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Recipes of love and longing

More Than Just Biryani | Andaleeb Wajib

Andaleeb Wajib has titled her novel, More Than Just Biryani, aptly. It is as much about three generations of women in a family and their interactions with food as about their marriages, husbands, mothers-in-law, and children.

The story starts with a Hong Kong-based food journalist, Sonia, who is not too thrilled with her job, chancing upon four videos on YouTube that Zubi, a homemaker, has made of herself cooking biryani the traditional way. Sonia thinks this can be her big-ticket book and chases Zubi to convince her to talk about food and also to make more videos. Sonia has no idea that she will eventually be caught up in Zubi’s life in more ways than she cares about, and ultimately it will be her insight as an outsider to Zubi’s marriage with Khaled that will stop the couple from drifting apart and heading for a divorce.

Zubi takes to recording her biryani recipe for YouTube after she finds out that her husband has an “exciting" female colleague she knows nothing about. She does this to boost her self-esteem. The book spends considerable time tracing the lives of Zubi, her mother Tahera and grandmother Ruqayya through Hong Kong, Vellore, Bangalore and Chennai, and the many breakfasts, lunches, dinners and daawats (feasts) they cook or help to cook for the family.

From Ruqayya learning to make firni, andey ka halwa and lauz, Tahera’s kutt ka salan, kali mirch ki phaal and khatta sherva to Zubi’s chunchuni, khichda with bhurta and of course biryani, the book moves beyond what is considered traditional Muslim food (read biryani and kebabs), to what is really cooked in such households.

More Than Just Biryani. Amaryllis, 360 pages, Rs 399
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More Than Just Biryani. Amaryllis, 360 pages, Rs 399

Each of these recipes is linked to a memory. Ruqayya breaks the family tradition by cooking kaddu ka halwa instead of sewayyan for Eid, stands up to her mother-in-law, and makes a special place for herself in the family kitchen without causing a bloodbath. Tahera battles with her Hindu sister-in-law Suman, whose idea of good food is limited to butter chicken, while Tahera slaves over the perfect chicken qurma, kheema samosa and shamis. Ironically, when it comes to her daughter Zubi, it is Suman who ends up scoring every time.

If you are looking for a definitive book on Muslim cuisine from Karnataka, this book may offer some insight, though it is not going to help you cook and savour these dishes as the story progresses. What the book will do hopefully is make you realize that no matter how well you think you know somebody, and even if you have all the knowledge about the circumstances of their life, you can be totally unaware of what truly touched them, left an impact on them, to make them the people they are. This phenomenon, as the novel shows, is more common in marriages, made in heaven or on earth, than it ought to be.

Wajid takes care to pepper the plot with details that slow the pace a bit but do not stop one from wondering how the story will ultimately pan out. She also does not leave Sonia as a side character whose only role is to tell the stories of Zubi’s mother and grandmother. Sonia has her story too, one that is not pleasant, and in the end it makes her more than just an opportunity-seeking journalist.

Our only wish: Wajid should have selected 8-10 recipes from the book and given a detailed ingredient and method breakdown of how to put them together.

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