A taste of the other side
One thing that has always fascinated me is the closeness of the flavours and textures across cuisines. With my nose deep inside books that delve into this theme, I have wondered how things are just across the border -- in Pakistan.
As someone who loves food and books, I’ve always enjoyed being steeped in multiple cultures, as images of barbecue sauces hissing on glowing coals, spiced gravies simmering to a finish in the belly of too-hot tandoors, cheese-covered pizzas grilling in wood-fired ovens, and descriptions of delicate, sugar-dusted desserts come alive in front of my eyes. I’ve witnessed Roman aristocrats crumble in the face of Marcus Gavius Apicius’s milk-fed snails and snuck into the savoury folds of Marsha Mehran’s dolmeh. I’ve marveled at the richness of the Proustian madeleine, and virtually tasted the sadness of Aimee Bender’s lemon cake.
One thing that has always fascinated me is the closeness of the flavours and textures across cuisines. With my nose deep inside books that delve into this theme, I have wondered how things are just across the border -- in Pakistan. What do people eat, drink, how consumed are they by the everydayness of things, like going to the market, buttering toasts, or brewing tea, what poverty or power spells for them, what the turns of seasons bring them, and so forth.
I’ve rolled the Urdu words that I’ve come upon in the narratives in my mouth, over and over again, until their essence got under my skin. Tehwar, I’d say, t-e-h-w-a-r, so close to our own tyohar; and s-h-e-r-b-e-t, like our sharbat.
In Aamer Hussein’s Another Gulmohar Tree, Usman, the protagonist, takes out his meal of millet pancakes, pickles, and a flask of buttermilk, under a Gulmohar tree. That image stuck with me for a long time, and it took me back to the Gulmohar tree in the gargantuan playground in our colony, during my growing up years. In the summers, we’d settle down on the cool earth under its flaming red canopy, and play games, share secrets, laughs, and meals comprising rice, pickles, papads, and mangoes, not very unlike Usman’s food. The Gulmohar tree was our refuge and pride, and just like it did for Usman, it stood for us as a metaphor for the synthesis of happy moments.
In This House of Clay and Water by Faiqa Mansab, there’s a scene between a hijra and the owner of a junk-shop -- a kabbadiya, who the hijra believes is a jinn that refuses to leave. The kabbadiya shares his food with the hijra, in a heartwarming moment, which tackles inclusion and acceptance in the most straightforward of ways. A simple gesture, a homely meal -- of chapatis and vegetable curry, cooked fresh, no less -- nestled in a newspaper wrap, and two hungry humans. When I think of the tea that I share with my house help every day before we both dive into menial chores or the bountiful produce she brings for me from her farm, I think of that scene, and how powerful it is in its eschewal of social norms.
The imagery in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s story -- Nawabdin Electrician (from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), jumps at me right off the Pakistani desert behind Multan, where sandy strips were interspersed with fields of sugarcane and cotton, mango orchards and clover and wheat, taking me to the courtyard of Nawab’s house. Surrounded by his twelve girls upon his return every evening, he’d smell the air, trying to guess what his wife had cooked for dinner. His wife, bent over the fire in the hearth where a pot of tea boiled, would chase him out as he stirred the ladle in the cauldron of gravy, but not before giving him a taste of it. There’s something so endearing and relatable about this whole thing: families coming together at the end of a long, hard day, over tea and food.
In Kamila Shamsie’s Salt and Saffron, Aliya talks about mangoes, gol guppas, nihari and naans, cricket and the monsoon, and the intimacy of bodies, as Samia snuggled close to her, all in the same breath, as “Karachi things.” A sepia-tinted picture unfurls in my mind’s eye, comprising a bunch of cousins huddled up at home in the summer, savouring similar things, which are also essentially Indian. Eating mangoes from skin to stone, the juice from the golden flesh dripping down to our elbows, twirling in the rain, gorging on pakoras, and cheering for our cricket champions until we’d lose our voices.
In Summers Under the Tamarind Tree, Sumayya Usmani describes the sensory experience of walking through her grandmother’s garden, full of seasonal wonders, right from the fragrant motia flowers, to luscious Sindhri mangoes, jamuns, guavas, lemons, and vegetables being sown into or harvested from the earth, including potatoes, carrots, beans and gourds. She offers a wide range of recipes for classic foods like Fruit Chaat and Mango Leather, Sheer Kurma and Kaale Channe, among other things. Cross over to India and this could be any of our grandmothers’ gardens. The image of my Ajji, hunch-backed and firm-footed, can be conjured up just as well, plucking bunches of greens from her vegetable patch, and tending to her fruit-laden trees with care. If I just close my eyes, this turns into a full-blown motion picture, where Ajji would be pickling bitter lemons and smushing tamarind pulp into a bed of well-greased spice powders for a thokku. We’d be scampering along the fence, the caramel-like aroma of chikoos teasing our nostrils, and the tang of starfruit cutting into our tongues.
These texts have given me hope and made me view things across the border with renewed fervour time and again. Which is why, when I happened upon a post on a Facebook group by Mansoor Ali, co-founder of Bengaluru by Foot, my eyes lit up as I read about his recent four-hour visit to Lahore, just to have a meal there. I dream of the day when a taste of the other side won’t strictly be confined to biryanis and burfis but will reflect in the warmth of the people and places, and their art and books, free for everyone to experience and revel in.