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Decolonizing Muslim Food, Nilosree Biswas

In a free-flowing conversation with American chef and television producer Anthony Bourdain, Joumana Haddad, cultural editor of Lebanon’s most circulated newspaper An Nahar once remarked, “Don’t you think the main reason behind you seeing it as a thrilling, exciting place to live in is that you are a visitor, not someone who actually lives here”. Haddad was referring to Bourdain`s lifelong love for Beirut. Expanded, the remark could undeniably be applicable to the Middle East, the way the west had been gazing at it. Bourdain however was different. He was one of the earliest white, western TV presenters who looked at Muslim food through from an ancestral, local, authentic lens.

He travelled all over the Middle East, Iran, Palestine constantly looking out for the ‘real’ food, presenting the way it was consumed and celebrated by the locals. This was way back in 2006, when Anthony filmed his first CNN show ‘No Reservations’ much before decolonization was a term that academics of humanities popularised.

Interestingly, while decolonization of mind was the earliest discourse to emerge, it took some more years to create a space for open and unhindered discussion on decolonizing food. Decolonizing food is about recognising and embracing life affirming indigenous, ancestral food that had been consumed by ancestors and involves reclaiming health and food systems.

What does decolonizing food mean for the Muslim World then?

It means an informed understanding of massive amnesia that colonization had forced on food. Today a Muslim from Africa or Middle East, or Indonesia may feel distant from their traditional procurement methods and ways of consumption.

A very handy example would be the lost food traditions of Andalusia in Spain that had prosperous Arab rule till 11th century. Although some traces of Arabian food is still found in the region including the use of chickpeas or olive oil but a lot of the current gastronomy upholds influences of Christian Spain. Similar examples can be sighted referring to the changes in Moroccan or Indonesian cuisines reflecting influential impressions of French and Dutch culinary during colonization.

Decolonizing would mean revolutionizing Muslim food; creating meals of defiance. This can be interpreted also as giving voice to Muslim women, who had historically been cooking at home, for if at all anyone remembers what traditional food was, it would be the women.

Interestingly many are attempting to reconnect with ancestral knowledge of food and create small but traditional agricultural growing methods. Food historians, activists, chefs, small scale farmers are at the helm of this revival like Laila-El-Haddad or Asma Khan or Azerbaijan’s women cheesemakers.

Haddad, an author, public speaker originally from Gaza City, Palestine has been working on the intersectionality of settler colonization, contemporary Islam and food. Her book ‘The Gaza Kitchen’ which she co-authored records lost recipes of pre-1948 Palestine, as well traditional recipes that many homes still like to cook; as rare to the world as okra in lentils or Fatit Ajir also known as Qursa or Muleela, a dish of roasted unripe watermelon salad.

Master chefs like Asma Khan are paying tribute to curry houses of United Kingdom that were established by immigrant population of Sylhet in Bangladesh way back in early 20th century. In Saudi Arabia, famous Albaik Fried Chicken is making sure that they use a secret recipe which promises 18th traditional spices, making it far interesting than its western counterpart.

The decolonization of Muslim food has begun, and with some fortunate ones who never had to change their basic method of food preparation like traditional Samarkand Bread still prepared in mud ovens or Dolmas and Bakhlavas of Turkey, one is expecting more life affirmative food in the future, least to say the relationship with food would be more authentic, organic and ancestral.

Nilosree Biswas is an author and filmmaker who was trained in Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and later in cinema. Her interests include history, cultural studies of pre-modern, colonial South Asia, and early Hindi cinema. Her works, both film, and writing have appeared in various print media and screened worldwide including at Cannes Film Festival.

Broken Memory, Shining Dust, her prominent documentary, has been archived by Oscar Library. Her earlier book, also co-authored with Irfan Nabi—Alluring Kashmir: The Inner Spirit—has found a home in the Library of Congress. Her current book Banaras Of Gods, Humans And Stories has just been acquired by the British Library, London and National Library of Scotland. Currently, she is working on her next book on food stories during British rule in India.

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