Culinary pioneer Zubaida Apa has left us but her totkas and bestselling Hyderabadi biryani and Sujji/Besan halwa will be with us forever

Published: January 8, 2018
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Zubaida Apa introduced our rich culinary traditions to younger generations and thus, leaves a void that will be difficult to fill.

 Zubaida Tariq, aka Zubaida Apa, was a lovely woman. Her talent of inspiring people to cook just through her words and the way she carried out everyday chores was extraordinary. If you look at TV chefs nowadays, they lack the magic that Apa possessed on screen while she cooked up a storm in the kitchen.

However, her magic show has come to an end.

On January 5th, a little bit of Pakistan died – a little piece that will never be replaced. Her passing was incredibly sad and an unfortunate loss not only to the cooking industry but to the entire nation as well.

Originally hailing from Hyderabad Deccan, and settled in Karachi, she was born into a eminent Urdu-speaking family known for engendering intellectuals and artists. She made her TV debut in 1996 while she was in her 50s. Her first cooking show – Dalda Ka Dastarkhwan – became a widely popular evening engagement for millions of TV viewers in both Pakistan and abroad. Apa attained immense popularity doing culinary shows on TV and writing famous cookbooks.

Not only was she quite the sensation in her colour-coordinated saris, sandals and sets of bangles, with styled hair and make-up, she also demystified food and made it a popular craft. She was the first chef to reform Pakistani cooking shows completely. I have grown up watching her; in fact, it was her simple recipe of chicken and capsicum which first got me hooked onto cooking. Who would have thought that Zubaida Apa, who was least interested in cooking, would one day be known for her culinary wonders? All the while she had so much stamina to keep going. It is unfathomable to me how she carried herself, when I at such a young age don’t know how to get to work and not look akin to a drug addict.

She used to start her TV shows with some counsel, words that actually made an impact. Maybe it was her grandmotherly outlook or it was the ease with which she guided people through everyday problems, nevertheless, she made a difference, at least for me. She made me realise that in this day and age, where people shy away from giving honest advice out of societal fear of backlash, one should still give honest advice in good faith, you never know who it might influence. She made me appreciate that there is always wisdom in the knowledge of grown-ups, no matter what generation, it should always be heeded. Apa was also a prime example of how one can start their career at any stage of life; they should never think they are too old or that time has flown by.

Tariq’s recipe for success is “whatever one does should be done wholeheartedly so that other people can learn and benefit from it as well”.

Moreover, her regular culinary “totkas” (remedies) on various TV channels became so popular that Pakistanis gave her the title of Apa. I have tried many of her totkas but one that stands out and I religiously follow even now is the one for weight loss. She always firmly stated that weight loss required effort and dedication. Her suggested regime advised everyone to start the day with five small glasses of lukewarm water. Follow that up with a breakfast comprising of brown bread, a boiled egg and an apple. Fruits and vegetables at two-hour intervals as snacks would help eliminate the craving for rice and roti, and have lentil soup for lunch. Also, always walk with correct posture, with the stomach held in.

With her often surprising solutions to everyday problems, Apa had worked her way into the hearts of millions of TV viewers in Pakistan and abroad. She also ran a restaurant by the name of Z’APA with her son Hussain. The menu was desi with her own recipes. The idea was that continental and Italian food were available in abundance but good desi food wasn’t.

She was a woman of diversified taste. From Desi to Chinese to a variety of desserts, she had mastered everything and was always experimenting with different flavours. Moreover, she always stayed true to her Hyderabadi roots – I never knew the beauty and diversified flavours in Hyderabadi cooking till I religiously started following her shows. Mirchi ka Salan, Bhagarey Baingan and Hyderabadi Biryani being some of her most famous dishes. Simultaneously, reinvention and growth was at the core of who she was. I still recall how awestruck I was when she made Tarbooz kai Chilkon ki Sabzi (mixed vegetables in watermelon shell).

To honour her memory, I decided to make something from her famous recipes. There was so much to choose from, but at the end of it, I narrowed it down to two of her most popular dishes.

For my main course, I chose to make Hyderabadi Biryani  and that too for two reasons. Firstly, a few years ago, this was the first biryani I ever tried making and miracle of miracles, it garnered praises from my family who had given up hope on me ever cooking anything edible. Secondly, it’s the bestseller at her restaurant as well.

For dessert, I chose the Suji and Besan Halwa because when I told my grandmother what I was writing about, she asked me to make it because she remembered Apa making it once, and the cold weather dictated it as well.

I made chicken biryani, but it can very easily be substituted with mutton as well.

