During a holiday from the school I was teaching at in mid-1990s Peshawar, I was fortunate to spend a few days in neighbouring Balochistan province. I remember its state capital Quetta as a city fringed by mountains and bathed in searingly hot midday sun. It was a sleepy place and my afternoon siesta looms large in memories of the uneventful trip that summer.

Yet, since Partition, Balochistan has often been roiled by violence. What’s more, the situation dramatically worsened after my visit, as Pakistan entered the post-9/11 era. 2005 saw the Dr Shazia Khalid rape case, which was followed by protest, insurgency and brutal state clampdowns in the region.

Partly because of these tumultuous circumstances, Balochistan is the least known of Pakistan’s provinces. Now, a book has come that explores Balochistan and its history through the lens of food rather than politics. Culinary Tales from Balochistan is the debut work of Nilofer Afridi Qazi.

Qazi is from Balochistan, a Pakhtun with Irish heritage. Her grandmother was Jennifer Musa Qazi (1917–2008), born in Ireland but, for much of her life, based in Pishin. Jennifer married the son of the prime minister to the Khan of Kalat, and was herself elected to the Pakistani parliament in 1970. Her granddaughter’s book features a chapter about this formidable woman.

Focusing on the culinary is a fascinating way to explore a culture or country. I’d say that, because I edited Desi Delicacies, an anthology of food writing from Muslim South Asia. It releases in Pakistan at April’s end with Liberty Books.

The United Kingdom edition of my book was published in 2021 by Beacon Books. This independent publisher from northern England also brought out Qazi’s coffee-table tome last month. Our shared Beacon background meant I was sent a copy and later moderated a talk to help launch it. I spent hours poring over the beautiful pictures of Balochistan and its cuisine and trying out a few recipes.

Food is a central strand in people’s cultural inheritance. And one of Qazi’s aims is to document this valuable and vulnerable part of her own heritage through traditional recipes. “Recipes carry memories of both love and grief,” she tells us, going on to ask, “How does one sift through a lifetime of moments?”

Starting to sift, she shows that the trifecta of Balochistan’s culinary culture comprises landhi [cured meat], dodai [bread] and krut. Krut is a fermented milk ingredient, sometimes in powder and sometimes in liquid form, which is quite hard to get hold of outside west Pakistan.

One of the most memorable recipes is fish halva. I would take some convincing that our finny friends have any place in puddings or sweetmeats, but Qazi reassures us, “It may seem strange but then, what is unusual for some is a staple for others.” The recipe for this halva is given in the Gwadar chapter, and so brave readers can see for themselves.

Balochistan’s dried fruit and nuts are renowned, only rivalled by similar produce from the Hunza Valley, which Qazi references. Salads containing black carrots are also popular in the wellness-conscious capital city of Quetta. An interesting study is waiting to be written about the vaunted health benefits from the dietary habits of these two areas — Pakistan’s southwest as well as its famed Northern Areas.

Palimpsestic in her approach, Qazi does not forget cake-baking and other legacies of the British Raj. She reminds us of Quetta’s status as a garrison town, writing that the colonial army “stationed here for centuries, left an indelible mark on the local confectionery culture.” It was the cantonment area’s Quetta Club where Westernised locals ate “English cuisine and desserts”, but nowadays the French Bakery carries on this legacy.

The book is a gastronomical journey: not quite a cookery book or travel writing, but containing elements of both. The lessons learned and cultural connections drawn lead Qazi to describe herself as “a culinary detective.” She uncovers a jumble of Central and South Asian influences in Balochistan, from several dishes that resemble Afghan food, to aesthetic concerns including table manners, seating, hygiene and furniture.

Her gender and unusual position as a woman traveller talking to male chefs sometimes provoke questions, surprise or hostility. Even eating outside of screened family areas in this “very male-oriented culture” takes some doing, but our author pushes protocol with grace and courage.

At one point, she writes that “breaking the ‘Sardari mould’ will always be a big challenge.” The book has a lot to tell us about this Sardari mould and issues around “honour” that disproportionately impact women in Balochistan.

That said, nostalgia is an ingredient that not only seasons the author’s personal memories of family members, but also her political reflections. For example, there are sections about Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s dying days in Ziarat, as well as a peaceful communitarian coexistence in the region’s earlier years which, by the 21st century, has been shattered by sectarian hatred.

But not everything about the old times was positive; the chapter on Quetta’s 1935 earthquake is quite harrowing. Balochistan’s misfortune and oppression has a long history.

Provincial diversity shows in the discussion of rural and urban culture, landlocked and littoral scenery and plural peoples. In a Hazara district of Quetta, Qazi becomes emotional: “I decided to walk around the neighbourhood. Curious elder men smiled, and their warmth made me want to cry. I asked myself why they had to be constant targets of terror.” Given this injustice, Qazi can understand, if not condone, how conspiracy theories flourish.

Early on in the book, Qazi wishes that “through these recipes Pakistani food is understood with more nuance, texture and diversity. This is the first step towards food-mapping Pakistan. We begin with Balochistan, a window into the cultural heart of a magical world still untouched by modernisation. The diversity that is Balochistan is evident in its melting pot of gentle living and its nourishing cuisine.”

Qazi is modest about her writerly abilities, seeing herself more as a documentarian and filmmaker — and here, her YouTube channel Pakistan on a Plate deserves a credit. Yet, the influence of elegant authors such as Amin Maalouf on her own prose is clear. The writing at times reaches the same vertiginous splendour as the landscapes captured by her camera.

The columnist is professor of Global Literature at the University of York and author of three books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 24th, 2022

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