Each week, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit its online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.
Zubaida Tariq has been answering questions for over two decades. Watch her beloved cooking show and she’ll tell you how to cook everything from biryani to liver, or a summertime dessert of kulfi. Call in, and she’ll tell you how to strengthen your hair (vegetables in your diet), how to cure diaper rash (corn flour), how to spur a child’s growth (patience, though maybe he has worms), and how to fix Granddad’s broken leg (take him to a doctor).
Zubaida Aapa—the Urdu honorific for elder sister—is a homemaker, turned TV star, turned domestic goddess, and the closest thing Pakistan has to Martha Stewart, but with Stewart’s fame dialed up to 11. Since the ’90s, when she made her television debut on a cooking show called Dalda Ka Dastarkhwan, loosely translated as “Dalda’s spread,” named for its cooking oil company sponsor, Tariq has taught generations of homemakers how to raise their children, clean their homes, and make parathas. She has authored at least six cookbooks, doled out countless home remedies (totkas in Urdu) for kitchen, home, and child, and left satire in the wake of her outsize celebrity.
The first time I saw Tariq on TV was in the mid-’90s; the first time I saw her in person was in 2002, when she came to judge a cooking competition at my college; and the first time I met her was this summer, when she said I could come watch a taping of her show. So on a warm Monday evening in August, I came to the studios of Masala TV where Tariq was on set, preparing to film an episode of her current show, Handi, named after a cooking vessel common in northern South Asia.
Bowls of chopped coriander and turmeric powder were lined up on the counter. Tariq looked calm in a lilac sari and gold blouse and matching glass bangles, an encouraging contrast to the rush hour traffic choking the streets of Karachi outside. Her thin lips were painted in dark lipstick, her hair scraped back into a bun. She looked skinny, almost frail. At 72, Tariq could be a grandmother. She could be your grandmother.
Tariq never wears an apron over her impeccably ironed saris, and she doesn’t test her recipes anymore. When you’ve been cooking for the better part of your adult life, she says, “You have enough confidence that whatever you cook will turn out fine.”
It was almost 5 p.m.—prime time for the cooking channel, when home cooks start planning out their dinners—and Tariq was about to go live. She checked the burners. The studio went silent. Tariq’s co-host, Abeel Khan, greeted her and they started talking about the day’s recipes: badaami dahi baray—lentil fritters in yogurt, topped off with almonds—and Mangalorean chicken curry from India’s southwestern coast.
About 10 minutes into filming, she looked at the pan, where the fritters were separating and turning into behemoths. She realized that her cook at home—who preps her ingredients—had put baking soda in the batter. “This girl came to see me today and that’s the day I’ve had: a disaster,” she lamented genially to her audience and her co-host.
Later in the show, she answered a call about cleaning marble with good-natured exasperation. One viewer called to ask for tips on breast-feeding. Women in much of the world might save that particular topic for home, but Pakistani women can ask Zubaida Aapa anything. She knows things. She’s your 3 a.m. call.
* * *
Aapa made her television debut in 1996 as the remote-sounding Mrs. Zubaida Tariq on NTM, Pakistan’s second TV channel (out of two). While the rich used satellite dishes to access a limited range of English and Indian shows, most Pakistanis made do with fusty, state-run Pakistan Television, and the edgier, funnier programming on NTM. Tariq was already in her 50s when her show first aired, a lifelong homemaker with no screen experience, but Dalda Ka Dastarkhwan quickly became mandatory viewing: When you have only two channels, everything is mandatory viewing.
Tariq had been in the presence of fame since her youth in Karachi, at the time a burgeoning hub of the arts and the center of the country’s fledgling entertainment industry. Karachi was bursting with migrants and promise. Tariq was the ninth of ten children. Among her fêted siblings are a prolific playwright and satirist, Anwar Maqsood; the poet Zehra Nigah; the late Fatima Surraiya Bajiya, who wrote TV serials; and the bridalwear designer Sughra Kazmi. Had fame been her goal, Tariq could have had it young.
Instead, she married her first cousin and moved to Lahore, the second-largest city in Pakistan, a conservative place known for its hospitality, joie de vivre, and a love for elaborate meals. At the time, she says, she had no idea how to cook. Her first meal in her new home, she’s fond of explaining in interviews, was a disaster. She made karhi, a chickpea flour dish, without the critical ingredient—yogurt—and tossed it out. To disguise her failure, she got dressed up and convinced her husband to take her out for Chinese food.
“A few days later my husband’s university friends came over unexpectedly,” she told me when we spoke in August. Telephones weren’t as common in the 1960s and 1970s, which meant she had no way of reaching her mother for cooking advice. Instead ,she drew on memories of her mother marinating mutton chops in yogurt on the bone. The night was a success. Over the years, her cooking improved and eventually the praise of her husband’s co-workers convinced her to come on as an adviser at Dalda, the cooking oil company where they worked. A few days after her husband retired from his job, Tariq began working at the same company. Shortly after that, she became the host of the Dalda-sponsored cooking show.
