April issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Food | Life Style | Published 12 years ago

With Food Prints, Shanaz Ramzi embarks on ‘an epicurean voyage through Pakistan.’ A difficult journey to undertake, given the vast diversity of its people and cuisines, but she accomplishes her task with a fair degree of success.

Published by the Oxford University Press in glossy hardbound format, Food Prints sets the context with brief descriptions of the country’s history and geography, before going on to a succinct account of the techniques that are typically employed in the Pakistani kitchen.

There is a useful chapter on ingredients — from cardamom to saffron; the herbs and spices that infuse the cuisine with its very special flavours are identified. There is a bit of food history, in a chapter that refers to edible items in vogue at the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation and reflects upon the fact that both continuity and change have played a part in the gastronomic evolution of the dastarkhwan, the thaal and the ubiquitous dinner table.

Food Prints has chapters on the four provinces as well as a separate section on Karachi cuisine. While recipes are limited to a section at the back of the book, each of these chapters identifies the staple fare that is typical of the region and lists specialties. There can be a problem with classification of this type, given that many dishes are shared between the areas. Thus Dahi ki kari belongs as much to Punjab as it is does to the Karachi Khoja Gujarati section where it is listed, while Doodh patti is probably drunk through the length and breadth of the country, not particularly in the Punjab. A special surprise is Pakoray listed as a Sikh specialty. Surely, we are all pakora addicts, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, Sindhi or Punjabi, as the case may be.

The fact is that ethnicity may or not be related to religion, as an ethnic group may encompass people of varying religious persuasions. At times, the two factors being treated as either mutually exclusive or synonymous becomes a problem. Thus, of Sindh, the author maintains that “the cosmopolitan nature of the province is such that its inhabitants also comprise people of Baloch origin including Makranis, Pashtuns, Punjabis, Sheedis, Zoroastrians, Chinese, Anglo-Indians, Goans, Afghans and Hindus.” Sindhis, both Muslim and Hindu, for one, live in Karachi.

A section on ‘Hindus’ in the Sindh chapter is also somewhat confusing. It includes Dhokley, described as a Gujarati specialty, “as popular with Muslim Gujaratis as with Hindus.” This section also lists Idli and Masala dossa, both of which are ascribed to South India where they belong.

It doesn’t profess to be a ‘how to’ book, but Food Prints does have a couple of recipe sections. The first is ‘The Author’s Favourite Pakistani Recipes,’ and is as idiosyncratic as it should be. In this section we’ll take Chicken Tikka Pizza to be a Pakistani dish along with dishes as far apart as Pasanday and Burani.

The following chapter, however, titled ‘Recipes from Across Pakistan,’ is eclectic to a fault as it includes Girgir Aloo and Gushtaba, but with few exceptions skirts around the staple items of Pakistani cuisine.

That said, the book is a brave venture into hitherto uncharted territory, considering that books on Pakistani cuisine — with the exception of Dalda-type recipe books — are few and far between. Production values are high and the text is nicely complemented by photographs. Food Prints surely is a collector’s item for foodies of all descriptions and whets the appetite for more.

This review was originally published in the April issue under the headline “What’s Cooking?”