I read the last line of Culinary Tales from Balochistan, written by Nilofer A. Qazi, and felt a sense of melancholy mostly associated with the coming to an end of having experienced something beautiful, enriching, thought-provoking and truly wonderful. Even though I can re-read this delightful book, the ‘ah-ha’ of having read it the first time cannot be repeated.
Balochistan comprises the largest landmass in Pakistan and embraces an extremely exotic, and regretfully most-undiscovered coastline in South Asia, if not the world. It is a land abundant with untapped natural resources, brilliant unchartered opportunities, beautiful people and a cuisine that had me salivating page after page as I traveled the province through the delightful food travelogue; Culinary Tales from Balochistan written by the incomparable Nilofer A. Qazi, a proud native of Baloch descent.
I’m not going to lament the have nots of Balochistan, but will rather celebrate the haves—the stories, the rich, diverse culture, the resilience, the grit, the food and the kindness sown in the fabric and soil of the province.
Having been born and raised in Karachi myself, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never been to Balochistan and my introduction to Balochi cuisine has not gone beyond the famed Sajji. Hence, I was entirely spellbound to read the food narrative accompanied by countless recipes native to the land and its people.
Most recipes were either vegetarian, mutton/lamb or bread-based, or consisted of fish as a main ingredient when foods of the coastal belt regions were being discussed. The many kinds of breads, pulaos, main meat courses, side accompaniments, different kinds of kehwas were reminiscent of central Asian flavors. I couldn’t help but ponder that just like the flavors of the Punjab are similar to that of North India, it being its neighbor, the tastes of Balochistan tell a tale similar to that of Turkics and Central Asia.
My ancestors are from Central Asia, as is evident from my last name, hence I’ve spent many hours researching foods from that belt, and my trip to Uzbekistan speaks of similar meat and pulao flavors, as evocatively told by the deft writing of Qazi.
While food took a central lead in The Culinary Tales from Balochistan, for me it served to connect the plot to the other narratives and storylines. As the writer traveled from one region of Balochistan to the next, collecting local family recipes; ancient methods of cooking passed from generation to generation; relating local laws; understanding and respecting customs and cultural norms, she unwittingly built a bridge (held on the pillars of culinary delights) between the reader and the stories of the people in the region.
While her own family stories, and recipes, were shared with endearment, and held a strong personal element of fondness, frolic associated with childhood, and a deep appreciation of the same as she matured in years, her reverence when dealing with others and their stories somehow became the hallmark of the book. Food stories from the palaces of Kalat, to the small huts of Mehrgarh, to bakeries serving Mastang cake, tea houses, the fish delights in humble thatch homes on the coast of Makraan, the deity of Kali, to a walk on the mud volcano and the disappearing water spring, each food episode had heart, and every culinary experience brought the tale home.
The book can be classified as a food travelogue and a pictorial adventure. At almost 220 pages, it is not just a gastronomic delight and an anthropological treasure trove, but also a pictorial guide through the mountains, plains, deserts, coastlines, cities and villages of Balochistan. The reader not only gets to take home dozens of local recipes, told through an array of delightful characters, but also travels the province through breathtaking images of the land, people and its food.
Writer Qazi has mostly had her upbringing in foreign lands, but is a proud daughter of the land of Balochistan. She owns her heritage with honor, love and a deep understanding and appreciation that is evident in her storytelling, and her many childhood anecdotes from when she visited family year-after-year in her wonder years.
Culinary Tales from Balochistan is an ode to the gastronomic love of the land. As a food writer, a foodie and a culture and food anthropologist I truly enjoyed the food and culture travels through the eyes and narrative of Nilofer Qazi. Needless to say the recipes are a delight to read, and further recreate in our own kitchens, but the back-stories, travel tales and love of the ancestral land is the soul of the narrative; truly making this book food for the soul.
Tirmizi is a freelance journalist and columnist for daily Dawn. Her debut novel, Feast With A Taste Of Amir Khusro, was published in 2017