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Food for Thought

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

Ilona Yusuf

A visual and culinary experience sparked by a memoir, Culinary Tales from Baluchistan, by Nilofer Afridi Qazi. Held in November at 8B2, a gallery set in farmland in Chak Shehzad, this innovative exhibition included the sale of the book, artwork related to the book, and culinary creations created using ingredients indigenous to Baluchistan.

In the time before Qazi (affectionately known as Nino) began to write her memoir Culinary Tales from Baluchistan, she undertook an extensive documentation of food all over Pakistan. The videos, usually taken from her iPhone, were uploaded to YouTube, along with snippets on Instagram: they ran by the name Pakistan on a Plate. These were the two years from 2015 when Nino had repeatedly tried, and failed, to interest television producers in her vision, which was to food-map the country, district to district (of which there are a total of a hundred and fifty four), showcasing food and recipes cooked in backwoods dhabas, in minority communities, and in isolated villages. One memorable Instagram shot showed her standing against a backdrop of the high mountains of the north, where she walked and climbed for miles to meet a family to learn making a very local wheat and walnut halvah.

In this way she reminds me of the veteran Victorian artist Marianne North, who documented botanical species around the world. In the past, women in Pakistan have travelled to small villages to document embroideries and textiles, often using facilities provided by the bureaucracy, and in recent years by development organisations. In Nino’s case, for a long time her family and circle of friends were skeptical about her project. Some insinuated that if a dish wasn’t well known, it was because it didn’t have flavour, and was irrelevant. She had no funding, and she was a single woman travelling in isolated areas, with very little governmental infrastructure. But Nino wasn’t one to be deterred. She began to use the savings from her years of work abroad as a public policy specialist, and dived in. From 2018 onwards, she set out to film communities, some of them minorities with their own cultural traditions, recipes and ways of eating. These included the close-knit Bohra community; Hindus in Tharparkar, Zikris in Baluchistan, and later, a video on Guru Nanak to celebrate his 550th birthday anniversary.

Culinary Tales from Baluchistan evolved thereafter into a thirteen-chapter travelogue and compilation of local recipes, some from within the family, others collected during Nino’s extensive travels throughout the province

In 2018, during a visit to her father’s native Pishin, Nino’s first memoir post appeared on Facebook. It marked her entry into writing as a memoirist, a genre she initially struggled with, as a former executive accustomed to report writing. This, the beginning of Nino’s book, evolved thereafter into a thirteen-chapter travelogue and compilation of local recipes, some from within the family, others collected during her extensive travels throughout the province. These latter feature dishes such as the staple fisherfolk dish buggi, from Gwadar, made from reconstituted salt-dried fish cooked with herbs, or the use of fava beans instead of the commonly used chickpea.

The idea behind the book was to bring our most neglected province into focus, cataloguing its culinary and cultural traditions and underlining its diversity. Along the way she rediscovered family connections, lost during her parents’ long diplomatic career abroad, and her own upbringing and education outside Pakistan. The result is a delightful, refreshing account of her travels, within which she weaves family anecdote, history and local perception. Her experiences in public spaces are often amusing: she was usually the sole woman seated amongst a large group of men, who would not allow their mothers, wives or daughters the same privilege. It also lays bare the stranglehold of the social system and the paucity of education.

But “making the invisible visible” as Nino terms her vision for the book, didn’t stop there. After Covid lockdowns and delayed book launches here and in the United Kingdom, where the book was published, she initiated a collaborative project in her home city, Islamabad. In conversation with artist and close friend Anjum Alix Noon, who had several such projects under her belt, and chef and food scientist Ammar Mumtaz, the idea of an exhibition centred around the book was born.

Beginning in March of 2022, Anjum immersed herself in the book. “I had freedom to imagine it as I wanted, because Nino had told me to visualize it independently of her own ideas. So, I used the olive tree, not just as a symbol of hope and peace, but because in this province it is a window to change. After all, four hundred thousand trees were planted. That’s a lot of trees…I don’t know how many survived the floods, but it’s no small number. I used images from Mehrgarh[1], because my impression of the motifs used throughout Baluchistan originate from this site. It’s as if they haven’t changed, the people are still using that fractal geometry of nature in their clothes, their woven textiles and carpets, the dastar khwaan [2]. I found the experience both liberating and stifling… it’s like a silence. It’s as if you’re fighting against going forward… Why? And then, in the summer while I was working, there came all this water, the floods. Maybe it’s a sign that it’s time to let go of these old ways...” The images from television and social media inspired the series of small works blotched with thick patches of blue, titled ‘There is No Food With Too Much Water.”

