Nilofar Qazi with the one the legendary chefs of Peshawar Haji Malang Sher Sahab -Photos: Nilofer Afridi Qazi
Nilofar Qazi with the one the legendary chefs of Peshawar Haji Malang Sher Sahab -Photos: Nilofer Afridi Qazi

In a sea of seriously yawn-inducing cookery shows pandering to food brands and the calorie-comatose audience looking for quick fix recipes to cook in limited airtime in the backdrop of live callers praising the so-called chef or cheffettes, there is a different kind of Pakistani cooking show on YouTube.

This show does not offer the Pakistani food pop-culture that we mindlessly associate with as mainstream Pakistani food.

The web series titled Pakistan on a Plate (POAP) is hosted by Nilofer Afridi Qazi, founder of the YouTube channel, Niloferscorner, and offers a level-headed and insightful look at food across Pakistan, the people who are creating these recipes, their lifestyles and their stories. The show actually educates.

Nilofer, for whom each episode is an adventure, embarked a couple of years ago on a long-term mission to map recipes across Pakistan. Travelling through 60 districts of Pakistan, she has filmed over 50 episodes and already has 38 online on Niloferscorner.

One of the reasons Nilofer began her foodmapping was that she observed that people often don’t know about their indigenous food whereas they have been preparing certain foods for years and it has become a part of their history and lifestyles. “People don’t consider food an important part of their culture,” she says.

“Once I make them realise that food is an important part of their cultural history, they get excited and share recipes with me. It is as though they have forgotten their own ‘history’,” adds Nilofer, whose thoroughness of content reminds one of watching a well-rounded and fascinating food journeys documented by Anthony Bourdain, James Martin or Rick Stein.

The episodes

The first episode was recorded in her paternal hometown Pishin, Balochistan, followed by more episodes from the province. Most recently online are the Killa Saifullah and Quetta episodes with Bolan district featuring Mehr Garh, and Kalat, Gwadar, Lasbela and Ziarat to follow soon.

Nilofer recalls how the first episode unfolded: “It was snowing a little and I was in my home in Pishin because I couldn’t go for my appointments. So I sat chatting to the domestic staff about some old recipes and, the next thing we know, we were curing meat for making landhi, an indigenous cured meat dish in Balochistan,” she recalls.

There is also a series on Sindh which will come online from May 2020 onwards, where she travels through the upper Sindh district of Larkana, exploring ancient Mohenjodaro and its fishing communities, as well as the districts of Sukkur, Khairpur and Shikarpur.

She also explores the cuisines and traditional food of the Memon and Parsi communities along with Karachi — which she calls Kolachi because her focus remains on the original fishing villages on the surrounding islands, the oldest parts of the large metropolis.

Through the Tharparkar and Nagarparkar episodes, Nilofer shares the culture, food and recipes of Sindh’s largest district — and the only one with a Hindu majority community.

The episodes on Islamabad, Khanpur, Peshawar, Purushpura, Mankiala/Rawalpindi, Babri Banda, Kohat, Chitral, Terech Valley, Hunza, Kailash, Uch Sharif, Bahawalpur, Cholistan, Multan, Khanewal, Chakwal, Narowal, Sheikhupura and Gujranwala are all fascinating.

Exploring Pakistan’s culinary history has also led Nilofer to a dedication episode, In the Footsteps of Guru Nanak, an episode that covers 10 locations in Punjab and is a celebration of Pakistan’s Sikh heritage, and which honours the Sikh community and our history on Guru Nanak’s 550th birth year.

“My Bohra episode, shot in the month of Ramazan last year, set a record of 48,000 hits,” says Nilofer who has so-far collected about a hundred recipes in her food-mapping journey. All of these recipes are what she calls ‘undocumented’ thus far.

The episode on Kalabagh highlights the cuisine at the table of the Nawab of Kalabagh and his family, as well as what the villagers eat. In next door Mianwali, she shows us a recipe of dhodika halwa and paithay ka halwa. The royal chefs claim they can make 365 different types of halwa to serve the Nawab, a new kind of halwa every day of the year!

