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.


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