ARTSPEAK: CUISINE AND CULTURE

Published September 18, 2022

Legend has it that, as soon as Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar began his meal, huge quantities of rice were distributed to the poor waiting outside his palace. Feeding the poor is a tradition that continues all across Pakistan even today — the more fortunate sharing with the less fortunate, or in memory of a departed family member, or as a religious obligation during the month of fasting.

The sharing of food is an important ritual, whether through a family meal or for a lavish party for friends. Sharing a meal is seen to have many benefits. It brings people closer. It’s a time for parents and siblings to share their news, discuss problems, and get to know each other.

Child psychologists find it improves the vocabulary of children, they eat better, are less likely to have depression, anxiety or aggression. A family meal can also extend to sharing a meal with close friends or colleagues. Many Japanese firms have shared cafeterias where the top executive eats alongside the lower staff. The intimacy of a shared meal builds trust and team spirit.

Food is essential to survival. From hunter-gatherers to the establishment of agriculture, its importance can be gauged by the many cultural rituals that evolved around food production, preparation and consumption. From song, dance and storytelling, elaborate harvest festivals and market fairs of rural communities, to the sophisticated décor and cuisine of Michelin restaurants, food becomes the positive binder of societies.

The Japanese Washoku, or food for harmony, is both a respect for nature, the great provider, as well as the transmission of tradition to the young. Family recipes are shared from parent to child, thereby bonding generations. Cooking shows and recipe books reach out to an even greater number of people and introduce nations to one another.

The Mughals documented culinary experiments in the royal kitchens. Babar planted fruit orchards and introduced iced water; Akbar introduced kulfi, murgh musallam and nauratankorma; the empress Nur Jehan created rainbow-coloured yogurt dishes; Shah Jahan’s kitchen created ShabDegh better known to us as nihari.

The hundreds of recipes are collectively known as Mughlai cuisine, preserved in recipe books such as Nuskha-e-Shahjahani and Alwan-e-Nemat. The 15th century Ni’matnamah Nasir al-Din Shahi of Malwa included the first miniature paintings of South Asia, illustrating the making of foods such as kheer and samosa.

Sharing food has been used to ease political tensions such as the legendary Manchu-Han Imperial Feast, which brought the Manchu and Han people together in 18th century China. Embassy dinners across the world are occasions for deepening political understanding.

The ability of spices to add flavour and turn mere nutrition into cuisine, motivated much of the global trade routes. Spices from the east and crops unique to South America changed the experience of eating for the whole world.

All religions teach gratitude for food — some say grace, some Alhamdulillah. Food is a cornerstone of hospitality. In south India, the banana leaf, on which food is served, should be folded from the top to indicate satisfaction at the end of the meal. The Japanese would experience mottainai, a feeling of regret at having wasted something, if they do not finish their food. Meanwhile, in China, an empty plate suggests a person is still hungry. Children in Pakistan are told that eating all their food is like sweeping the holy sites of Makkah and Medina.

Food can be served in individual portions on separate plates, or the thali of Indian cuisine. In some cultures, such as in Morocco, Ethiopia, the Middle East or Pakistan, people traditionally share food from one communal dish.

Some meals commemorate a historical event, such as the haleem made in Muharram to mark the tragedy of Karbala, and the symbolic taking of bread and wine in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to commemorate the last supper of Jesus.

But there is a dark side to food too, or rather the lack of it. It can become a weapon; opponents were once starved into submission during sieges and, even today, through creating food dependencies. Poverty and natural disasters, as Pakistan is facing today, erases all the niceties of cuisine, as we are shocked by images of children scraping empty pots for a few grains of rice. With millions of acres of crops destroyed, the country will inevitably face food shortages. We overlook the loss of an estimated 750,000 animals in the recent floods, not counting the many less visible species.

Most people assume that food is nature’s exclusive gift to humans but, as Rumi says, “Grass, thorns, a hundred thousand ants and snakes, everything is looking for food. Don’t you hear the noise?”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist.
She may be reached at durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 18th, 2022

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