In no time, Tariq revealed talents that went far beyond her skills in the kitchen. She knew that basting meat in papaya makes it cook through. She also knew how to deal with lizards and ant infestations and turmeric stains. She could perform the miracle of making Karachi’s awful water palatable (if not quite pleasurable) for bathing. She adapted her tips from her grandmother’s cures and housekeeping books, adjusting them to make them easier to understand for modern Pakistani women.
Tariq’s first show ended when NTM closed down in the late 1990s. In the early 2000s, a slew of private TV networks launched in Pakistan, and Tariq emerged anew. With show after show—she estimates that she’s aired over a staggering 4,000 episodes—she became counselor-in-chief to a nation married to its television set. She was a constant in a country plagued by conflict and coups, upended by changing cultural mores and the emergence of fast food.
Zubaida Aapa’s popularity birthed an industry of homegrown cooking shows–from a local version of Masterchef, to cooking segments on morning talk shows and, eventually, to Zaiqa and Masala TV: entire channels dedicated to cooking. Still, Tariq remains singular. “There just isn’t anyone like her,” says Perwaiz Ishtiaq, Masala TV’s head of programming.
Ishtiaq had worked at an entertainment channel before coming over to Masala TV, a move most of his friends regarded as ill-advised, at best. Trading real celebrity for a small, niche channel was surely a bad career move. “A few months after I joined, we had the [annual] Masala food festival. There were 300,000–350,000 people, and I saw how the audience was going crazy. It’s like how we circle the Kaaba and want to touch it, that’s what people were like, wanting to touch these people,” Ishtiaq says, referring to the building revered by Muslims as the House of God in Mecca. At an event in Dubai, so many people lined up to meet Tariq that Amir Ansari, her director on Handi, quipped that he’d have emerged a multimillionaire if he’d charged 5 dirham a photo (Tariq, he insists, has never cashed in on her celebrity and has never turned down a request for a photo).
Burned into Pakistan’s collective memory, Tariq has also become Pakistan’s most enduring meme. Though Tariq herself doesn’t know how to use a smartphone and has no presence on social media, she has, in the last half decade, become a two-word punch line, a cultural reference that keeps on giving, eliciting an endless stream of lolz. There are countless Zubaida Aapa jokes: off-color, cheesy, political, social, holiday-themed, hell-themed, and militant-themed, all riffing on her instructive totkas.
“People whose feet smell—if they cut off their feet and wear socks they’ll get rid of the smell.”
“If a cockroach enters your home, you should also enter its home so it knows what you feel like.”
“If you eat chilies before fasting, you’ll feel the fast less and the chilies more.”
“If you pray while wearing 3-D glasses you can see yourself earning blessings.”
“If you wash your mouth out with detergent, you won’t have dirty thoughts.”
There’s even one about making a bomb to win a cricket match.
Banana News Network, a satirical news show, featured a Zubaida Tariq character who, in response to a call from a hired assassin—a “target killer” in Karachi-speak—asks with a matronly cackle, “Why don’t you throw yourself under a truck?”
“Aapa is even involved in current affairs!” Ansari told me, then read out a joke from his cellphone involving a legislator who had accused her party boss of harassment.
Tariq is aware of her internet infamy. Her director took her through the Facebook pages. “I thought Aapa wouldn’t mind. So I showed her that there are all these things in your name,” he told me. Tariq’s response: May God give them direction!
Ansari routinely rushes to tell her the latest joke doing the rounds. “She enjoys the joke if it’s funny,” he told me. In an interview on a morning talk show, though, Tariq implored people to stop. She asked them to at least have some consideration for her advanced age.
* * *
Despite her enduring popularity, Tariq has been dogged by criticism in recent years. A decision to endorse a skin-lightening product led to a backlash for reinforcing South Asian beauty standards that punish women for having darker skin. Tariq doesn’t understand the criticism. For one, she told me in August, she trusts the makers of the product and questions why people don’t criticize other show hosts whose tips for skin fairness are actually dangerous. It’s different when it comes from Tariq, I offered—her voice carries more weight. Tariq has no PR handlers. She answers her own phone. Her voice is hers alone.
“In our society women take to their beds at 50, waiting for the kids to earn for them,” she told me one morning in the elegant sitting room of her Karachi home. “I feel good that I’m still working. I don’t have to rely on anyone. If you’re living in Pakistan and you don’t have anyone dependent on you—or who you’re dependent on—you’re at peace.”
