All photos courtesy Camille Mack.

Meet the Pakistani Chef Teaching Colonial History Through Food

"It’s startling how little people know about Partition. The largest immigration of human movement across two countries took place and thousands lost their lives."

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Jun 1 2018, 2:17pm

All photos courtesy Camille Mack.

I’m at a cafe in Peckham, South London but it feels like I’ve stepped into the home of an old friend. Perhaps it’s the elephant-shaped ornaments I only ever see hanging in South Asian households, or the black-and-white postcards of women in saris and suave moustached men displayed on each table, but everything feels homely and familiar.

In fact, I’m attending the first Grand Trunk Road Supper Club, a dinner event hosted by Numra Siddiqui, who opened Pakistani pop-up Empress Market in Hackney last year. The eatery has since closed but she continues to sell bun kababs—a “desi burger” of sweetened bread and beef—at food markets on London’s Southbank.

All photos courtesy Camille Mack.

Tonight’s supper club is Numra’s latest and perhaps most ambitious project. Billed as a “culinary journey traversing South Asia’s ancient trade route,” the dishes follow the Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s oldest and longest roads.

“I wanted to share the similarities between the food in all these regions and how they influenced each other through trade, history, and the people through that part of the world,” she explains.

Since 300 BC, the Grand Trunk Road has linked the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia, crossing from Bangladesh to West Bengal, Northern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Over this time, it has been a passageway for goods, armies, travellers, and culture.

Numra Siddiqui, host of the Grand Trunk Road Supper Club, welcomes guests.

Originally known as uttarapatha (north road), the “Grand Trunk” name was adopted in 1839 by the East India Company, who expanded the road further across north India and implemented a railway. With these developments, the Grand Trunk Road became a lifeline for colonialism. For most of the 1800s, British troops would traverse the route to sustain their control of north India.

After Partition in 1947, which saw the end of British rule and the division of India into Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, the Grand Trunk Road became a site of violence. More than 14 million people were displaced across the subcontinent.

“It’s startling how little people know about Partition,” Numra tells me. “The largest immigration of human movement across two countries took place and thousands lost their lives. My grandma constantly told me how difficult it was.”

This evening’s dinner is all about sharing the stories of India’s Partition, as well as modern-day South Asian culture, through food and conversation.

“The night is an interesting take on how people understand South Asia,” says Numra.

The supper club's first course of naan e Afghani.

We begin with a trip to Kabul by way of naan e Afghani, a metre-wide oval flatbread served with chapli kabab. Looking at the diners’ delight at the size of the naan, Numra laughs. “These are just going to be topped up throughout the night,” she says.

The kabab meat is rich and spicy, contrasting with the coriander chutney that we spoon with it onto hunks of naan. Next, we move onto pasanday, a beef fillet stew and aniseed gravy from Delhi and then sabzi tahiri, another Indian dish of steamed rice and spiced vegetables.

Salma A. Siddiqui reads from The Migrants.

Part-way through the meal, Numra’s mother, Salma A. Siddiqui, reads a chapter from The Migrants. She published the autobiographical book earlier this year after collecting memories and stories from family members and friends who had migrated from South Asia to Britain. We listen as she describes the aftermath of Partition, as millions of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus fled their homes and found themselves in anarchic violence.

“The story of The Migrants comes from my experience and memories—the tales my mum would tell when they missed home, my own childhood in London,” Salma tells me. “A few years ago, I realised a lot of my family history would be lost with the passing of my parents’ generation. My kids would forget the stories we told and soon they would be lost, so I started to sit with my elder family members, recording their accounts of their childhood and their journey to the UK.”

It feels jarring to enjoy eating our curry as Salma recounts scenes of families being separated and innocents killed, but this is what Numra wanted—to celebrate South Asia’s food, while acknowledging its rich and, at times, troubled history.

Dried apricots poached in jaggery sugar, served with clotted cream.

Just as we are mulling this over, dessert arrives. Numra tells us it's khubani ka meetha, dried apricots poached in jaggery sugar. In a perfect circle, we return to Afghanistan, where apricots have grown for decades.

The fruit is extremely sweet, as is customary with South Asian desserts, but Numra balances this out with a large side serving of clotted cream. It's a nod to the roots many South Asians now have in Britain—and a fitting end to tonight's journey.