of food, everything flourishes’, and made a wry observation about how her hubby thought no one in Pakistan would be able to stand in line or accept the concept of self service. She also shared stories of near disasters during the making of the book, tales of stolen laptop and losing a month’s work & learning a valuable lesson in keeping backups, and of provinces (thoughtlessly) changing names that led to endless revisions.

Food Prints – An Epicurean Voyage through Pakistan – Overview of Pakistani Cuisine’ is a food travelogue of sorts that sets out to discover the delectable heart of an ancient art and give Pakistani food its due place. Now that the cuisine has been neatly catalogued (in glossy paper), perhaps it can be properly treasured as a national heritage.

Copyrighted Images of Shanaz Ramzi.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Half of Two Paisas - The Extraordinary Mission of Abdul Sattar Edhi And Bilquis Edhi

Published in Daily Times / 09 March 2013 under the title MISSION I(A)MPOSSIBLE

Author(s): Lorenza Raponi and Michele Zanzucchi
Translated from Italian by Lorraine Buckle
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal



Described as an ‘agent of change’ and a shining example of ‘humanitarian Islam’ by one author and hailed as a modern day ‘St. Francis of Assisi’ by another - the simply dressed old gentleman who sits unobtrusively in the front row is merely on a stop-over before he runs off again to save some lives. Many present at the launch of ‘Half of Two Paisas - The Extraordinary Mission of Abdul Sattar Edhi And Bilquis Edhi’ - co-authored by Lorenza Raponi and Michele Zanzucchi, are already part of the ‘Edhi’ admiration society.



Lorenza and Michele met ‘The Edhis' during a trip to Pakistan in 2005. The philanthropist on the frontline of poverty who founded the Edhi Foundation and charmed the visiting Italians has been playing the part of the savior for over six decades. Ms. Raponi first heard of Abdul Sattar Edhi in 2001 while on a Pakistani Holiday. The Italian translation of Tehmina Durrani’s book on the living legend published the same year as part of a series on great religious leaders, eventually became the basis for this research, and – as Lorenza admitted, ‘ the beginning of an enormous curiosity’.



‘Half of Two Paisas’ was originally published in Italian in 2007 – the English version was launched in early 2013 at the Karachi Literature Festival. It is a slim little volume profuse in its praise of this ‘tireless messenger of peace’ referred to in the Western world as the ‘Mother Teresa of Pakistan. Both Edhi and his wife Bilquis have been featured in the book that re-traces the outlines of their incredible journey through the gritty streets of Karachi based on a road-map of their own making. The Foundation’s remarkable reach and Edhi’s personal philosophy is embedded in the narrative that delves into the challenges faced, sacrifices made and lives saved.

The book takes readers deep inside the world of organized charity led by an ensemble cast of helpers. It has been described as ‘an incredible introduction’ to the Foundations ‘way of life, which aims to make personal ascesis a springboard to the purest and most radical form of charity’. The visit includes a trip to the poorest area of the city where Edhi launched his rescue mission with a dispensary for the underprivileged all those years ago. The scope of Edhi’s humanitarian operation will stagger even those used to the sight of his little ambulances whizzing past them day and night and aware of the numerous centers dotted across the city.

He is a recipient of several awards among them the prestigious ‘International Eugenio Balzan Prize for Humanity’ for his admirable role in providing a continuous lifeline to the needy. That he does not receive grants from Pakistan or other countries or large donors for that matter may not come as a surprise. That 99% of his funds come from his fellow citizens might please many. Readers prepare to meet the man whose reputation precedes him where ever he goes. When a young Saudi was kidnapped in Pakistan, distraught parents have turned to Edhi to appeal to local authorities for recovery. The John Doe taken to an Edhi centre in Tokyo is successfully traced back to his hometown. But subsequent passages dealing with the fate of missing people and referred to as a ‘dramatic and mostly inexplicable facet of Pakistani society’ are less hopeful. Most never see their families despite the organization’s best efforts.

An outsider’s perspective adds another dimension to these findings. The halo is never in question when a lone voice functions as a bulwark against tyranny and neglect, but the writers occasionally stop to observe the limits to his benevolent vision. Their encounters with society’s rejects at the Edhi Village on the receiving end of ‘palliative treatment’ that gives these people ‘an infinitely better quality of life than they would have had on the outside’ set their thoughts off in a different direction.

The Foundation’s compassion extends to all God’s creatures and the same sentiment resurfaces at the animal shelter. ‘…we are plagued by a sense of unease and incompleteness …’ they state, later wondering if ‘…the sense of ingenuousness that this place conveys to us is’ because ‘the next step of recovery and rehabilitation is missing.’