I hope you enjoy these recipes and send a prayer for the woman who was the mastermind behind them.

Hyderabadi Biryani

Ingredients:

Mutton/Chicken – 1 kg

Yogurt – 1 cup

Warm milk – 1 cup

Ghee –1 cup

Onions – 4 (sliced)

Cloves – 4

Lemons – 6

Green chilies – 6 (sliced)

Black peppercorns – 8

Green cardamoms – 8

Mint – 1 bunch (roughly chopped)

Yellow food color – 1 pinch

Red chili powder – 1 tbsp

Raw papaya paste (Only if you are using mutton) – 2 tbsp

Ginger garlic paste – 1 tbsp

Salt to taste

Rice – 1 kg (parboiled in salted water with 1 tsp black cumin and 1 tbsp white vinegar, drained)

Method:

1. In a cooking pot, add chicken, raw papaya paste (if using mutton), red chili powder, salt, yogurt, ginger garlic paste, lemon juice of 2 lemons, green cardamoms, mint, green chilies, black peppercorns and cloves and mix together. Keep aside for an hour. Then cook on low flame until water dries.

2. In a frying pan, heat oil and sauté finely sliced onions till golden brown. Then sieve out and spread fried onion on absorbent paper and pour hot oil on the chicken mixture.

3. Grease the base of a cooking pot and spread a layer of half the quantity of rice. Then spread a layer of chicken and sprinkle half of the fried and crushed onion on top. Drizzle the juice of 2 lemons over chicken. Then spread a second layer of remaining rice.

4. Dissolve a pinch of yellow food color in warm milk and pour over rice.

5. Top with remaining fried onion, lemon juice and Ghee.

6. Cover the pot tightly with its lid. Heat a griddle pan on high flame, place the pot over it and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 15 minutes or until done.

Suji and Besan Halwa

Ingredients:

Gram flour (besan) – 1 cup

Semolina (suji) – 1 cup

Sugar – 1 ½ cup

Milk – ½ cup

Water – ½ cup

Ghee/ oil – ½ cup

Cardamoms –  8 (peel and crush seeds)

Almonds and pistachios for garnish – as required (finely chopped)

Raisins – 10-12

Method:

1. Heat ghee in a pan; add the cardamom seeds when hot. Then add suji and besan, lower heat and cook stirring continuously.

2. Remove from the pan. Combine ½ cup water and sugar in the pan and cook for five minutes or till the sugar dissolves completely.

3. Add the besan and suji to sugar syrup and stir constantly. Add raisins, continue to stir, then add milk and stir till the milk is mixed in thoroughly. If you feel it’s not fluffing up, add water gradually till you get the right texture (all the while stirring).

4. Apply a little ghee to a large platter and spread the halwa in it. Garnish with chopped almonds and pistachios.

Apa has been a huge inspiration to many of us and her energy, zest for life and of course her totkas will be greatly missed. She introduced our rich culinary traditions to younger generations and has now left a void that will be difficult to fill.

Rest in peace, Apa. This is my way of paying tribute to a wonderful character, a truly great woman and a true original in her field. We are all going to miss you very much.

All photos: Arhama Siddiqa

Arhama Siddiqa

Arhama Siddiqa

The author is a LUMS and University of Warwick Alumnus and is currently a Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). She calls herself a bibliophile,a dreamer and an avid foodie. She also has a food website at www.chakhoous.com . She tweets @arhama_siddiqa (twitter.com/arhama_siddiqa)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Patwari

    Not familiar, at all, with this lady. Not because yours truly has been
    living under a rock, but because not interested or dedicated to watching
    cooking shows. Only fast, quick, easy to make recipes/meals, specially,
    if they are from Arhama’s Food Blog in ET…will do just fine.
    Have read many complimentary articles, all recently, about Zubaida Apa,
    so she was a renowned cook with a flair for Hyderabadi Style.
    Believe it or not favorite dish is qeema with green or red peppers, or with aloo,
    or mutter. And urad or channa dal will do. Plus bhindi ki bhujjiya! Simple tastes.
    [hankering for various beefsteaks/roasts/grills is an entirely different story]
    Ooops! TV preferences run more towards National Geographic documentaries
    or BBC Earth or an expedition or big game hunting or travelogues…and such like.Recommend

