Khaana-peena in Urdu Poetry
Volume 3 | Issue 3 [July 2023]

Khaana-peena in Urdu Poetry <br>Volume 3 | Issue 3 [July 2023]

Khaana-peena in Urdu Poetry

Dr. Rakhshanda Jalil

Volume 3 | Issue 3 [July 2023]

Perhaps no other Urdu poet has written as much on food as Nazir Akbarabadi, the people’s poet par excellence from Agra. There is, of course his oft-recited ballad on roti, called appropriately enough ‘Rotinama’, but there are also poems entitled ‘Agre ki Kakdi’ (‘The Cucumbers of Agra’ which he famously likened to Laila’s ribs) ‘Tarbuz’ (‘Watermelon’), ‘Kharbuze’ (‘Melons’), ‘Santara’ (‘Orange’), ‘Narangi’ (‘Chinese Orange’), ‘Jalebiyan’ (the swiggly syrupy sweets). Here he is talking of the quliya a meat dish with its thin, watery curry once the beloved pairing with the mild pulao lately overshadowed by the more robust, flamboyant biryani-qorma combination:

‘Nazir’ yaar ki hum ne jo kal ziyafat ki
Pakaya qarz manga kar pulav aur quliya

I arranged a banquet for my beloved, ‘Nazir’
And took a loan to cook a pulao and quliya

Like Nazir others have talked of seasonal foods, especially fruits. And rightly so. In a country with three well-demarcated seasons – winter, summer, rains – there are distinct foods that have been traditionally enjoyed according to the changing seasons. Of these, the king of summer fruits, mangoes, have received their fair share of attention from Urdu poets. Like Ghalib, Akbar Ilahabadi had no qualms about asking his friends to send him mangoes from their orchards: Iss fasl mein jo bhejiye bas aam bhejiye (‘The one thing you should send from this harvest are mangoes’). Shaheen Iqbal Asar writes a qasida (panegyric) in praise of mangoes ending thus:

Ik faqat main hii nahin shaida ‘Asar’
Shaida hai aalam ka aalam aam ka

I am not the only one in love with mangoes
The entire universe is besotted with mangoes

Bashir Badr uses food as a metaphor for fruition, for reward as in this sher:

Kuchh phal zaruur aainge roti ke perh mein
Jis din mira mutalba manzuur ho gaya

Some fruits will surely appear on the tree of roti
The day my claims are accepted

As does Rahat Indori here:

Phal to sab mere darakhton ke pakey hain lekin
Itnii kamzor hain shaakhein ki hilaa bhii na sakuun

All the fruits on my trees have ripened
But the branches are so weak I can’t even shake them

Perhaps nothing illustrates the way food, and by extension our eating habits have changed over the years than this sher by Irfan Khalid:

Kaagaz kii paleton mein khaane kaa taqaaza hai
Haalaat ke shaane pe culture kaa janaaza hai

Food is expected to be eaten from paper plates
The bier of culture is carried on the shoulder of circumstances

Majeed Lahori speaks of bhune teetar (roasted partridge) once a daawat special now reduced to a distant memory in these politically correct times:

Murġhiyan kofte machhli bhune teetar ande
Kis ke ghar jaega sailab-e-ġhiza mere baad

Chickens, kofte, fish, roasted partridge, eggs
Whose house will this flood of foods be sent to after me

In a nazm, ‘Woh kaisi aurten thiin’ (‘Who were Those Women’), Asna Badr reminds us of a time when cooking was far more labour-intensive with many chores, such as the grinding of spices, done by hand:

Jo sil par surkh mirchein piis kar saalan pakaatii thiin
Sahar se shaam tak masruuf lekin muskuraatii thiin

Grinding red chillies on a mortar they would cook a curry
Busy from dawn till dusk, they would be busy but always smiling

Given how expensive mutton has become, one is reminded of these lines by Saghar Khayyami:

Eik mahina ho gaya hai band hai hum par mutton
Daawaton mein khaa rahein hain bhindiyan ahl-e sukhan
Khaa ke ghuiyan kya dikhlaein shairi ka baankpan
Ho gaye palak ka patta nazuki se gulbadan

