A visual feast of recipes and remembrance
In a new culinary photographic project, titled The Rice is on the Hob, Tami Aftab and her father explore the relationship between food, identity and memory
As he grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, murgh makhani, or butter chicken, was Tony Aftab’s favourite meal. “My mum never cooked it at home, but my dad would take us to a local restaurant to have it as a treat,” he recalls. In 1989, when Tony moved to London from Pakistan, it was the first dish he learnt to cook.
Tony, 55, was born with hydrocephalus, a rare, life-threatening neurological disorder in which fluid accumulates in the brain. In 1994, during surgery to treat the condition, doctors accidentally damaged his short-term memory. Though this has affected Tony’s everyday life deeply, his recollections of Pakistan — and the dishes from his childhood — have remained intact.
Those dishes are the focus of a new photographic project and cookbook combining Tony’s recipes with images of Pakistan taken by his daughter, Tami. The title, The Rice is on the Hob, is a reference to the Post-it notes Tony uses to help navigate his memory loss. Juxtaposing those day-to-day messages with photographs inspired by Tony’s longstanding remembrances of Pakistan, the book creates an evocative blend of past and present and examines the relationship between food and memory.
“It’s about reminiscing about my dad’s life before he knew about his condition and lost his memory, but also what he is going through now,” Tami says.
Though hydrocephalus is usually diagnosed soon after birth, Tony’s condition went undetected until he moved to the UK aged 19. As a child he had suffered from severe headaches, but doctors in Pakistan did not identify their underlying cause. In 1992, he went for scans after experiencing blackouts while driving. “It was a unique case for doctors because they hadn’t seen many patients of my age with hydrocephalus,” Tony says. “I remember all the surgeons and junior doctors gathered around my bed, asking non-stop questions.”
Between 1993 and 1996, Tony underwent more than 15 surgical procedures to carry excess fluid away from his brain. “It was a horrific time,” he says “At one point, I had seven in one month. They couldn’t find the right tube to put in, so they would keep practising with different sizes.”
The photographs in The Rice is on the Hob were taken in 2023, in and around Tony’s childhood home in the Islampura region of northern Lahore. Alongside his immediate family, his father’s brothers and sister also lived in the house with their children. With 16 bedrooms built around a central, rectangular courtyard, it is a place that Tony remembers fondly.
“I had an amazing childhood,” Tony recalled. “There were about 13 of us cousins in the house, plus all the children from the neighbourhood would come over and we would play cricket in that courtyard.”
Food was also ever-present. The Rice is on the Hob contains 16 recipes, some of which are annotated with Tony’s childhood recollections. A small note next to the instructions to make nargisi kofta reads: “This was my dad’s special. I’d eat them at occasions such as weddings or large parties. The dish is very good-looking, but easy to make lots of.”
Other specialities include chicken biryani, aloo gosht, gulab jamun and pakoras — Tami’s favourite. “Pakoras are dad’s staple. Whenever I go home to visit him, my friends will ask me to bring back some for them,” she says. For Tony, they remind him of winter afternoons in Lahore. “Whenever it was raining or cold, my mum and dad would make pakoras with tea,” he says.
Alongside the recipes, the book contains portraits of Islampur residents and descriptions of their favourite meals and says who cooks them. “Suji ka halwa, by my mama,” reads one. Initially, Tami set up a black backdrop outside her father’s old home with the aim of photographing strangers, but nearly everyone who walked past ended up recognising Tony and bringing along their family and friends. “It was amazing to see how close-knit that community is. Even though dad left 30 years ago, everyone was so happy to see me. That was really incredible,” she recalls.
A year on from shooting the project, Tony says the book has helped him to reflect on his journey with hydrocephalus. “Living with short-term memory loss, every day is a struggle. If I’m on my own in the house, I’m not allowed to leave anything cooking. I have to fight with my memory to remember things, and I get tired because I’m thinking all the time.”
Aside from his day job as a sales assistant, Tony also runs Serfraz Kitchen, a pop-up caterer serving Pakistani food in and around London and Surrey. More than 30 years after he left Lahore, murgh makhani is Tony’s best selling dish.
“Sometimes at work, people make remarks about my forgetfulness, which frustrates me and makes me sad. Although instances like that can push me backwards, looking at The Rice is on the Hob I feel proud of what I’ve achieved regardless of my disability.”
The Rice is on the Hob is available to buy here and £5 from each sale will be donated to Muslim Hands to help rebuild homes destroyed in the 2022 Pakistan floods. The project was supported by WePresent.
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