Photo by my husband, Z.
Below is my latest published piece for Edible Toronto’s Winter Issue. You can also view it on their website here. I am also excited to announce that I was one of three three finalists in a group of 60+ Edible magazines in the US/Canada for Best Editorial/Food or Cooking Focused for this article.
Where The Sun Comes From
Memories of My Grandmother
By Shayma Saadat
Shameem was the given name of my paternal grandmother. Her favourite drink was Crème de Menthe, which she always drank chilled, and she was the best tango dancer in Lahore. My father tells me that the band at the Lahore Gymkhana Club would strike up the tango as soon as my grandparents entered the ballroom. They had won many tango competitions and their favourite song was Bahía Blanca. With my grandfather in his tuxedo and my grandmother in her silk sari, they would twirl around the outside of the dance floor in true Argentine style – long, elegant steps – her sari’s folds sashaying with each move. I often wonder how she did the legendary gancho, or leg hook, in her sari. I wish I could ask her, but she passed away in our home in Nairobi, Kenya, when I was sixteen years old.
We affectionately called her Mader, which means mother in Farsi. Everyone called her that. My parents, my friends, the fruit-wallah in Lahore who would save the freshest neon-orange persimmons for her, and the owner of Ajmer Bakery who kept a dozen vegetable patties aside for her every Thursday. Even our cook, Lala Ashraf, who learnt to make lasagne verde from her, called her Mader.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1916, Mader lived there for most of her life. Widowed when she was sixty, she came to live with us in Washington, D.C., but the pull of her homeland was too strong; she returned after two years. When I was thirteen I was sent to Pakistan to live with her for a few years. She taught me how to speak Farsi, paraphrased Shakespeare’s Richard II for me, and sat next to me all night when I studied for my final exams. She made sure the fruit basket in my room was always full and lunch was ready when I came back from school at one o’clock. I remember sitting with her for lunch and having our preferred dish of potatoes and aubergines made with roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions. We would chatter as our fingers scooped it all up with a chapati.
Mader had gone through a double mastectomy and had heart trouble, preventing her from standing up for long periods of time. On weekends my cousin Saadiya and I would go into the kitchen and, as Mader sat on her stool and instructed us, we would cook together. Mader loved making fresh mayonnaise. Lala Ashraf would set the mise en place on the marble counter. I would then begin to slice my knife through the tiny lemons that came from the Chinese dwarf tree in our garden and Saadiya would measure out the olive oil. Then eggs would go into the blender and Mader would guide us as oil was added, drop by golden drop, into the blender. Like alchemy, the ingredients would come together, transforming into a glob of pillowy, creamy lusciousness. And finally, we’d add Mader’s secret ingredient: a tiny dusting of brick-red smoked paprika. Lala Ashraf and Mader would spread this fluffy emulsion on soft, crustless slices of bread and add chunks of roast chicken and plump tomatoes. We would sit in our breakfast room and enjoy these sandwiches with the rest of the family, washing them down with glasses of mango squash. Saadiya was a talented baker, and there would be a slice of one of her spongy cakes with fresh fruit for dessert.
Mader’s father had passed away when she was a mere nine years old, leaving her mother with the responsibility of bringing up four daughters. Each piece of heirloom jewellery was sold so that her daughters could be educated. Mader was one of the first women in Pakistan to obtain an M.A. in economics. In addition to educating her daughters, she made sure they were also taught to cook. As a child, I always saw Mader in the kitchen with Lala Ashraf – cutting, chopping, and grinding on the marble counter from her stool. But the dishes she prepared didn’t seem like the ones her mother would have taught her. Back in the 1960s Mader had taken cookery classes from a Pakistani lady who taught Cantonese Chinese cooking, but her real interest lay in French food. She enrolled for classes at the French Cultural Institute in Lahore known as Cordon Bleu. I wonder if chefs were invited to Pakistan from this prestigious cookery school in Paris or if the instructor merely used recipes from the school to teach the students. Either way, she emerged from this school armed with recipes for Béarnaise sauce and how to make a perfectly airy chocolate soufflé.