It has been a month since I have eaten mutton
The connoisseurs are eating ladies’ fingers at feasts
What feats of poetry can we show after eating colocasia
The slender damsels have all turned into leaves of spinach

And this heart-felt prayer by Dilawar Figar acquires a new resonance:

Ya rab mire nasiib mein akl-e-halaal ho
Khaane ko qorma ho khilaane ko daal ho

Dear Lord, let there be halal food for me
Enough qorma to eat, and daal to feed others


Jokes about ‘bada’ (the meat of a big animal) and ‘chhota’ (lamb or goat) have always been intrinsic to meat-eating cultures across much of the Indian sub-continent. Just as the divide between the ashraaf  (the plural of sharif or well-born) and, their polar opposite, the ajlaaf  was once sharp and clear so were the demographics of those who ate bada (beef) and chhota (mutton or lamb). The ashraaf only ever had mutton (even chicken was considered beyond the pale unless of course it was desi murghi) and the rest of the junta made do with the more affordable bada which occupied the lowest rung of meat-eating India. While most road-side eateries and kababis used bada for their skewered delights, some of the more uppity ones in small provincial towns were known to hang placards proclaiming ‘Allah Qasam Chhote ka Hai’ in plain sight thus assuring their clients of the superiority of their meat! For fear of being lynched, let me hasten to add, bada has always meant beef or buffalo meat now better known as buff, its new-age moniker, and not cow’s meat. In my living memory, I haven’t eaten at any eatery serving cow meat anywhere in India.

It is another matter, though, that according to an unspoken tradition, certain dishes have always tasted better with buff rather than mutton or lamb. And while few among the ashraaf would deign to admit it, the truth is that a nihari or a kabab or even a biryani is actually more flavourful and more robust with bada rather than chhota! But no more! Beef bans, the fear of lynching and having to prove the origins of the meat in your fridge, by DNA tests if necessary, have pushed up the prices of buffalo meat making it not merely more expensive — even more than chicken! — but also harder to find. This has led to a calling of b(l)uff!

You would have heard of the old adage of mutton dressed as lamb but have you heard of katthal (jackfruit) masquerading as beef and making an appearance in biryanis, kababs and istoos (the stews or khare masale ka gosht perfected by khansamas of yore)? Such are the exigencies of the times that camouflage is the order of the day and clever and effective camouflage at that! Not to be confused with the anaemic lauki or arbi that tries to pass off as the real McCoy in Lauki ke Kofte or Arbi ke ‘Fish’ Cutlet and fools no one in the process, the katthal is rather a natural quick-change artiste! Don’t believe me? Lightly fry up some slices of katthal just enough to block the leaking sap and give a nice goldenish colour. Next boil in enough water to soak along with chana dal (an excellent binder and the building block for meat-based shaami kababs) and generous amounts of black pepper, cinnamon, big and small cardamon, cloves and whole red chillies and salt. Use a pressure cooker for best results. Once cool and dry, mix in a blender. Add finely chopped onion, green chillies, ginger and coriander, make into kabab-sized patties and shallow fry. Voila! To truly understand what this unknown poet was referring to, serve these katthal kababs on some leaves plucked from your garden:

Maikhaana-e-hasti ka jab daur kharaab aayaa
Kullarh mein sharaab aai patte pe kabaab aayaa

When the bad days came in the tavern of Life
Wine came in a clay pot and the kababs on a leaf

The katthal, that most faithful mimic of meat, gives even better results in the istoo as it requires large amounts of onions and khara masala (everything is either whole or roughly cut in chunky pieces) …. here again, fry katthal pieces till slightly golden and set aside. In a heavy-bottom pan, heat oil, add whole garam masalas, roughly-chopped onion, ginger, garlic and broken red chillies. Add the katthal and generous tablespoons of whipped curd. Pressure cook. Enjoy your mock istoo with these words by Hussain Meer Kashmiri:

