I was invited to write a little piece for the Express Tribune Magazine, published in partnership with The International New York Times, in Pakistan, about Nowruz (see article below) and how I celebrate it in my home with my husband and son. If any of you residing in Pakistan are reading this – do pick up a copy of the magazine!
‘Mader’ means ‘mother’ in Farsi, and that’s what we affectionately called my paternal grandmother, Shameem Saadat. My father tells me that Mader’s grandfather, Syed Nadir Ali Shah, was a Sufi saint who travelled from his home in Iran to present-day Pakistan, to spread the Sufi word. He fell in love with a hazel-eyed girl, married her, and ended up spending the rest of his life in Lahore. That hazel-eyed girl was Mader’s grandmother.
Syed Nadir Ali Shah came from a province in the northeast of Iran called Khorasan, which means ‘where the sun comes from’, also known as the land of saffron. Mader never told me this story; I suppose she was not a very nostalgic person. Or perhaps she simply did not have time for such frivolities. Born in 1916, she lost her father when she was merely nine years old, leaving her mother with the responsibility of bringing up four daughters. Educated — Mader was one of the first women in Pakistan to obtain an MA in Economics from Government College Lahore in 1938 — she went on to become a civil servant, a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a fabulous and curious cook.
Mader was not only my grandmother, she was also my partner and my best friend. I went to live in Pakistan with her when I was 13 years old and every day after school, we used to have lunch together at home. There were spiced tomato stews with chicken or mutton, eaten with naan from the local tandoor, burnt aubergine raitas, which we both loved, and seasonal, sliced fruit, langra mango or custard-hued guavas eaten with globs of fresh, thick cream on top.
I wish I could tell you that she prepared these meals for me with her own hands, but she was not that kind of grandmother. She was an avid cook, but she was not one to enter the kitchen on a daily basis, plus, her expertise did not lie in Pakistani cuisine. As for dishes from her heritage — Pakistani or Persian — as a working woman for most of her life, I suppose she felt those were best left to the experts, the cooks in her kitchen.
When Mader did cook, she made crème anglaise with an apple tart (thanks to her cookery lessons at the French Cultural Institute in Lahore) or a roast chicken, with crackly skin alongside a zucchini gratin which she learnt to make from the chef of her friend, the US Consulate General in Lahore.
I had always heard stories of my grandmother’s Irani ancestry, but after moving to Toronto I became keenly interested in finding out more about where her family had come from. By that time, Mader was long gone.
In my home, on Navroze, you won’t find the ceremonial table of the haft-seen nor will you find me making the traditional Navroze dish, sabzi polo mahi (fish with herbed rice). For me, Navroze is very personal and indeed, it is about new beginnings — such as my move to Toronto after my marriage. It was a new place, strange and far from my adopted home in Rome. Navroze also reminds me of Mader’s resilience and how she carried on as the strong matriarch of her family even after suffering a double mastectomy.
On Navroze I like to bake something sweet for my husband and son, maybe some shortbread spiked with a little rosewater, which Mader would have loved to enjoy with her cup of tea and I buy some roses, because Mader loved Damasks and grew them in her garden in our family home in Lahore. And on March 20th, on Navroze, I will read a bit of Ghalib’s poetry, which Mader loved — she always used to quote the stanza: Go haath ko jumbish nahin aankhon mein toh dum hai.
Eid e Shoma Mubarik.
Shayma Saadat is a food writer, photographer and stylist who also writes the award-winning blog, Spice Spoon. You can follow her visual diary on Instagram @SpiceSpoon.
The recipe for the rosewater shortbread I bake for Nowruz is below (and also published in the Express Tribune Magazine – in case you have a copy of it).
Wishing everyone a beautiful Nowruz in advance x
PS I made these treats last year for Nowruz, in case you want to try something which is gluten-free (cookies made with rice flour).
Rosewater Shortbread with Chocolate and Pistachios
225g unsalted butter, softened
75g powdered sugar
325g all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt*
1 tbsp rosewater**
30g crushed, unsalted pistachios
2 tbsp crushed, organic dried rose petals (it should look like rose petal dust)
250g dark chocolate, chopped***
*Use sea or pink salt, not table salt.
**I use a Lebanese brand here in Toronto, which is quite mild. Be sure to taste and test your rosewater and adjust the amount accordingly.
***I prefer dark chocolate, but you can use a milk chocolate too.
*Divide shortbread disks in two separate batches and bake separately, so that they bake evenly.
Pre-heat an oven to 160°C and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Sift powdered sugar and set aside. Sift flour and salt in a separate bowl and set aside. Whip softened butter with a mixer on medium-high speed for three to five minutes (alternatively, you can do this by hand), scraping down the sides of the bowl when required, till it turns a pale yellow and is light and fluffy.
*Add powdered sugar in batches, beating between each addition, till the mixture looks pale, for a total of three minutes.
*Reduce the mixer speed to low, and gradually add flour mixture and rosewater. Mix until combined. Do not overmix. The dough will look dry. Transfer dough to a large piece of parchment or wax paper and gently form the dough into a 35cm log by wrapping the paper around it.
*Chill the dough in the fridge for at least 2 hours (can be chilled for up to a few days). When ready to bake, slice chilled log into ½cm slices. (Tightly wrap half of the sliced dough with plastic wrap or parchment paper and place back into the fridge.)
*Arrange first batch of disks on the baking sheet, leaving 3cm between each disk. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes or till the sides of the shortbread disks start to turn slightly golden.
*Remove from oven and allow to cool for at least 30 minutes. Repeat the same process with the second batch of shortbread disks.
P*lace chopped chocolate in a double boiler set over simmering water (or you can melt it in a microwave). Stir chocolate for about five minutes, until it melts and looks glossy. Then remove from heat.
*Dip the end of each disk halfway into the chocolate, allow chocolate to drip back into the bowl and then place the shortbread disk on parchment paper.
*Sprinkle crushed pistachios and dried rose petal dust on the dipped part of the disk. Allow to rest for one hour till the chocolate has hardened.
*The disks can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week, but I doubt they will last this long.