Ancient to contemporary

November 27, 2022

Writer Nilofer Afridi Qazi, artist Anjum Alix and chef de cuisine Ammar Mumtaz bring an interdisciplinary immersive experience to Gallery 82B

Ancient to contemporary


alochistan’s ancient civilisation remains largely undiscovered. There are only a few remnants of architecture and some fossilised artefacts preserved in museums. A lasting imprint, however, survives in the thriving food practices of its people. Nilofer Afridi Qazi’s book, Culinary Tales From Balochistan, documents historical and cultural links between people, places and local cuisine. It also reveals an introspective journey reconnecting her to ancestral roots in the region. Qazi calls the experience of writing the book a form of ‘food mapping.’ The book, which has 35 traditional recipes and 15 chapters, describes her ancestors’ association with Pishin and the rich folklore, mythology and oral history of various regions of Balochistan.

The author collaborated with artist Anjum Alix Noon and chef de cuisine Ammar Mumtaz for an interdisciplinary immersive experience hosted at Gallery 82B on November 12, showcasing art and food inspired by the book. “The book is an exploration of people as they see themselves,” the author says. She anchors her findings and interpretations in the folklore and poetry of Balochistan. It’s an attempt to remedy a lack of information by creating a rich resource of knowledge pertaining to its complex cultural heritage. She sees this experience as engaging with her collective identity and views the book as a revelation. The intimately guarded spaces are cherished and commemorated through the traditional preparation of food using indigenous ingredients.

Asked what constitutes Balochistani food, Qazi says three fundamental elements make up the culinary culture of the land. Kurt is dehydrated fermented milk; landhi is dried meat, also known as tabahek in the coastal regions where it is cured using salt, butter and pomegranate powder; and dodai is their staple bread.

Qazi reminds her readers of the catastrophic 1935 Quetta earthquake and the 2010 floods. The devastation impacted multiple generations and is explored as a central theme in the chapter called Bibi Shireen Afridi. The tale also brings to the reader’s attention the trust building that went into sourcing the authentic recipes. It shows that it was through consistently open conversations that she established a relationship in the spirit of kinship and familial ties with the people hosting her.

This tracing of ancestral roots and origins of her family led to bringing the past into the present and a collaboration with Anjum Alix. The series of paintings explores various aspects of the book from recipes and agrarian infrastructure to ritualistic traditions that were integral to the formation of the identity and culture of Balochistan. The paintings capture visually the various stages of understanding the artist experienced while researching for the book.

The initial responses were detailed and carried a multitude of motifs styled in Persian miniature tapestries paired with figurative subjects, text, heritage designs and geometrical drafting as seen in Wave of Development, Memories and Mind Map. The artist’s examination of the social, economic and political formations of history while injecting foliage, mythology and folklore as abstract elements is deep. Another series of works carried bold and colourful stencilled lettering and motifs, heavily layered on top of one another with the title Recipes Have Names. These playful and colourful pieces are deliberate previews for the recipes catalogued in the book to trigger the reader’s curiosity. Noon has created a total of 50 artworks, all deeply immersed in the evolution of Balochistan as a changing topography and a resilient force in history.

The artist was overcome with grief on learning that 400,000 olive trees had not survived the recent floods. Her series on Olive Trees showcases the nurturing force and source of abundance they could have been for the region. The relationship between water and good apparently became evident to the artist as the key to harmony and healing following a devastation. Her emotive series of paintings, titled No Food With Too Much Water, is a response to the current chaos and confusion in Balochistan.

Here the marks are immediate and colours sweeping across the canvas as the artist has documented a rush of emotions. The artist sees the Ancient Karez as a symbol of sustainable water supply that didn’t disturb the natural environment and improved the life of the community. Her painterly explorations transcend into the metaphysical and spiritual depicting the interconnectedness of life in people and topographies. In deconstructing and reassembling these histories showcased in Culinary Tales From Balochistan, Noon finds herself transported into the subconscious and spiritual realm of their collective identity.

Qazi invited chef Ammar Mumtaz to reconstruct the ancient foods of Balochistan through a contemporary lens. Mumtaz has established several food enterprises and is known for his modern methodology. He has created restaurants like Burning Brownie, Sugar Rush, Quatro Uno and supplying food to a number of establishments. Qazi wanted him to use indigenous ingredients to create cakes, desserts and truffles for the exhibition. A species of wild pistachio is native to the region called Shney that was formally investigated by Mumtaz using various techniques over the course of several months. Breakthroughs came after extensive research and experimentation to unearth their potential as key food ingredient. Qazi also wanted kaji, a kind of dried date, to be incorporated and transformed into a show stopping dessert. The results were transformative as Mumtaz unlocked the potential of each key ingredient, infusing their flavour profile with others to create a series of gourmet ice creams, truffles and cakes.

Qazi visits to the terrains are marked by compassion and curiosity. She relates her experiences to encourages her readers to view Meherghar as one of the most ancient links to past civilisations in the subcontinent. Her passion for preserving the reservoir of heritage and history belonging to Balochistan through its food mapping brings to light the trade across borders and exchange of resources between various peoples to survive the tough terrain. Her investigations lead to insights into the generational bonds shared between people through simple activities like bread making and the importance of conservation of animals like the endangered Markhor.

The writer is an artist and an art therapist

Ancient to contemporary