Legend has it that as soon as Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar started his meal, huge amounts of rice were distributed to the poor who were waiting outside his palace. Feeding the poor is a tradition that continues throughout Pakistan even today – with the more fortunate sharing with the less fortunate, or in memory of a deceased family member, or as a religious obligation during the month of fasting.
Sharing food is an important ritual, whether it’s through a family meal or a lavish party with friends. Sharing a meal has many benefits. It brings people together. It’s a time when parents and siblings share news, discuss problems, and get to know each other.
Child psychologists find that it improves children’s vocabulary, they eat better, they are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety or aggression. A family meal can also extend to sharing a meal with close friends or colleagues. Many Japanese companies have shared cafeterias where senior managers eat alongside junior staff. The intimacy of a shared meal builds trust and team spirit.
Food is essential for survival. From hunter-gatherers to the establishment of agriculture, its importance can be measured by the many cultural rituals that have evolved around the production, preparation and consumption of food. From the song, dance and storytelling, elaborate harvest festivals and market fairs of rural communities, to the sophisticated decor and cuisine of Michelin restaurants, food becomes the positive binder of societies.
The Japanese Washoku, or food of harmony, is both a respect for nature, the great provider, as well as the transmission of tradition to the youngest. Family recipes are shared from parent to child, creating a bond between generations. Cooking shows and cookbooks reach more people and introduce nations to each other.
The Mughals documented culinary experiments in royal kitchens. Babar planted orchards and introduced ice water; Akbar introduced kulfi, murgh musallam and nauratankorma; Empress Nur Jehan created rainbow-colored yogurt dishes; Shah Jahan’s kitchen created ShabDegh better known as nihari.
The hundreds of recipes are collectively known as Mughlai cuisine, preserved in cookbooks such as Nuskha-e-Shahjahani and Alwan-e-Nemat. Malwa’s 15th-century Ni’matnamah Nasir al-Din Shahi included the earliest miniature paintings in South Asia, depicting the making of foods such as kheer and samosa.
Food sharing was used to ease political tensions, such as the legendary Manchu-Han Imperial Festival, which brought together the Manchu and Han peoples in 18th-century China. Embassy dinners around the world are opportunities to deepen political understanding.
The ability of spices to add flavor and turn simple nutrition into cooking has driven much of the world’s trade routes. Eastern spices and cultures unique to South America have changed the dining experience for the world.
All religions teach gratitude for food – some say grace, others Alhamdulillah. Food is the cornerstone of hospitality. In southern India, the banana leaf, on which food is served, should be folded upwards to indicate satisfaction at the end of the meal. The Japanese would experience mottainai, a sense of regret at having wasted something, if they did not finish their food. Meanwhile, in China, an empty plate suggests that a person is still hungry. Pakistani children are told that eating all their food is like sweeping away the holy places of Mecca and Medina.
Food can be served in individual portions on separate plates, or the thali of Indian cuisine. In some cultures, such as Morocco, Ethiopia, the Middle East, or Pakistan, people traditionally share food from a common dish.
Some meals commemorate a historical event, such as the haleem done at Muharram to mark the tragedy of Karbala, and the symbolic taking of bread and wine in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to commemorate Jesus’ last supper.
But there is also a dark side to food, or rather the lack thereof. It can become a weapon; opponents were once starved into submission during sieges and, even today, by creating food addictions. Poverty and natural disasters, which Pakistan faces today, obliterate all the intricacies of cooking, as we are shocked by images of children scraping empty pots for a few grains of rice. With millions of acres of crops destroyed, the country will inevitably face food shortages. We overlook the loss of around 750,000 animals in the recent floods, not counting the many less visible species.
Most people assume that food is nature’s exclusive gift to humans, but as Rumi puts it, “Grass, thorns, hundreds of thousands of ants and snakes, all are looking for food. Can’t hear the noise?
Durriya Kazi is an artist based in Karachi.
She can be contacted at [email protected]
Posted in Dawn, EOS, September 18, 2022