The other book on Edhi has the Foundations stamp of approval but, according to the writer did not have space for personal opinions. ‘Half of Two Paisas’ promises detailed insight into the man and his mission. Lorenza had called him not just ‘a star for his country but a star for us as well –and for humanity’. Every aspect of his courageous life is carefully woven into the tapestry and the little sanctuaries he helped create drawing upon an inexhaustible stream of good will, fortitude, humility and selflessness. Yet the forlorn faces stay in focus. Society, at its weakest in dire need of reformation remains a part of this picture. We get a chilling view of what the nation would be like without his intervention followed by a surge of relief that there are men like Edhi at the tiller to ensure that the flickering flames of empathy do not die. This book helps promote Edhi’s legacy of tolerance and the Foundation’s infinite reservoir of optimism.

Two weeks after the book launch, shock-waves from a devastating bomb attack left Karachi reeling. In an atmosphere of deepening rifts and in the absence of State assistance, the good Samaritans on the social media stepped forward redirecting donations to Edhi centers. At a time when the nation stares into the abyss, a feeble looking man tagged as a ‘weapon against militancy’ solemnly plods on unmindful of the real/ideological minefields.

Lorenza Raponi Image taken at KLF 2013, CopyRighted.
Book Cover taken from net.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Book Review: The Illustrated Beloved City – Writings on Lahore

Published in SHE Magazine / March 2013
Edited by: Bapsi Sidhwa
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal




Bapsi Sidhwa
is an award winning author, essayist and playwright who recently edited an anthology that takes a sweeping view of the ‘Paris of the East’ which is a time traveler’s guide through Lahore based on the recollections of several narrators.

The montage shows the city, a survivor of world wars, under a monarchy, occupation or Raj, between dictators, a victim of pillaging and partition, and beyond. These excursions provide wonderful snapshots of Lahore - ‘a city of untold monuments’ at different junctures. Their collective musings used to commemorate a great city are housed within a structured format, divided into seven parts – each holding a precious set of testimonials from various eras.



It is the Lahore of yore. Kipling, Faiz, Manto and Iqbal hail passerby’s - Ismat Chughtai relives the days when her book was put on trial - Manto joins the hilarious charade. Krishen Khanna talks of a bygone era where ‘relationship between members of different communities’ are described as ‘free flowing and not rigidly determined’.

The memories are bittersweet. Friends and foes become interchangeable. Some ask for a moment of silence for lost souls.

The same passage describes ‘the social fabric’ of the city up till 1947 as a ‘complex unity’ adding ‘…that this was finally shattered is evidence not of its fragility but of the powerful political forces at work.’ Others search for meaning in Kipling’scity of dreadful nights’, ‘....the pitiless destroyer of youth and beauty – the Punjab hot weather.’ Spirited personalities unleash a cascade of memories that depict the city through the ages. Each channels a different medley of realism and fantasy, dreams and nightmares.

It is Lahore at its most ostentatious. E.D. Maclagan in ‘The Travels of Fray Sebastian Manrique in the Panjab, 1641’ visits Emperor Jahangir’s court refusing to elaborate on the 12 dancing girls as ‘a subject unfit for Christian ears’ detailing the sheer grandeur and extravagance of his surroundings instead.



It is Lahore at its most charming described as ‘…the city of cheerful people who love unconditionally, without reserve, ‘the heart of the Punjab’'. A little further ahead Khaled Ahmed reflects upon its ironic history in ‘Pavement – Pounding Men of Letters: Intezar Hussain’s Lahore’;‘ ….the one set of people truly innocent of all communal prejudices were the communists – Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims bound together in humanity and by Marxist ideology’.

As they sift though the crumbling old city and the still standing old gates, the faded colours are revitalized. Archived images line the vintage walkways.

Minoo Bhandara who once found himself sitting next to Ava Gardner in Regal Cinema finds an array of characters occupying memory lane including Faiz described as the ‘epitome of the leftist pre-Partition culture, but a lost soul in the Pakistan that followed.’

The contrasts can be startling.

Bapsi confesses that ‘…this metropolis with its checkered history and historical sites was compressed into tiny pockets of familiarity: they provided me with many of my characters.’ Excerpts from her acclaimed works have been added to the collection. A new generation of writers also expound upon their relationship with the City.

Minoo’s essay takes a final look back concluding that ‘…the span between the Lahore of Kipling and Faiz and ours today is vast. But while differences appear profound, there are significant continuities’. It is not all gloom, doom and despondency in the City of Many Lights’, he decides, ‘…some things do remain the same.’ (‘Ava Gardner and I: post Partition Lahore’)

Their words provide a window into the soul of a magnificent old city that has stood the test of time. ‘The Illustrated Beloved City – Writings on Lahore’ is a joyous ode to a noble spirit. Lahore’s most treasured moments lie within its vaults.

Images courtesy of: Link 1

Link 2