Kya ḳhabar thi inqalab asmaan ho jaaega
Qorma qaliya nasiib-e-ahmaqan ho jaaega

Little did we know the Revolution would flee to the skies
And qormas and qaliyas destined only for the idiots

Colocosia or arbi, also known as ghuiniyaan, can approximate the flavour of a fish curry when cooked in mustard oil tempered with methi seeds and a generous dollop of whipped yoghurt. How this camouflage doesn’t always work is evident from this verse by Shauq Bahraichi:

Rahzan libaas-e-rahbari mein na chhup saka
Aalu ne laakh chaha par ghuiyan na ho saka

The highway robber could not hide in the guise of a guide
Despite all efforts the potato couldn’t turn into colocasia


Then there are the foods associated with festivals especially the kabab-sevaiyan-biryani combination that is almost synonymous with the two Eids. Here is Murtaza Sahil Taslimi describing the manzar (scenario) in most Muslim households on Eid:

Thiin sevaiyan qorma shiir aur biryani kabaab
Hum utthe khush-zaaeqa khanon se ho kar faizyaab

There was sevaiyan, qorma, shiir, kabab and biryani
We rose blessed from these delicious-tasting tables

On a grimmer note, there are the foods that are offered to the poor, the neighbours and the extended family while offering fateha for the dead as described in this sher by the acerbic Akbar Ilahabadi:

Bataauun aap ko marne ke baad kya hogaa
Pulao khaaenge ahbaab fatiha hoga

Shall I tell you what will happen after you are dead?
Your friends will eat pulao after the fateha has been recited

While the food purists debate over the relative merits of a pulao versus biryani, the poet talks of both. Here is Dilawar Figar talking of the pulao that will be served in a waleeme ki daawat (wedding reception):

Uss shokh ke waleeme mein khaa kar chikan pulao
Kankii ke chaawalon ka mazaa yaad aa gayaa

Eating chicken pulao at that lovely lady’s wedding reception
I was reminded of the delicious taste of broken rice

The same Dilawar Figar speaks of the new-fangled trend of mini-mushairas in people’s homes where poets are invited to recite their poetry followed by a lavish repast:

Qorma stu pasanda, kofta, shaami kabab
Jaane kya kya kha gaya yeh shair-maida-e-kharab

Qorma, stew, pasanda, kofta, shaami kabab
How much was eaten by this poet with bad digestion

There is also ample mention of the conjoined twins, sharaab-kabaab, in a great deal of Urdu poetry. Here is no less a person that Ibrahim Zauq, the last poet laureate of Mughal Delhi and ustaad to the last Mughal emperor Bahadurshah Zafar, declaring:

Waiiza chhorh zikr-e-nemat-e-khuld
Kah sharaab-o-kabaab ki baatein

O Preacher stop these descriptions of the gifts from heaven
Let us talk instead of sharaab and kabaab

Every now and then the kabaab is used as a metaphor for burning with envy or sorrow as in this sher by Mir Taqi Mir:

Aatish-e-gham mein dil bhunaa shaayad
Der se buu kabaab kii sii hai

The heart was roasted in the fire of sorrow
The smell of a kabaaab has been coming for long

Or this by Abdul Hamid Adam:

Kyaa zaruurat hai bahs karne kii
Kyuun kaleja kabaab karte ho

What’s the need to argue?
Why turn your heart into a kabaab?

And this by Ameer Minai:

Kabaab-e-seekh hain hum karwatein har-suu badalte hain
Jal uthtaa hai jo ye pahluu to woh pahluu badalte hain

I am like a seekh kabaab turning this side and that
When one side begins to burn I turn the other side

In a similar vein, sherbet is often used as a metaphor as in this sher by Yagana Changezi:

Sharbat kaa ghuunt jaan ke piitaa huun khuun-e-dil
Gam khaate khaate munh kaa maza tak bigarh gayaa

Knowingly I drink my heart’s blood as though it is sharbat
The taste in my mouth has been ruined by all my sorrows


Then there is paan, a cultural motif, cutting across religious divides, and speaking of a way of life that was leisurely, relaxed, unhurried, inclusive. From something one ate between meals or after meals, from an aid to digestion to a mouth freshener, occasionally laced with stimulants and even aphrodisiacs, it moved seamlessly to occupy a special place in popular culture. Offered as a mark of respect to honoured guests, strung across doorways to usher in good luck on auspicious occasions, offered to brides during wedding rituals, the humble paan leaf is truly pan-Indian in its reach across the length and breadth of India as well as spilling across the Indian sub-continent.