There is one episode shot in a small village in Terech valley in upper Chitral, in front of the highest mountain in Chitral at 19,000 feet. Nilofer drove for five hours to Mulko village in upper Chitral, trekked to reach the Terech Valley, and walked along the glacier river for another two hours to reach the tiny Shogran village, where she spent a night and a day with a shepherd family.

“We all piled into the hut’s Central Asian-style coal-heated pit under a central table, all of us covered in layers of blankets,” she recalls.

The next day, they cooked at -15C without electricity or gas, at an altitude where tenderising food takes much longer. Gambiri begum and her daughter-in-law prepared shushp made out of fermented wheat grain ground into flour and then cooked into a halwa.

“The flour is continuously churned for three-and-a-half hours,” she points out. “The second recipe we cooked here was lajek using mutton and wheat grain which is cooked into a porridge-like consistency. Lajek, similar to wheat porridge, is made for special occasions and simmers for quite a few hours on a wood-burning stove, and it is much more delicious than it sounds.”

“There are 152 districts of Pakistan to be covered. Why don’t we share the influences, the aroma, the ingredients and the curiosity around food?” says Nilofer. “Culinary heritage needs to be considered as valuable as the monuments, clothes, architecture, weaponry and jewellery that decode history and culture for us,” she adds.

Most people think of Pakistani food as having a lot of Mughlai and Kashmiri influence. “But this is only a part of our history and culinary heritage,” she says. “Mughlai and Kashmiri recipes came to Pakistan from outside influences that came to this region, but what existed prior to them and what are the food stories and recipes which purely emerged from what is Pakistan today?”

Nilofer’s purpose behind POAP is to bring these recipes being prepared by people around Pakistan to the documented world. “Anything that is not documented will die,” she says.

“How many of us know what the people in the far-flung areas of Balochistan eat or, for that matter, the people living in Southern Punjab and upper Sindh? We need to identify the diversity of food.” Food tells you stories, indeed, of our past and present.

In 2010, Nilofer approached television channels and multinationals for sponsorship which would have brought in professional skills to this food-mapping exercise. She hired professionals to do a pilot covering Islamabad and Khanpur that cost a bomb and pitched it to marketing professionals, CEOs and owners of companies. But there was no response from anywhere.

Everyone initially thought she would give up soon because nobody had shown any interest in POAP. “I knew that this is going to happen within my capacity at least,” she says. “I don’t like half-hearted ventures. I decided to use all my savings and dedicate my time to this, exclusively filming on my cell phone in daylight, and with torches and a cell phone at night, focusing on content. Later, I hired a student who would do the editing and also travel with me. It then became a two-person team,” she says.

Nilofer, who enrolled in a film school for eight months to learn more about filming, researches, works on the script and content, does the on-ground work, conducts interviews and develops ideas. She speaks extempore on camera, sometimes referring to her notes. “Ninety percent of POAP is free-flowing,” she adds.

Nilofar in Mastung, Balochistan at the famous Makkah Roadside Cafe with friend Zainab Kakar -Photos: Nilofer Afridi Qazi
Nilofar in Mastung, Balochistan at the famous Makkah Roadside Cafe with friend Zainab Kakar -Photos: Nilofer Afridi Qazi

“After the shoot, I finalise the script. The first seven episodes are single-handed efforts by me. For the Balochistan and Sindh series, I got a drone and the episodes also show panoramic views of the astounding beauty of the provinces.”

Nilofer promotes her show through Twitter and Facebook but, aside from that, POAP has no hardcore marketing behind it.

“Usually for a visual art production, there are marketeers, directors, scriptwriters, producers, camera people and a post-production team,” she points out. “POAP is a labour of love done for posterity by a foodie, a foreign office kid who has lived in many countries, and who feels that, while people all over the world are proud of their culinary heritage, we don’t value our culinary heritage at all. I would like to make a start by changing that a little bit.

“There are 152 districts of Pakistan to be covered. Why don’t we share the influences, the aroma, the ingredients and the curiosity around food?” says Nilofer. “Culinary heritage needs to be considered as valuable as the monuments, clothes, architecture, weaponry and jewellery that decode history and culture for us,” she adds.


Published in Dawn, ICON, March 8th, 2020

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