Volume 12, Number 7 November 19, 2004

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Feasting on food & learning


By Colleen MacPherson

Political Studies instructor Robert Schwab takes a break during his class' Mughal Feast. Speaking from experience, Schwab says authentic food from a region in the world "helps people make a bridge" to the culture they have studied.
Photo by Colleen MacPherson

The syllabus for Robert Schwab's class The Golden Days of the Mughal Empire might read something like this:

"Opening lecture; detailed presentations on six Mughal emperors; photo tour of Taj Mahal; large helpings of channa masala (chickpeas cooked in ginger, herbs and spices) and tandoori chicken (chicken marinated in yogurt with fresh spices then grilled in a tandoori oven)."

These are just two of the many dishes included in this year’s Mughal Feast, an annual event that is a highlight for students and the instructor, a man who “ascribes to immersion” when it comes to cultural studies. Gathering in a local Indian restaurant to share in food that is often new and sometimes spicy “gives students that one moment to make the connection between what they’ve studied and themselves.”

Schwab, a sessional lecturer in the Department of Political Studies, created the Mughal Empire course from scratch for Saskatoon Seniors’ Continued Learning, which, along with the Extension Division, organizes non-credit university studies for older adults. It has been a work in progress, said Schwab, but has always involved food.

The course began as a basic look at the politics of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, then narrowed in on the Kashmir region in its second incarnation. Each time, Schwab organized a meal, sometimes two, but the only authentic food from south Asia available in Saskatoon was Indian. So, he called the meal a Mughal Feast and this year, chose to explore the Mughal Empire with his students.

(Mughal emperors ruled the Sub-continent, now divided into India and Pakistan, for three centuries starting around 1500, and they left a legacy still seen today in art and architecture.)

Schwab, who has a PhD from McGill in developing studies with a focus on South Asia and was once a resident of India, works closely with the owners of the Indian Palace to develop a menu of authentic food. It is the food, he said, that “helps people make a bridge” to the culture they have studied. It’s an experience he knows works because he has been through it himself.

Harkening back to his own undergraduate days, Schwab tells of a Pakistani professor who taught South Asian politics. This man believed “you could not understand the politics of South Asia unless you were totally immersed in the culture” and so invited Schwab and other students to his home for meals. He also brought in speakers to broaden the students’ understanding. It is an approach Schwab continually tries to use, in all his teaching.

In political studies classes, without a food connection, Schwab believes there are still ways of reflecting for students a particular political culture, “helping them realize they’ve been acculturalized into politics. But my problem is the problem of every modern professor and that is I have over 200 students.” Options are certainly more limited than they are in a class of 45 seniors.

Schwab is confident this term’s Mughal Feast will again allow his students “the opportunity to taste and feel a bit of the experience of India.” And he knows it will be a real Mughal experience “because in India, everything survives, including the food. A culture of a billion people doesn’t change very quickly.”

The instructor may soon get a chance to see just exactly how much has changed since he was there last: the seniors are so enamoured of the subject they want to organize a trip to India with Schwab along “doing the talking”.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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