Given its presence in daily life – being sold from roadside kiosks to featuring on playing cards, embroidery motifs and jewellery – naturally therefore it appears in poetry, too. The Urdu poet has written reams and reams upon this not-quite-food, not-snack, yet ubiquitous leaf. The way it was traditionally made was a far cry from the bloated leaf we are accustomed to now seeing, bursting with all manner of candied fruit, flavoured betel nuts, over-sweet syrups and far too many contrasting tastes and textures. It was the subtle flavours that mixed with its red juices, that stained lips crimson, that caused some of the most popular and well-respected poets of their age to wax eloquent on its multifarious presence.

Zaheer Dehelvi talks of the ritual of “sending” paan, of the women of the household making paan for guests and how offering paan was once a sign of hospitality, just as not sending paan was a slight and an offence:

Paan ban ban ke mirii jaan kahaan jaate hain
Ye mire qatl ke saamaan kahaan jaate hain

Who are these paan being made and sent for
Who are these instruments of my torture meant for

The agony and ecstasy of love is brought forth in all its vividness in this sher by Mushafi Ghulam Hamdani

Gar maza chaaho to katro dil sarotey se miraa
Tum supaarii kii dalii rakhte ho naahaq paan mein

If you want real pleasure snip at my heart with a betel-slicer
Why do you needlessly place a betelnut on the betel leaf

Mir Taqi Mir speaks of the allure of the beloved speaking through a mouth full of paan:

Jab hum-kalaam hum se hotaa hai paan khaa kar
Kis rang se kare hai baatein chabaa chabaa kar

When he addresses me with his mouth full of paan
With such style he speaks to me as he chews on it

The red of the betel juice was routinely likened to fresh blood, blood from a lover’s bleeding heart, as in this sher by Hatim:

Tere honton ke taiin paan se laal
Dekh kar ḳhun-e-jigar khata huun

Your lips stained crimson with paan
I look at them and eat the heart’s blood

There’s Gulzar who has written a great deal on the paan, such as this nazm:

Ki jaise paan mein mahngaa qimaam ghultaa hai
Ye kaisaa ishq hai Urdu zabaan kaa….

Like expensive aromatic syrup that melts in the mouth with the paan
So does this love for the Urdu language

In an India where dress has become associated with religion, how can food be left behind? The case of a Lok Sabha member seeking the ban of a retailer on grounds of promoting ‘Abrahamisation’ is too well known to bear repeating; what it has generated in its backwash will take years to process. There are also repeated demands to remove the colour green from hoardings, posters, even state floats and emporia for, in public perception, green is ‘M’ and saffron is ‘H’. As for food, recurrent social media posts tell us samosa, jalebi, gulab jamun are ‘M’ but kheer/payasam is ‘H’ while cake is ‘C’. The droller ones maintain surely palak is ‘M’ whereas a pumpkin cannot be anything but ‘H’. As for flowers, roses are ‘M’ while ‘lotuses’ are ‘H’, and so on and so forth.

Perhaps Saghar Khayyami knew what was waiting in the wings of a New India when he wrote:

Nafraton ki jang mein dekho to kya kya ho gaya
Sabziyan Hindu huin bakra Musalman ho gaya

See what all has happened in this war of hatreds
Vegetables have become Hindu while the goat has become Muslim


  1. Kasturika Mishra

    Wonderful play of words,vision of food in social fabric of hindustani poetry

    • Very interesting article and connects to every single person. Food is an important element which not only sustains physicality but also nurtures our thoughts and soul…

  2. Ajay Divakaran

    Glorious essay. Live long and prosper.

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