As a wife, mother and civil servant, Mader took these classes in her free time. She would often make pommes au four with a cinnamon stick wedged in the middle of each apple and serve it to her husband and two sons with a good pour of crème anglaise; a dish my father craves to this very day. Some days she would request the chef of the U.S. Consul General to teach her how to make American-style pies and casseroles in her home kitchen. And from her American tenants who were in Lahore on a Ford Foundation scholarship, she learnt how to make a perfect pot roast with golden roasted potatoes.
All the dishes Mader prepared for me when I was a child were those that she had learnt from her cookery classes. Some days there would be a zucchini gratin with béchamel, the kind that comes out of the oven all bronzed and bubbly on top, or a lemon-yellow Victoria sponge cake sandwiched together with homemade apricot jam. And my favourite, a Cantonese chicken corn soup which was stirred and stirred for hours. I loved watching her perform the last step – the whisked raw eggs being poured in, metamorphosing into strands of silk floating lightly in the soup.
As for dishes from her heritage – Pakistani or Irani – I suppose that as a working woman who didn’t cook on a daily basis she felt those were best left to the experts, the cooks in her kitchen. I have heard stories of my grandmother’s Irani ancestry, but by the time I became keenly interested in finding out more about where her family had come from, Mader was long gone. My father tells me that Mader’s grandfather, Syed Nadir Ali Shah, was a Sufi Saint from Iran. He came from a province in the northeast called Khorasan, the land of saffron and zereshk – barberries. As a young adult, Syed Nadir Ali Shah migrated from his abode in Iran to present-day Pakistan to spread the Sufi word. Whilst there, he came across a beautiful girl with hazel eyes and hair as black as licorice, and married her soon after. This woman was Mader’s grandmother. He made a home for himself in Lahore and never returned to Sabzevar, the city of his birth.
Mader had taught me how to make a béchamel sauce, and to speak Farsi, but she never shared anything about her Irani heritage with me. I wanted to know more about Syed Nadir Ali Shah: did he miss his country of birth; how did he teach his wife and children Farsi; and did he tell them that the province of his birth, Khorasan, means Where The Sun Comes From in Farsi? As I became more curious about the land that Mader’s grandfather was from, I began to research Sufism in Iran and also delve into Irani cookery. The kukus: baked frittatas, some made with fresh, verdant herbs, others with roasted aubergine; the delicate polows: rice dishes with candied orange rind, zereshk and pistachios; khoreshts: the warm stews that are simmered on the stove for hours and eaten with mounds of steaming rice. I continued to cook Irani dishes as a tribute to Mader, my grandmother who was an enigma and a fascinating woman from that era, the lady who taught my father how to make ikebana flower arrangements and who passed away silently one night at our home in Nairobi.
I would love to have been able to create tahchin, a traditional Irani dish, with her. It is much like the Neapolitan pasta timbale I learnt to make when I lived in Rome, except that this dish is made with rice and chicken and has intense currents of saffron’s golden, musky aroma running through it. I would like to have been in the kitchen with Mader, at the marble counter in our family home in Lahore, grinding saffron threads in the mortar and pestle, adding drops of water and then seeing it all transform into a brilliant vermillion syrup. I would have watched her, seated on her stool, mixing steamed rice with egg yolks and yogurt. Then together we would add the saffron water into the rice mixture, watching the colour bleed slowly into it, a transformation from yellow to gold.
Finally, how wonderful it would be if Mader and I could sit down to have a meal together, like we did when I was thirteen years old, and say nosh-e-jan – bon appétit. Except this time I would pour her a small glass of chilled Crème de Menthe as a digestif.
Shayma Saadat is a Pakistani-Afghan of Irani ancestry and the author of the food-memoir-style blog “The Spice Spoon: Cooking Without Borders” (www.thespicespoon.com). She was born in Lahore and grew up in Pakistan, the U.S., Nigeria, Kenya, Bangladesh, and the U.K. Two years ago, Shayma moved from Rome, Italy, where she worked for the United Nations, to Toronto, where she is a Senior Policy Advisor to the Canadian government. She lives in Toronto with her husband.
Here is the recipe for tahchin.
Here is the recipe for mast-o-khiar.