Spice, scandal and food sorcery from my grandmom’s kitchen

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Husna Rahaman

An architect and interior designer, Husna Rahaman was born in Mauritius and raised in Bangalore, India, from the age of three. She studied interior design at some of the top institutes in London and New York before a journey into books and food led her to writing her own unusual cookbook on the food habits of the Kutchi Memon community. Spice Sorcery (Harper Collins) promises to have ‘stories blended with spices, love stewed with lentils and scandals folded in the dough’. Here’s Rahaman’s journey in her own words:

My journey with the publishing world began when I set out on a quest for a publisher for my grandmother. Her lifelong dream, which I heard repeatedly while she lovingly raised me on divine morsels, was to have her recipes contained in a book. This was the passion of a woman who was not a celebrated chef, but one who raised her progeny with sustenance that nurtures the body and strengthens the soul.

With her 83rd birthday fast approaching and her enthusiasm dampened after a spirit-eroding hip replacement, I thought the time had come for her dream of a book to indeed become reality.

Her manuscript was instantly scooped up by Landmark Publications and has gone onto become a well-thumbed, turmeric-stained food bible occupying the top shelf in many kitchens internationally. There are many aficionados who swear by the spiritual and emotional quotient of the book. Titled Hajra’s Recipes of Life, For Life, it chronicles and captures the life of my grandmother Hajra Mohammed, who against all odds raised her children in the face of adversity, a true triumph of the human spirit.

And then came that phone call from Harper Collins asking whether I would like to do a contemporary edition of the book. And I jumped with delight.

Being the principal architect and design director at Fulcrum Studio, I have always maintained that design is inter disciplinary. Visually I see vividly through my mind’s eye before it is completed in reality. And so it was with the book. I visualized a book that etched quirky characters into a charming and unpredictable fantasy of surreal visuals. The receptacles of the food are sketches but the food is real. The cartoon-like sketches of the characters infuse the recipes in so far as one might understand an entire people, the Kutchi Memons who are unabashed and nearly comical food fascists. It is a freeze frame of our culture, one that must be preserved.

Husna Rahaman - front book cover 1Spice Sorcery is based on the premise that food has the magical power to create sensuous mood alteration like nothing else. It uplifts, enchants, heals, comforts, soothes and excites. It depends on which spell, or in fact recipe, you need to employ at the appropriate time.

Razia the protagonist opens secret and wonderful doors of her life by waving her magic wand, her wooden ladle.

The format was meant to be a narrative about Razia, a quintessential Memon girl. Her life traces the quirks and idiosyncrasies of a very distinctive community that is ridiculously food-obsessive. Characters are characters inspired by real people from the community. It encapsulates a people as well as their food-centric lives.

Kutchi food is not creamy – it doesn’t have nuts and raisins that create a certain sweetness. It does not require a lot of oil to create lip-smacking curries. It is more robust and honest. I think today the flavors are compromised due to ‘speed cooking’. Ready-made or even ‘home made but made last week’ and refrigerated does not hit the bull’s-eye in our homes. Freshly cold-pressed coconut milk, freshly powdered spices and meat without freezer burn are luxuries we must allow ourselves.

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