Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: History


Based in the former princely capital of Rampur in north India, Tarana Khan is a local historian and novelist working to preserve her city's unique heritage linked to food, literature and culture. A former teacher, her motivation is the city's youth who retain a strong sense of their Rampuri heritage, even as it disappears around them. Recognizing the urgency, she began collecting oral histories from older residents known for their connections to the 'old world'. She also began exploring the famed Rampur Raza Library, with its rich and sizeable collection of Urdu and Persian manuscripts, for historic cookbooks. One Rampuri speciality, yakhni pulao - now cooked only to a basic recipe - appeared in fifty or more styles. Seeking to recreate these historic recipes, she worked with a khansama, or cook, from an old cheffing family to translate measures, procedures and ingredients into modern equivalents. A particular problem was the disappearance of older varieties of rice that had become extinct with the spread of high-yielding hybrid types. Their distinct aroma and taste remained alive only in the culinary memories of the older generation, who still yearn for tilak chandan and other small-grained local varieties previously grown in the rice-belt around Rampur.

Taking a lead from this 'local food hero', this partnership bridges the gap between culinary memory, local heritage and lost agricultural varieties. Bringing food historians, sociologists, literary scholars and plant scientists into dialogue with heritage practitioners, authors, cooks and street vendors, it addresses challenges linked to local communities and food sustainability in India through four main 'work packages':
1. recovery and analysis of historic cookbooks and other literatures relating to food and food cultures preserved in colonial, national, local and family collections in India, Pakistan and the UK.
2. recording oral history to enable culinary memories to be preserved in local cultural contexts with no written record.
3. commissioning a new anthology of creative writing on South Asian food and foodways to capture memories and ideas relating to such themes as family, domesticity, hospitality and food shortage.
4. growing heritage rice varieties in controlled-environment 'virtual rice paddies' protected from modern pathogens. Preferred characteristics may then be incorporated into plants that will survive and thrive in extreme environments, while also delivering high yields and nutrients required by an ever-expanding population.

The culmination of a funded-stage of the partnership will be the Rampur Food Festival. This two-day event hosted by project partner, the Rampur Raza Library, will focus on the cooking of heritage food to the recipes in Urdu and Persian manuscripts from the court of the Rampur Nawabs. Of particular note will be the use of heritage rice grown for the project to recover participants' emotional response in terms of appearance, taste and smell. In the late nineteenth century, the Rampur court was known for its patronage of an important cultural festival, the Jashn-e-Benazir, featuring poetry, music and, most significantly for our purposes, food. A distinctive feature of this event was the mixing of different social classes and communities in the shared space of bazaar culture. Building on this historic model in a contemporary context, the Rampur Food Festival will move heritage food from its 5* lodgings to street level, highlighting popularity and affordability to foster a means of livelihood for local cooks, street vendors and artisans. The festival will also showcase other partnership outputs, including a historic recipe collection making material from archival sources available to contemporary cooks and a documentary highlighting culinary memory through oral history.

Planned Impact

This research will impact on the wider Indian public in a number of ways:
-Culturally and Socially: By fostering awareness and popularising historic recipes linked to Muslim culinary heritage in India, this project will contribute to social cohesion and the mediating of difference between religious groups at a time of communal tension and violence fostered by government policy.
-Economically: By providing new means for livelihood to disadvantaged groups, including street vendors, artisans and musicians. Other economic benefits will come to local communities, like Rampur, through increasing tourism and promoting commercial activity around the production and consumption of heritage foods.
-Physically: Simple health remedies taken from historic cookbooks can also improve health and well-being among populations unwilling or unable to afford access to allopathic medicine. The development of new sustainable fortified rice varieties that are historically-rooted and culturally-appropriate will also have a major impact on hunger and malnutrition in India in the future.


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