Author and cultural historian Dr. Tarana Husain Khan talks to The Locavore about tasting egg flip as a child, the tricky business of recording oral history, and growing up in a family of armchair cooks.
Memories around food tend to be powerful and evocative because it’s tied to our multiple senses. That was why we began this series, to tap into people’s memories, and see what emerges instinctively. We were stoked to interview author and cultural historian Dr. Tarana Husain Khan because of how extensively she has worked with memory and oral history.
Tarana has spent the last few years deeply immersed in Rampur’s forgotten foods and rich culinary history, and even translated nearly 300 recipes from Persian cookbooks. So, what has that taught her about how we see our past? How reliable are our memories? While we were eager for Tarana’s insights on culinary memory, we were just as curious about her own life: for instance, what food did she take to school?
Excerpts from our interview:
What is your earliest memory around food?
My earliest memory of food, or a sort of food, is sitting with my maternal grandfather and tasting his egg flip—a forbidden tasting because it consisted of beaten egg, milk, honey, and generous lashings of brandy for his asthma. I was probably three or four years old at that time, but I remember the sip from his silver katora, and Nani amma scolding him for letting me have it.
At The Locavore, we’ve been realising how revelatory school meals are. What do you remember of what was packed for you from home?Perhaps, my school meal was revelatory in another way. My mother gave us buttered bread in our tiffins. My mother, a busy doctor, would make sure we had our fill of eggs and milk for breakfast before going to school. I didn’t like the bread and butter tiffin but had to stuff it in regardless, throwing the crusts to the crows. Then, I dug into my friend’s parathas and achar. How I loved their parathas and poori sabji meals! At our home, parathas were a rare treat because they weren’t part of our usual food palette. It amazed me that all my friend’s mothers fried parathas and puris for them early in the morning. Food made me aware of the differing food cultures of different communities.
Tell us about some of the Rampur cuisine that’s vanishing, and how you have archived it.
While researching for my articles on Rampur culture, by sheer luck, I came upon a treasure trove of 150-year-old Persian cookbook manuscripts at the Raza Library in Rampur. The Raza Library, renowned for its manuscript collection, is housed in the erstwhile court of the Nawabs of Rampur. After a brief struggle with the old librarians—who, rightfully so, were loth to put the cookbook manuscripts in the hands of an independent researcher with no Persian skills––I started learning Persian and translating the cookbooks.
As I delved deeper into the translations, I was filled with anxiety. We had disremembered so many unique preparations, and were still in the process of losing the contours of this meticulously crafted cuisine. Rampur cuisine had already become indistinguishable from other north Indian cuisines. People have heard of the Rampuri chaqu, but Rampur cuisine is faintly recalled as a grand tale of the Nawabs. Thus began my journey into bringing the lost cuisine of Rampur back on to India’s culinary map.
I felt that mere archiving and translating won’t be a real contribution. So, after translating nearly 300 recipes from Persian to Urdu and subsequently to English, I started cooking some of them, following the cryptic instructions with the help of local khansamas. There were disasters and disappointments.
Around this time, I connected with Prof Siobhan Lambert Hurley from the University of Sheffield, and we put together a project for revival of heritage recipes, the ‘Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India’. Working as a consultant and research fellow on the project, I collaborated with historians, food writers, chefs and scientists, and my work was spurred on. I had resources to finance my struggles in the kitchen. I teamed up with project collaborator Chef Suroor Khan and local Rampur khansamas to recreate the recipes.
Last October, at the Jashn e Rampur food festival held in Delhi, we showcased 17 reimagined heritage recipes of Rampur cuisine—our proof of concept. We plan to spotlight the forgotten Rampur cuisine by hosting more such festivals and pop-up restaurants across the country.
Is there a favourite dish or an ingredient from your own childhood that is now hard to find?
A favourite winter dish is rasawal, which is kheer prepared from sugarcane juice. It used to be prepared overnight in our courtyard. The scum that floated on top was cleaned by a domestic worker. It was set in clay matkis, and its mouth sealed with red cloth. People used to send it as gifts to their relatives. I came across this practice of sending rasawal in Khalid Jawed’s Paradise of Food. Rasawal was eaten like porridge with warm milk or/and cream. I have always loved this rustic dish, but very few people have the time now to prepare it.
Then, there were the halwas––ginger halwa and egg halwa. The ginger halwa was supposed to be great for the joints and eaten through winters, especially by old people. I didn’t like egg halwa, but it was prepared at my grandparents place during winters. These halwas are rarely prepared now.
