Forgotten Food project documents Muslim culinary heritage in India and the UK

The initiative collects food histories, memories and culinary practices

Threshing tilak chandan rice, an indigenous, small-grained rice variety that's being revived through the Forgotten Food project. Photo: Forgotten Food

Tarana Husain Khan, author and food historian, was surprised to find an unconventional recipe for qaliya at the Rampur Raza Library, in India.

While she had only ever eaten the slow-cooked meat curry during her childhood, this recipe called for seasonal vegetables such as turnip, carrot, radish and meat, all cooked together. Vegetables and their stock were added back to the qaliya, akin to Middle Eastern stews.

The term qaliya is no longer in common usage, but the dish is said to have originated during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq, as he shifted the Indian capital from Delhi to Daulatabad in 1327. In a bid to feed a large camp during the mass migration, the qaliya evolved into a dish with vegetables.

Inspired by her maternal family, who come from generations of armchair cooks and dining table critics, Khan started researching the culinary heritage of Rampur. “While people associate Rampur immediately with its food, many do not know what actually constitutes Rampuri cuisine,” Khan explains. “I took it upon myself to enlighten people about the uniqueness of its culinary heritage.”

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As I delved deeper into the sources at the library, I realised I was looking at the vestiges of a vanishing culture
Tarana Husain Khan, author and food historian

The erstwhile princely state (ruled by the Rohilla Pathans of Afghanistan under the protection of the British) is in Uttar Pradesh in the north of the country. It was a cultural centre, with the last nawab of Rampur, or governor, being a patron of arts and culture. The famed Rampur Raza Library houses a rich repository of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu manuscripts and cookbooks commissioned or collected by the nawabs.

“I was intrigued to find cookbooks dating back to the late 19th century, with numerous variations of pulao, korma, qaliya and kebab. These recipes and their exotic names – Shahjahani, Noor Mahali and Machhli pulao – were something I had never heard of.

“As I delved deeper into the sources at the library, I realised I was looking at the vestiges of a vanishing culture,” Khan says. She also met modern-day members of the royal family and residents who remembered the “Rampur of yore”, to capture their oral histories. As she wrote about these heritage foods, it caught the interest of Professor Siobhan Lambert-Hurley from the University of Sheffield, who reached out to Khan.

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Our research into shared food histories can, we hope, act to mediate difference and improve social cohesion
Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, professor, University of Sheffield

“As we connected, the Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India project was born.”

Sponsored by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK, the project is an interdisciplinary approach to address challenges linked to local communities and food sustainability in India. Forgotten Food brings together culinary historians, scholars, sociologists and plant scientists, as well as cooks and street vendors. Apart from Rampur, it includes cities with a significant Muslim heritage across India, such as Delhi, Lucknow, Bhopal, Kolkata, Allahabad and Hyderabad.

Through heritage walks and tours, social media, blogs and newspaper articles, historical fiction, cooking demonstrations and food festivals, the teams in these cities raise awareness about food histories. In these culturally rich cities, the project also studies the evolving cuisine by preserving oral food histories and cataloguing dishes cooked by migrants.

Outside India, the project collects diaspora food memories and culinary practices in South Asian Muslim cultures in the UK. Khan cites the example of Muneeza Shamsie, a Pakistani author who writes several recipes and articles based on the “food memories” that have been passed on to her by her mother, Jahanara Habibullah, a member of Rampur’s elite.

So far, the team has curated two best-selling volumes – Desi Delicacies and Dastarkhwan, both are food writings from Muslim South Asia and its diaspora.

'Desi Delicacies' published by Picador India. Photo: Pan Macmillan India

Back in Rampur, Khan mines archives for old recipes, gathers verbal accounts and works with practitioners to resurrect heritage foods and provide economic opportunities for locals. For instance, the khansamas, or male cooks, who left royal employment during the 1960s had set up ramshackle corner shops to sell dishes that they used to make for the nawab – such as seekh kebabs and the famed sohan halwa, a caramelised halwa believed to have originated from Persia.

With the influx of fast-food chains, the street vendors were being driven out of business. “The khansamas of Rampur are skilled in the basic cuisine and live a financially precarious life. Giving them the knowledge of these forgotten recipes helps them increase their repertoire,” says Khan.

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Old-timers tell me that the aroma of the tilak chandan rice would waft through the entire neighbourhood
Tarana Husain Khan, author and food historian

To recreate forgotten recipes, she enlists the help of a tutor to first translate recipes from Persian to Urdu. Somewhat akin to decoding mysterious medieval manuscripts, age-old measurements are translated into their modern equivalent.

“The cooking instructions are very cryptic. Some of these notations are in symbols, some in old-style measurements not readily convertible.”

With the help of a royal khansama, she then goes through the basic translation and tries to make sense of the procedure, in what she calls an “expensive and often disastrous process”.

“There are no pictures of the finished dish – the writer assumes the reader knows what the dish looks like. Whereas we belong to an era where we haven’t even heard the names of some of these dishes.”

Qaliya is said to have originated during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq in the 1300s. Photo: Forgotten Food

Khan says some recipes call for vegetables and rice varieties that are now extinct, such as tilak chandan, an indigenous, small-grained rice variety. The project also includes the revival of heritage rice varieties that are an essential ingredient in local cuisines, like the Rampur khichri (a rice and lentil kedgeree), which was made using tilak chandan until the 1980s.

“Old-timers tell me that the aroma of the tilak chandan rice would waft through the entire neighbourhood.

“With the arrival of high-yielding varieties, these local styles were edged out of our plates, and we forgot about them. We eat hybrid rice now, which has its advantages in production, but the element of taste has been compromised.”

Working with plant scientists and local farmers, the team has sowed tilak chandan and sent the seeds to the University of Sheffield where a specialist lab conducts experiments on the heirloom rice variety.

“Our research into heritage rice varieties should enable the development of flavourful, nutrient-rich, high-yield and drought-resistant varieties that will keep India’s rich culinary heritage alive,” says professor Lambert-Hurley.

“Ultimately, we want to develop new, sustainable and fortified rice varieties that are also historically rooted and culturally meaningful.”

Speaking on the broader project, Lambert-Hurley says the revival of Muslim culinary traditions has implications for other countries in the region with significant Muslim populations and diaspora communities, which have an overlapping heritage. “Our research into shared food histories can, we hope, act to mediate difference and improve social cohesion.

“At a time when global and national politics too often promote division and separation, this aim has particular urgency.”

Updated: December 29th 2021, 8:35 AM