Frederik van OudenhovenEthnobiologist
Food traditions of the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan
We do pray to the angels, but we aren’t sure they are still here. When the Pamiri people and Frederik van Oudenhoven first met, in early 2008, it was at a peculiar time. Timeworn traditions, still cherished and very much alive in many Pamiri communities, were struggling to keep their place in modern times. Nowhere was this tension more clear than in the crops people grew and the food they ate.
One day, during his work with Pamiri fruit growers, Van Oudenhoven met an old woman. She told him about the food she prepared and, afraid her children would forget, asked him to write down her recipes, print them and bring them back to her. She would pay for it. The next five years, together with his friend Jamila Haider and fellow Pamiri biologists, this is what Van Oudenhoven did. Initially because he believed that safeguarding traditional foods was an important way to protect local varieties of seeds, but eventually the scope of the little cookbook became broader: speaking with people about food and preparing it together, simple lists of ingredients often turned into long conversations. Conversations about the old ways of farming and practicing medicine, about harvest celebrations and how best to seduce a girl, about counting time without clocks, and surviving famine and wars. A bowl of soup could tell more about life in the Pamir Mountains than a thousand questionnaires put together.
As the grandmother’s voice was joined by hundreds more, the little cookbook grew to 700 pages – a monument for a threatened culture. The authors returned to the Pamirs with a copy of the finished book for each community, school and library. In 2016 With our own Hands received the Gourmand Award for the world’s best cookbook.
Frederik van Oudenhoven has worked to defend traditional food systems with indigenous farming communities in Latin America and Central and South-East Asia. As an ethnobiologist, Van Oudenhoven examines how knowledge and traditions, seeds, food and agricultural techniques develop from the interaction between man and landscape. He is currently also a pizza chef.