  • Parvez

    That was a great tribute to Zubaida Apa. The lady had grace and a style ( call it the Hyderabadi look ) that comes with being ‘ the real deal ‘. I say this because in one the cooking shows they took us around her home and from the furniture and paintings on the walls and the tasteful decor ( nothing garish or glitzy ) you understood the lady had good taste. The two cooking experts ( I would not call them Chefs ) Zubaida Apa and Shireen Anwar, I’d say Apa had the edge with viewers because of all her home remedies ( totkas ).
    On Hyderabadi cooking, I must say your biryani and halwa look good …… and although I am not a big fan of greasy or spricy food……circumstances have caused me to admit that Hyderabadi food when cooked well, is unbelievably tasty.Recommend

  • Hamsid

    haha thank you , but hey I started from her recipes , so she is one of the people I owe for my blogs.
    qeema goes well with EVERYTHING! be it aloo or mirch or just plain qeema by itself!
    I have started watching old time hollywood , recently saw a 1952 classic I’d say- 12 angry men, beats all the chick flicks and romantic hoo ha we see today! I used to watch taboo on nat geo I remember then dunno why I never continued- note to self must start again…Recommend

  • Hamsid

    Thank You =)
    Shireen Anwar is my other favourite cooking expert (I agree cooking expert is more apropos) pretty head on head but Zubaida apa definitely had the edge.
    biryani is not greasy- at least this one isn’t because you boil the meat before hand in its own water and then add the oil. Hyderabadi food is definitely different from the usual Punjabi spicy stuff I am used to so a welcome change now and then and definitely unbelievably tasty as you put it. Which hyderabadi delights have you tried?
    and I shall take this moment to continue guessing your career- I would say pilot this time? or someone in the armyRecommend

  • Patwari

    Have seen it. About 12 jurors. With Henry Fonda. Good movie.
    Yes it is a classic. Well yours truly has Netflix. So have acquired
    a recent taste for Hindustani movies. Like Piku, Chennai Express,
    Golmaal, Some are really good, like Liar’s Dice, I.D., Khoobsurat,
    Total Siyapa [very funny] Delhi-26, Dangal. Fawad Khan is good.
    You guessed it, this is Deepika Padukone and Sonam Kapoor’s fan.
    Plus Namaloom Afraad, Humsafar, and other Pak dramas. Good.
    Never heard of National Geographic Taboo. Could be they are using
    a different name in your neck of the woods, meaning, calling it ‘taboo.’
    Well as you know You Tube has just about every kind of classic/movies.
    Recently saw ‘The Shiek’ [a 1921 silent movie, with Rudolph Valentino]Recommend

  • Patwari

    You can say, Zubaida Apa, was your ‘Guru’, when it came to cooking.
    Recommend

  • Parvez

    Ah so ……apparently we are still playing the game. No and no on both counts.
    Due to my family connections I get to eat amazing Hyderabadi cooking and they knowing my ‘ angrezi taste ‘ and to have fun they challenge me to eat stuff….not the usual khati daal, baghare baigan, daal cha, mirchoon ka salaan etc but stuff like Chakna. and o yes, I did eat and found it…. interesting.
    as you mentioned Punjabi food, I remember a visit to Lahore where my friend ordered food by weight in Lahore’s food street. Lahore and eating are almost synonymous.Recommend

  • Hamsid

    not exactly guru, but sort of yes =pRecommend

  • Hamsid

    havent ever seen a silent movie, should this year definitely!
    not really a bollywood person – but i did watch piku and loved it! one line stuck ” death and shit come without telling”
    paki dramas are good too – some of them anyway, watch udarri if you havent its good , it isnt on netflix though so youtube it.
    scent of a woman is next on my list!Recommend

  • Hamsid

    I give up. I am tempted to say you came into some huge family inheritance and got to travel around the world on that.. or you could just tell.

    and yes I agree lahore=food=lahore…Recommend

  • Parvez

    Oooo !….you gave up pretty quickly and how I wish I had stumbled into a family inheritance that allowed me to travel for fun.
    Most of my traveling was done while working and now I realize is that you don’t get to see very much of what one should really be seeing.
    But watching a cooking show today I saw this old rich couple sailing around the French and Italian coastline on a beautiful sailing yacht and enjoying the scenery and the local food …..that is what I would do if I had money.
    Did you figure out what Chakna was ?Recommend

  • desi style

    Hyderabadi biryani is the Biryani. No other biryani compares to Hyderabadi style. Who the heck puts potatoes in biryani and call it biryani.Recommend