As a food historian, what do you think are the challenges of documenting food memories, and the knowledge surrounding them? Are our memories reliable?
When we record food memories, it is with a lot of caution because there are lived food memories or food experiences, and generational memories; the latter acquires fantastical elements. So, memories have to be corroborated with historical writings and secondary sources. But as the last generation which actually ate the Rampuri cuisine is aging and some have already passed away, it becomes imperative to archive these memories to retain a sense of the food.
For instance, a sweet called dar e bahisht, an old Rampur speciality, is now extinct. I have the recipe, but what did it look like? I know that it had a sort of a honeycombed centre, a jali, so what was the special technique to achieve that texture? This culinary wisdom of cooking techniques and implements is also nearly forgotten. I spoke to old khansamas—the repositories of this lost culinary wisdom—to understand the written recipes.
Then, there are other members of society—the royal family, the nobility, and people associated with the court—who have some clues to the cuisine. Mahpara Begum, a dancer and singer trained by Nawab Raza Ali Khan (ruled 1930-1949) gave me some insights into the Rampur dastarkhwan (traditional style of eating seated on the floor with food served on a low table or on a sheet). We recorded interviews with Princess Naghat Abedi (the granddaughter of Nawab Raza Ali Khan) and Begum Noor Bano (the daughter-in-law of Nawab Raza Ali Khan) who served most of the elements of Rampur cuisine at their table.
Oral history of the cuisine is crucial in the absence of written records. A number of these dishes were prepared till the 1970s, which is only a generation ago. The abolition of privy purses, lack of support for the khansamas, and lack of textualization of the recipes stemming from the reluctance of the khansamas to share their knowledge were the reasons for the forgetting of this cuisine. It is now only a culinary memory. So, my work is a culturally significant documentation.
Culinary history and wisdom are tied so closely to the languages we speak, especially in India where there’s so much richness and diversity. What did you grow up speaking, and are there specific words you have come across that capture the flavour of a food perfectly, and feel impossible to translate?
We were told that what we speak was Hindustani, a mixture of Urdu and Hindi. I grew up speaking Urdu and Hindustani. We were asked not to use English words in between our sentences. It was considered poor taste bordering on showing off. So, we had to say mez, not table; nashta, not breakfast. There were other words related to food––shorba (light curry), salan (curry), katordan (a covered box to keep roti), nashteydan (large tiffin), kaanta (fork), silapchi (basin), and so on, which we rarely use now. We spoke English occasionally, in formal settings.
There were different words in Urdu to capture food tastes and smells: for instance, bhakhrend meant a sort of musty, sour, offensive smell; kachaend indicated rawness. Most words around food were impossible to translate because they were a combination of tastes and smells, an experience. Now, we speak English more than Urdu at home, and my children cannot understand basic Urdu words and phrases.
Your new book ‘Degh to Dastarkhwan: Qissas and Recipes from Rampur Cuisine’ is part memoir and part celebration of a cuisine. What did you discover about your own relationship with food in the process of writing this book?
Degh to Dastarkhwan: Qissas and Recipes from Rampur Cuisine is my ode to Rampur’s cuisine. It was while I was researching Rampur cuisine that I found my latent foodie self. I realised that my indifference to food was a denial rooted in the idea that food was too fundamental to be bothered about. But that was just my attitude; in my family, food was discussed all the time. Women were remembered by the dishes they cooked, people were categorised by their food choices, every dish served on the table underwent a post-mortem. All the men and women in my family were armchair cooks. With every delicious and failed dish, my tastebuds incorporated a memory.
So, when I started rediscovering Rampur cuisine, I delved into those rich food memories and it became a part of my book, along with my research. I wanted the book to be interesting and lively—a lens to view the people of Rampur and its culture. I connected with aunts and old-timers, and they very generously shared their recipes. Most of the recipes in the book are cooked even today in Rampur homes and are very simple to prepare.
Tell us about three things in your kitchen that mean something to you, objects you’ll always hold close because of a memory, or sentiment.
There are two small deghs (round bottomed cauldrons) that came from my in-law’s place which I use to prepare an elaborate qorma. They are very dear to me because of this association. A cast iron ulta tava (inverted skillet) which was used to prepare rotis on a chulha. We can’t use it anymore because it is too big and heavy for the gas stove. There is a huge tiffin from my grandfather-in-law’s time, which was used for picnics in the hills.