My father loves inviting people over for dinner. Throughout my childhood, I remember he would often call my mother in the morning from his office desk, telling her that his friend from work will join us for dinner that night. That was easy enough for my Ami to accommodate, because we always had a Pakistani spread on our dining table at home – meat, vegetables or lentils and rice or bread – which made for fun, communal eating. A few hours later, Baba would call again at noon and tell Ami that we need to add place settings for two additional guests.
By the time Baba came home from work, there would many a time be five more people sitting at our dining table, enjoying my mother’s signature aromatic rice dish, made with musky cloves, black cardamom and black pepper berries. Our guests would ladle Ami’s tangy lime-infused chicken curry over the rice and then Baba would spoon lots of cooling, strained yoghurt onto their plates. Interestingly enough, it was the simplest Punjabi peasant dish on the table that our guests adored the most, my mother’s masoor ki dal; lentils with roasted garlic and tomatoes.
I don’t know how my mother did it, but there was always enough food for everyone. Back then, when I was in my early years of elementary school, we did not have any household help; so she was doing it entirely on her own. A phone call from my father at 4pm, and she would even add a creamy, milky, crushed rice pudding studded with roasted almonds and pistachios to the mix. Sometimes she served it with canned pears or peaches.
The meal was a product of my mother’s effortless perfection and my father’s Afghan-style of hospitality – inviting not one, but five people over a matter of a few hours to our home, on a school night. I never heard my mother or my father complaining about how hard it was; they loved to entertain and have people break bread at their table. They particularly loved inviting guests who had not tried Pakistani food prior to dinner at our home.
I am like my father; I want people over all the time, eating, drinking, talking in my home. But I am not like my mother in this respect, I don’t always have a perfectly laid out table for my dinner guests. Ami may not have had a job in an office, but she worked full-time; she was a mother, a wife, a homemaker and despite the fact that she had her two children to take care of (by the time my third sister was born we had a housekeeper), our table was always set for dinner and food was served in beautiful china her and my father had collected over the years.
When my friends come over, many a time, if they are friends-like-family, they help themselves straight from the cooking pots and pans in the kitchen, spooning food onto their dinner plates. I know it doesn’t sound very elegant (and my mother would be appalled if I told her this), but sometimes, it is more important to spend time dipping your bread into a saffron butter sauce while listening to your friend talk about her summer travel plans to Croatia, rather than making fancy, intricate meals which take you away from her and your other guests.Some evenings, and not all, I want these moments to be remembered for the gathering itself, and not the perfectly laid out table with the polished silver flatware I inherited (pinched) from my mother. No doubt, this would make the meal more aesthetically beautiful. The truth is, I can only wish to be half the kind of hosts my mother and father have always been.
For now, my guests can come over and enjoy this herb-fragranced shellfish appetiser straight out of the iron skillet, chatting away as we peel the coral skin off that plump piece of shrimp, get our fingers greasy, and wash it down with some chilled Perrin rosé.
I promise to (maybe) serve food in one of my beautiful porcelain platters next time – because even these shiny objects have a story to tell, about a time, place or person in one’s life.
Serves 4 as an appetiser
*2 tsp saffron threads, crushed into powder in a pestle and mortar
*50ml warm water
*2 leeks, whites and tender green parts halved, thinly sliced into half moon shapes and washed well (here is a how-to for chopping leeks). This should yield approximately 150-200g of chopped leeks. Pat leeks dry before cooking
*3 tbsp olive oil
*500g shrimps, shell on, deveined and washed
*50g herbs of your choice, chopped fine. I used coriander/cilantro (leaves and stems), Italian flat leaf parsley (leaves only) and mint (leaves only)
*2tbsp unsalted butter
*sea salt, to taste
*your choice of bread to enjoy the shrimps with
*Divide saffron powder into two batches. Add 50 ml warm water (approximately 4.5 tbsps) to one batch, stir and set aside. Leave the other batch as is, in powdered form. You will use it later.
*Pat leeks dry before you begin to cook.
*Place a large frying pan (I use this one, which is 30cm / 12in) on the stove on medium heat and add oil.
*When oil is hot and glistening, add leeks and sauté till they begin to wilt a bit, just about 5-7 minutes. Do not brown or overcook leeks.
*Turn heat to medium-high and add shrimps and saffron water. Sauté till the shrimp shells turn pink, about 3-4 minutes. Add herbs, gently stir to combine, take pan off stove and set aside.
*Working very quickly (you don’t want the shrimps to completely cool down), place a small saucepan or frying pan on high heat and add butter. As soon as butter begins to melt, add the reserved powdered saffron, stir and pour this saffron-butter over shrimps. Gently stir to combine.
*Sprinkle sea salt on top and serve immediately.
*Enjoy with your choice of bread.