Thursday, June 13, 2024

Book Review: More Than Just Biryani

I have not come across many books in India with Muslim Characters in it. The ones that I have come across have Muslims I couldn’t relate to but when I read ‘More than Just Biryani’ by Andaleeb Wajid which was published originally in 2014, the connection was instant. Characters in the book are doing all those things which I as a Muslim girl do, offering regular prayers, reading the Quran, and fasting during Ramzan. The author presented these actions as part of the character’s life. This is not something extraordinary they were doing. This is basic which as a Muslim you are supposed to do along with other things in life and by doing these basic things these characters were not too religious or Orthodox as some of the books present. 

The story starts when Sonia Kapoor, a food journalist in Hong Kong, stumbled across cooking videos of a woman named Zubi while checking for some authentic recipes of Biryani and decided to meet to learn more about her. On meeting, she gets to learn not just about Zubi, who is a shy girl living in Hong Kong with her husband and son but also about her mother Tahera and Grandmother Ruqayya. 

The first story in the book is of Zubi’s mother Tahera who is living in Bangalore with her husband and children. Cooking good food is her love language. An unfortunate incident makes Tahera a widow and that in turn makes her lose interest in everything. Food brings her out of her room and leads her to the kitchen in her days of grief. It worked as a healer for her even when she didn’t want to heal. It makes her realize that she needs to keep living for her children. The second story is of Ruqayya, Zubi’s grandmother who loves to eat but hates to cook. She gets married and moves from a comfortable life at her parent’s home to a joint family where there are no servants and the women of the family do all the work including cooking. Ruqayya learns to make desserts and finds out that she has a talent for it. It also allows her to connect with other women. The third story is of Zubi, whom Sonia, the journalist, is interviewing. For Zubi, cooking food is a way to not feel homesick in a different country and later it became her inspiration to do something in life by teaching cooking. 

This book has proper food recipes, what makes it different from other food recipe books is that these recipes are entwined with stories of these three generations of Muslim women. It also tells people that there is more to Muslim food than just Biryani. 

The author also placed their characters in different places, and you learn a little bit about all these places like an annual fair of Bangalore, a picnic spot on the outskirts of this city and a famous park (Cubbon Park). About Vellore, I had no idea, so first I did some Google and learned that it is a city in Tamil Nadu and then got to know via this book that the mountains surround it. Through one of the main characters, I learned about a peculiar smell of Hong Kong; Victoria Peak which is a hill and offers a spectacular view of Hong Kong’s beautiful Skyline. Finally, the Hong Kong Trail, a long-distance footpath from Victoria Peak to Big Wave Bay on Hong Kong Island.

Also, though the main characters in the book are women but men in their stories are a treat to read about.

On going through some of the author’s interviews I came across one article she wrote for Scroll as part of their series ‘On the Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Publishing.’ In the article, she mentioned that the character Tahera’s grief is inspired by her own mother’s emotion (the author’s father died when she was too young) and Zubi’s character is subconsciously modelled on herself. 

If you are a Muslim looking for a good book with Muslim characters in it or are a non-Muslim who wants to learn about Muslim lives, then this book is for you. This is an easy-read romantic story with lots of food in it which will make you hungry or may make you go to your kitchen to make something even if you hate cooking like Ruqayya.

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