  • Parvez

    The potatoes and biryani controversy is quite something……many feel biryani without potatoes is like the Romeo and Juliet story without Juliet.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Well, did she influence you? In one of your favorite pastimes?
    Then think of her as one of your gurus.
    ‘Yours truly’ considers Jalaluddin Rumi as a spiritual guru. A mystic.
    A mysticism guide. Even though he died Dec.17th. 1273. You can
    include Buddha [his Eight Fold Pathways to lead your life] too. A guru.
    Did you know Buddha never wanted his teachings to be turned into a
    religion? He knew after his death they would do so. Which is exactly
    what happened. Buddha never claimed to be divine. Or a messenger
    of God.
    Mysticism/Sufism is just how you express your love for God and the world. You can express it through poetry, or dancing or painting or qawwali, or singing or designing, or writing or cooking. You can choose any medium you desire. Bet you did not know this.
    Relax, this is not an attempt to make you a sufi!
    [There is a yearly Sufi Festival in Fez, Morocco. Sufis from all over the world gather there. Canadian sufis, French sufis Nigerian, German, British sufis, American, Pakistani, Hindustani sufis…a very interesting festival.]
    Oops! this is Arhama’s food blog. Not about mysticism or dervishes or Rumi or Buddha or nirvana.Recommend

  • Hamsid

    I googled Chakna As soon as I read it =p
    And I must say the description not very appealing =/ But you having tried it would know otherwise

    haha Ok wait I am not giving up , one day on one blog I shall unveil the truth! here is to hoping to anyway!

    Travelling is travelling whether for work or leisure, you get to learn some new aspect, but yes I agree travelling for the latter definitely has its perks.Recommend

  • Hamsid

    haha but interesting I did not know about Buddah or in fact about his Eight Fold Pathways to lead your life or even about this festival, those are interesting things to be noted and I might just have added another book to my reading list this year so thanks! , The only time I have come close to Rumi would be in the book Forty Rules of Love though… must work on that…Recommend

  • Hamsid

    haha there is the biryani with ketchup debate too btw , should it be had with ketchup or not?Recommend

  • Hamsid

    And yes She is one of my Gurus then no doubtRecommend

  • Parvez

    I am pleased because now you have another incentive to keep writing….and to also keep guessing.
    Chakna has to be an ‘ acquired taste ‘ and my host stressed that it is better if it is prepared at home because the cleaning process etc is very necessary.
    As this is mainly about Hyderabadi food their biryani is also called Kacche Gosht ki Biryani and @ desi style’s comment is right it has no aloo in it.Recommend

  • AJ

    I am in love with your recipes. You make it look so easy. Biryani looks just amazing. I will try the halwa when I’m less worried about calculating the calories. 😆

    This migt be the only blog where I enjoy the blog as well as the comment sections alike.Recommend

  • Sane

    First ever cook in TV shows was Kaukab Khawaja.Recommend

  • Hamsid

    yes agreed you are right cooking expert* Totally slipped my mind , but probably because of her totkas Zubaida apa just stuck there for me at least , but you are right nonethelessRecommend

  • Hamsid

    hahah thank you ! ,
    and yes calorie wise its — yeah I rather not say…
    but definitely worthy of winters and blankets and post warm food dessert with kashmiri chaye!Recommend

  • Hamsid

    hahah right you are , it’ll keep me writing just to know what exactly did you do !
    cleaning process would definitely be required here an acute one at that !
    still not appealing , but I’ll have to try it one day to say for sure.
    And yess I knew about it being called Kacche Gosht ki Biryani, I actually heard that name first and it kind of put me off thinking raw meat? WHY
    and then she explained the whole process which was so easy that I dared to try it out..Recommend

  • Parvez

    You need to write about the humble but almost universal Tomato Ketchup…..believe it or not there was a time I used to have ketchup with my eggs atbreakfast.Recommend

  • Parvez

    I only said Chakna was interesting …. only interesting….nothing more.
    Why Kacche Ghost ….I’ll ask and try come up with an answer.Recommend

  • Hamsid

    eggs with ketchup thats a first !
    That could be my next write up 10 different ways ketchup is used =pRecommend

  • Parvez

    I asked my expert and she said its called Kacche Ghost because the meat ( mutton ) is not cooked in advance but it is marinated and cooked along with the rice…..she said the process is tricky and not as easy as she made it sound.Recommend

  • Hamsid

    thank you!, maybe its tricky with mutton but chicken cooks quickly so it wasn’t hard at all , but yeah what she says makes so much sense no wonder its called that.Recommend

  • Patwari

    A purser for the Pakland national airline [once great, now bankrupt, in
    intensive care. Which might be bought out or given life support by Etihad
    or Emirates.]
    You get once a year free tickets, to any destination, which widens, considerably,
    where partnership airlines fly.Recommend