Nilofer Afridi Qazi tells the story of traditional Pakistan cuisine, together with its origins and the politics of agricultural history, in her online video series Pakistan on a Plate
In the days of the global pandemic when travelling is not on the to-do lists any longer, Pakistan on a Plate undertakes a virtual trek through Pakistan, filmed in around 55 districts of Pakistan. The premise is that the story of food is never complete without its origins, the politics of agricultural history and traditional recipes. Nilofer Afridi Qazi attempts to do it all in her online video series.
Food mapping is the tying together of strands of history, geography, culture and food in a holistic and documented structure. Although it has been done before, Qazi’s particular venture with food mapping, Pakistan on a Plate, is a food blog in her own words, but to the viewer, it can be at once a travelogue, a discovery of historical heritage, a collection of recipes that have nothing to do with the cosmopolitan cuisine of Pakistan and undocumented food history of the region.
Talking to The News on Sunday (TNS), Nilofer, who has a background in public policy and food anthropology, says, “The food history of any locality depends largely on its agriculture. For example, in the desert of Thar, people stock their vegetables in dried form, to be used during a spell of unavailability. Similarly, dehydrated milk and meat in Balochistan is also a preserved form of food. The purpose of retracing the traditional cuisine of Pakistan was to go the less travelled way, and bring the private food-stories of household kitchens into the public domain.”
What Pakistan on a Plate does differently, is the way it lays out its food stories. Each of the fifty episodes begins with a description of the journey, takes the viewers through scenic landscapes and landmarks of historical heritage with information that has been thoroughly researched before it is related and then, into local residential kitchens within towns such as Eimanabad, Mithi, Pishin, Mohenjodaro and Cholistan, etcetera.
“The reason I decided to take a solo flight for this project is that the vision I had for this documentation of Pakistan’s food heritage was completely devoid of glamour. I wanted to go beyond the Mughal cuisine that has been popularised as contemporary Pakistani cuisine when there is such diversity in our cuisine owing to the diversity of cultures and sub-cultures. I also did not see any point in standing in the middle of a state-of-the-art kitchen with modern gadgetry to cook food cultivated and prepared in a contrasting setting otherwise.”
This is vividly supported by the fact that the stars of Pakistan on a Plate, are the locales among whom Nilofer stands and learns their methods and their stories. The episode filmed in Mohen Jo Daro, for instance, shows a group of local women from the village, cooking fish in a tandoor, using the same utensils and tandoor they use to cook their own food. They serve the food in the dishes they use at home to serve food to their guests and eat together, with their fingers, while perched on a jute-string charpoy. The utter absence of superficiality is what puts all fifty episodes of the series, a class apart from the run-of-the-mill productions.
“I recorded eight episodes for the series in Balochistan, nine in Sindh, twelve in the Punjab, 11 in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, two in the federal capital and one in the Northern Areas. I would love to go and record more in the Northern Areas but couldn’t do so due to the lockdown and the travel expenses,” she says. “Apart from regional markings,” she adds, “I had the exquisite experience of visiting and filming the specific cuisines of certain communities and explore their specialties when it comes to food, especially linked to festivity and communality.” The Bohra community, for example, has been filmed in their communal setting during iftar in Ramazan, in a masjid. Other than that, Memon, Parsi, Bengali, Hindu, Zikri and Buddhist cuisines are also part of the repertoire.
“The reason the urban Pakistani does not know of authentic Sindhi cuisine, or Cholistani cuisine, say, is that these recipes have not been written down but have been transferred within the environs of the kitchens from mother to daughter and grand-daughter. Also, we do not have much regard for the eccentricities of our culture.”
Qazi cites the example of rhubarbs growing wild in the rustic settings of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, her mother’s place of origin. “Rhubarb is as British as can be when we think of it in cooked form or as part of the cuisine, but in KP, it grows wild among other vegetation and the children might pluck off the stems to bite at them as they would bite on sour candy. My parents, both, knew of rhubarb growing uselessly and no one noticing it for domestic usage. Neither of them ever mentioned rhubarb in the stories they told me from their childhood and I only discovered these by chance, as I travelled through the province.”
Such stories are part of Pakistan on a Plate as well. She is interested in rediscovering those food products and recipes which have been abandoned by the locals, mostly, because of cosmopolitanism.
Asked about the textual form of her recollections, Nilofer mentions a book, whose idea, “came before the idea of the series because it was during the process of collecting recipes that I started filming the series,” she says. Pakistan on a Plate soon could go from YouTube to your nearest book store, ready to become part of bookshelves of home cooks, both honed and new.
“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go,” said Anthony Bourdain, as he food-mapped the world. A good book of recipes or a TV show cannot be complete without the element of a personal story – of an individual or of a community. The process of good discourse, visual or textual, begins way behind the scenes, long before with the product begins to take shape: historical research, interviews, field-work and in certain instances, case-studies help shape up the mould into which the contents are poured later on.
Pakistan on a Plate attempts to do all of this without any cosmetic procedure, and can do more in terms of gaining public attention, nationally and internationally, provided it is showcased on a more popular and accessible medium.
The writer has authored two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)