No Food with Too Much Water—Ancient Karez System (various mediums on wasli)

Beneath Anjum’s multi-layered canvases, the viewer glimpses the colourful geometry of the dastar khwaan, the underlying theme, which runs through many of the works and is an ode to the nomadic hospitality of people who share freely the little they have. In the ‘Dastar Khwaan’ series, it appears as a shock of contrasting colours in geometric shapes painted over in white with the rough outlines of seated figures; in the recipe cards, drawn from and listed under the name of the district from which each dish originates, it is a dominant pattern beneath the recipe ingredients; in the ‘Olive Tree’ series they are the patterned ground on which the trees are superimposed, and in the ‘Recipe Alphabet’ series they are a background onto which the letters are scratched out. These are colourful, naïve, semi abstract works, heavily layered using a variety of techniques: painting, drawing, stencil and text among them. By contrast, the delicately painted series on wasli, in water-colour with safedah[3], pencil and acrylic is the crown jewel of the works. It references family, community, religious plurality, places within the province, and connections with the world beyond the sea. In ‘Memories’, groups of figures are tied together by faded, undefined sepia photographs; there are musicians and cooks, and the making and breaking of bread, all of which are set on a ground of colour and patterns from folk art and Hindu, Muslim and Christian motifs, interspersed with little text notes, or clues. Aside from this set, which includes ‘Mind-Map’ and ‘Wave of Development’, ‘No Food Without Water’ is an ode to the ancient karez system of underground water channels and to divination using a goat’s shoulder bone.

[L to R: From Olive Tree; Memories; Wave of Development; Dawat Dastarkhwan; Places and Recipes]

The third element in the exhibition was culinary. Chef, food scientist and close friend Ammar Mumtaz, owner of the very successful ‘Burning Brownie’, ‘Sugar Rush’ and other eateries in Islamabad, was asked to experiment with ingredients grown or found in Baluchistan. Unlike Anjum, who was given free rein, Nino challenged Ammar to work with shney, identified by the National Agricultural Research Council as wild pistachio. The dried, sour berries are eaten as a nutritious snack, although in Kalat they are turned into a labour-intensive soup.

At the opening of the exhibit

In Turkey, Nino had found it at a café in Gaziantep; the only café in the area to use it in a green tea. “I was initially nonplussed by shney and by Nino’s insistence on exploring the options. I had no idea what to do to make it palatable. It was completely unfamiliar and there were no basic rules of cooking which I could follow or make variations to. We had to start from scratch. So I began by comparing the berries to coffee and cocoa beans: all of them are sour. We couldn’t ferment them, as is done with the latter, but we began with repeated washing, and then experimented with varying degrees of roasting. Finally, after many experiments in my test kitchen, we came to a point where the berries developed the taste of pistachio. We used it to make a hot drink, and then eventually to make ice cream. Oddly enough, whoever ate the ice cream at the opening of the show could discern flavour notes of coffee and/or pistachio. The other ingredient she was keen for me to work with was the Baluchi date. The dates were raw looking and dry, but we aged them using the modern Korean technique of double pressure cooking, and they became a pliable, smoky-flavoured, chewy paste which we molded into truffles with roasted almonds and pistachios, both of which are indigenous to the province.”

The gallery’s open spaces and white walls, the outdoor patio surrounded by lush plants, and the informal atmosphere—all made an ideal venue for this very successful event.

Note: shney ice cream is available at Sugar Rush in Islamabad.

[1] Mehrgarh, sophisticated pre Indus Valley civilization settlement c. 7,000 BCE to c. 2500 BCE. Situated in Baluchistan, first excavated 1974-1986. Probably earliest known centre of agriculture in South Asia. Intricate pottery, figurines and metallurgy. [2] Dastar khwaan, literally ‘tablecloth’, or the traditional space where food is eaten. Also a metaphor for hospitality. [3] Safedah, white pigment used in miniature painting as a primer and to mix with other colours to create tones. Note: All footnotes sourced from Wikipedia.

All artwork is by and courtesy of Anjum Alix Noon.


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