Pray, Love and Eat
Guest Post written by Baba, my father.
Every child has a lucky day; mine was Thursday. It was the day Agha, my father, would take my brother and I to meet our grandparents and cousins inside Lahore’s Old City.
The evening would commence when our Morris Minor headed towards the mazar (shrine) of the renowned 11th Century Sufi Saint Ali Hajweri, lovingly known as Data Ganj Buksh, the ‘Bestower of Spiritual Treasures’. The shrine lay just outside the famous Bhatti Gate. Lahore was built as a walled City with 13 ancient gates as a protection against invaders. Thursday is always a festive occasion at the Data Ganj Buksh’s shrine with thousands of devotees milling around, buying flowers for offering, eating spicy deep fried fish or jeelibis-sweet syrupy pretzels, or negotiating the price of food meant to feed the devotees.
The Shrine of Data Ganj Buksh
Agha would take off in the tomb’s direction after installing us in the outer courtyard where the qawals (devotional singers) rendered Sufi poetry, celebrating the oneness of religions and humanity, while fakirs performed pirouettes to rhythmic music and drums. After his supplications, Agha would lead us to the tomb so that we too could pay respects and make a wish. Invariably, my little secret prayer was to receive the maximum amount of sugar coated almonds which the sajjada nasheens-the hereditary shrine mangers, would hand out to kids, at the exit.
Tragically, the edifice of my childhood mystical experience was recently shattered when heartless terrorists blew devotees to smithereens at Data Ganj Buksh’s shrine earlier this month.
After this spiritual cleansing we headed for Lahore’s Inner City through its Roshani Gate located in the NorthWest corner of the City, famous for the “Dancing Girls of Lahore”. Our car meandered like molasses through the city’s narrow alleys, reaching Choona Mundi in the precint of Sheranwala Gate, where my grandparents had built a haveli known as Bangla Ayub Shah.
My great-grandparents: Shahzada Muazzam Jan & Shahzadi Fatima Begum
In the ‘50s there were no cell phones, not even that many landline connections, but fortunately Bibi, my grandmother had developed a perfect sense of our arrival time. She would always anticipate it, squeeze us warmly and have on offer a plate of sizzling pakoras- spicy tempura, prepared by the famous Boota who had set up shop in front of our ancestral home. Actually, it’s only after the passage of decades that it dawned on me that city life styles are universal. Whether one lives in Manhattan or Inner City Lahore the most delicious foods are accessible 24/7 and at stones throw, from anywhere.
Spicy Tempura: Vegetable Pakoras
As if to prove this phenomena, Bibi would order succulent lamb kebabs and fresh nan from Kalifa Kebab joint, adjacent to our home. The kebabs had earned a reputation across the entire City, since Kalifa (Caliph) had developed and mastered the art of producing the highest quality kebabs, defined by their near-zero fat content and exotic condiments which made them light and silky smooth-the kebabs would crumble even with the most tender touch, while its aroma would latch on to one’s memory forever!
Regrettably, Khalifa took the kebab recipe with him to the grave leaving only a few assistants with the technique, but what good is technique without secret ingredients?
The Thursday visits would end with a stroll to Bibi’s sisters’ home in the adjacent compounds, each with its own bubbling fountain, colored window panes, ornate mirrors in the living room and an “improvised heater” (known as a sandali in dari): coal embers placed under a wooden table and covered with the largest duvet. Bibi’s eldest sister Khawar Jan would be sitting upright aided by a bolster pillow and dragging at her nargile. Her stern husband our senior grand dad Shahzada Saleh Jan seemed perpetually glued to a radio with a green tweaking magic eye-it resembled a Cyclops, which sent a slight tremor in my still infant heart.
After receiving our blessings we rapidly retreated to Bibi’s domain where the farewell dessert awaited us. There were choices: kheer (rice pudding) or gajarella (a milky carrot and rice pudding), even heavenly diamond shaped burfi (made of the purest milk). All these were procured in a flash from the next door Milk and Sweet Meats vendor, Ilim Din (the Knowledgeable One). Since there were no refrigerators in those days the dessert plates were placed and cooled on ice slabs. The pudding was embellished with slivered almonds and saffron/pistachio dust, mouth watering to the extent that I would polish it off with my little fingers.
The dessert gorging event marked the end of another memorable circle of our own version of “Pray, Love and Eat“.
Pakoras with paudinay ki chutney (mint and yoghurt)
There is no set / precise recipe, as such for pakoras. But I shall try to give a general recipe.
You will have to deep-fry the pakoras. Place oil (2-3 inches of it) in wok on medium-high heat. Select some vegetables of choice, I used aubergine, potatoes and onions. Slice them very thinly. Roast some zeera (whole cumin seeds and set aside). In a mixing bowl, combine besan (gram flour) with salt, baking powder (a tsp should do), roasted zeera (cumin seeds) and red pepper flakes. Slowly add in water, a few drops at a time, and stir till it becomes a thick mixture, a bit like cake batter. Dredge your vegetables in the batter and test one in the wok. It should slowly turn golden. If it burns, turn the heat a tad bit lower-you don’t want a crisp crust with raw vegetables inside. You will have to play around with this through trial and error. Continue to drop dredged vegetables into the wok one by one. They should take about 1 minute per side, to become a golden brown. Serve with a mint-yoghurt chutney and piping hot builder’s tea- a Pakistani version of ‘afternoon tea‘.