Women of Tariq’s age often layer themselves in white or gray clothes because they think it’s age-appropriate. Tariq unabashedly enjoys getting dressed up and wearing makeup (one photo of her in a midriff-baring sari has elicited slut-shaming online). She owns around 1,400 saris and 12,000 bangles, she says. “I buy jewelry from Karachi—the kind that if a robber tried to steal it, he’d give it back.”
Even after all these years, Tariq isn’t considered a chef. She’s done some ad campaigns, but she does not control an empire like Oprah Winfrey or Rachael Ray. A restaurant venture with one of her two children shut down. “You need cunning to run a restaurant,” she says, “and enough money so that it doesn’t hurt if you make a loss.” Tariq has eclipsed her siblings in fame but not in prestige. Perhaps it’s because home cooking, particularly South Asian home cooking, isn’t considered worthy of critique or, by extension, serious praise. Rolling out pasta is an art; rolling out a paratha is what your mother does.
Even still, Tariq’s is the voice of a lost world. She is conventional, her beliefs anachronistic, even patronizing. “The kitchen is the most important thing in a household for a woman,” she said. “The woman of the house who doesn’t use the kitchen—like we have this culture now—that house does not have any goodness or blessings.”
Tariq laments the loss of a culture of cooking and serving food. She laments how Karachi has changed. From the motorcycles careening through the streets, carrying panniers of delivery orders, to the manholes whose lids almost invariably go missing, Karachi today bears little resemblance to the gracious city of Tariq’s childhood. I asked Tariq if she thought Karachi had changed for the better or for the worse. “For the worse,” Tariq answered without hesitation. “It used to be beautiful. Now that city doesn’t exist, other than trash, heaps of trash.”
She carries the cultivated, rarefied air of an elder generation of the Urdu-speaking migrants who came from India after the partition, women who wear saris every day, are well-versed in poetry and the arts and the old recipes of a more refined past.
Tariq straddles the divide between the Pakistan that was and the Pakistan that may come to be, between the way society used to be—how women were seen, how kitchens were run—and a brave new world in which elderly figures like Tariq are open targets for mockery. She is a member of the elite and an idol for the middle class; an elderly figure people can confide in, a stand-in for the mother who no longer lives next door. She is constantly in the background of urban Pakistani life, along with the constant litany of political crises that is thenews. With her dyed hair and perfectly ironed sari, she really is Pakistan’s older sister: disapproving of a consumerist culture as she oversees her nation’s awkward struggle toward modernity.
* * *
I have never made a Tariq recipe or looked up an Aapa totka, but her wisdom has trickled down from television to cookbooks to YouTube to parental advice. When a lizard found its way into my apartment and my father told me to place eggshells wherever I suspected it might be coming in, he sounded suspiciously like Zubaida Aapa.
But I have eaten–and remembered–a Zubaida Tariq recipe: a soft, crumbly halwa—a dessert—that my mother followed from the show when I was a child in the ’90s. I would eat it obsessively, warm or cold, taking second and third servings. After my mother died, I couldn’t find the recipe among her things; she must have had it memorized. My father had an acquaintance who knew how to make the same dish, but she used a different recipe and when the Tupperware arrived, I politely took a bite and said thanks, though in truth it wasn’t a patch on my mother’s, which was really Tariq’s. Over the years, I’d forgotten about the halwa altogether, giving up on it as a dish from my childhood that I’d never taste again.
I didn’t remember that halwa until days after meeting Tariq, but even then I couldn’t remember the core ingredient, frustrated over another memory of my mother slipping away.
One night, weeks later, in a moment of clarity, the word besan, Urdu for chickpea flour, popped into my head. Of course, I thought, it was besan ka halwa, a dessert made with a surprising savory ingredient.
I had Tariq’s number, but I didn’t make the 3 a.m. call. She doesn’t need to know that one of her recipes is now inextricably associated with memories of my loss. I am sure she has heard many overwrought women telling her stories about her food and their lives. It occurred to me that I could Google her recipe, so I typed out the words, but didn’t press enter. I wanted to eat the halwa of my childhood, the real thing, not to make something that would inevitably disappoint.
Had I asked for advice, Tariq would almost certainly have encouraged my efforts, just as she has for so many women over the decades. She still doesn’t think of herself as a great cook. That’s not the point. She’s bigger than that: the voice that tells countless women that their kitchens, their cooking, their families are going to be OK.
In March, Tariq underwent cardiac surgery but returned to work within a couple of months. “You start feeling more ill if you’re just lying in bed,” she told me when we met. Retiring has crossed her mind more than once; there might be a national day of mourning when that happens.
“I know people will remember me well,” she said, a modest understatement. “I tell my husband if I die, please have this inscribed on my tombstone: Zubaida Aapa totkay wali.” Zubaida Aapa, the totka woman.