COLONIAL-ERA district gazetteers are interesting documents. Reading them requires constant reminders that their value as historical record is tempered by the fact that they were produced for particular political and ideological ends. The former being how best to understand and order native communities and geographies from relative distance and the latter being how best to transform them for stated social and economic objectives. Resultantly, the effort expended in documenting notable families, their customs, and their willingness to collaborate with the colonial state is significant.
At the same time, though, there are other aspects documented that even with all the caveats that come with colonial anthropology, provide us with good insight into long-term cultural change taking place at the time. With subsequent historical research on pre-colonial and early colonial societies providing important contextual and corrective information, the scale of this change can be assessed.
One such arena of change is dietary and culinary tradition, a social function apparently central to the cultural experience of most Pakistanis, but one that is rarely subjected to historical or sociological scrutiny. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in his study of social stratification and its relationship to taste and consumption, classified food as an important consumption variable in demarcating discrete boundaries between different groups, and how these patterns of consumption may act as an amplifier of inequality.
Such analysis is relatively uncommon in Pakistan, though with urbanisation, cross-regional migration, and the advent of social media platforms like YouTube, there is a drive towards the creation of a ‘national cuisine’ landscape, with similar food items being presented and consumed across the country, as well as greater insight into region-based diversity.
What is worth noting on this front is the pace at which dietary change has taken place, especially when colonial-era documentation is studied. For example, the district gazetteer of Jhang — from the early days of its revenue settlement in the late 19th century — provides a table of the average diet of a ‘peasant’, as well as social habits of food consumption. Leaving aside debates on the homogeneity of the Punjabi peasantry in the late 19th century, the diet is fairly unrecognisable from what passes as Punjabi food today.
As in other parts of the region around that time, wheat flour was consumed sparingly and seasonally, with barley, gram, and sorghum forming the bulk of grain consumption. Seasonal fruits, legumes and vegetables provided additional nutrition, though dairy products like buttermilk were more common and year-round accompaniments to grain-based meals. Meat consumption was heavily stratified by class, with urbanites and the upper echelons of rural society more likely to eat beef or mutton. Chicken consumption was very infrequent, as was the use of the tomato-onion-oil base for ‘curry’ that we now take as an ideal (if not already universal) standard of what desi food is like.
These patterns begin to change in the early 20th century as the agrarian project of the colonial state in the regions that now constitute Pakistan began to take shape. The advent of canal irrigation, and the importance of wheat as a colonial export, reshaped cultivation landscapes, with wheat slowly becoming the dominant crop in the winter cycle. This growth in wheat production made its way into dietary consumption as well, but it was only by the inter-war period that it became a dominant food source. This was belatedly followed by the market-driven spread of tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and a variety of spices, all of which we now consider permanent fixtures of our culinary heritage.
These changes in cropping patterns and the agrarian economy were not without adverse consequences. The marginalisation of traditional (now fashionably gluten-free) grains like barley and sorghum and the increased reliance on a crop that was subjected to a global market likely impacted food availability and access. This happened alongside the equally disastrous impact of ‘enforced’ settlement of pastoral tribes, who were often left on the margins of a rapidly transforming landscape. As documented by historian Neeladri Bhattacharya, what we unthinkingly consider to be the quintessential and timeless form of the peasant community is itself a relatively recent phenomenon, especially in this part of the subcontinent.
Snippets of culinary change can also be gleaned from writers who’ve experienced and reflected on the 20th century and its attendant transformations, such as urbanisation, statehood, and the deepening of capitalism. In one account by famed writer, Mustansar Hussain Tarar, he narrates how in the mid-20th century, an elderly uncle became violently unwell upon the consumption of a standard potato and meat saalan (curry), which was a preparation completely alien to his rural diet. There is also some nascent research that records changes in what we consume and its impact on baseline health indicators and the growth of a variety of adverse conditions.
The point of going through this little tangent into history was simply to highlight the relative recency of what all is considered to be part of a staple Pakistani diet, and the broader structural changes that have led this transformation to take place. This process is perpetual, meaning that while we curate defined ideas of what a standard diet entails, it is constantly subjected to transformation by members of different social classes. Just in the last decade and a half, a fast food revolution, spurred by mass and social media, and encapsulated by the indigenisation of American, Chinese, and now Middle Eastern food items has made its way out of big urban centres into smaller municipal and peri-urban localities.
Functionally speaking, documenting culinary and dietary change is important for public health reasons, but it is also important as a way of capturing social transformation, the creation of new types of inequities in nutrition and leisure choice, and developing a more dynamic idea of what constitutes ‘national’ culture. Here’s hoping writers and chroniclers take up this task in the years ahead.