Recollection of a Sunday Morning at Dr. Zoha’s home.
Flavors that remind me of home, my comfort foods, are my childhood connection with my dearest mother.
A soft malleable dough made with “maida” wheat flour, high in gluten and elasticity to stretch just right, is ideal for making a small, round, symmetrical disc, deep-fried patiently over a gentle flame, in a wok partially filled with melted ghee. This is a delicious bread that is laden with my childhood memories. If you have ever had a warm, steaming, freshly made kachori, you would also agree that there is no parallel.
The white soft spongy texture of the dough is impossible to forget if one has ever played with it. The small black specs of kalonji (nigella) seeds rolled and scattered in the dough would exude a mesmerizing woody toasted fragrance. It wasn’t a breakfast; it was a celebration. The aroma of pure ghee (clarified butter) followed the smoke from the kitchen which was active early on Sunday mornings in the Zoha household at 47N, Block 2, P.E.C.H.S, and most other residences in this humble, middle-class, mostly muhajir neighborhood. The kerosene stove would start off with a smoky amber blaze and its signature smell faded into a calm blue flame with radiant heat. It was a dimly lit, small kitchen with two stoves, a mantle, and a sink. A couple of cabinets to store the pots, pans, and cooking utensils.
While sitting on the kitchen floor, I would make bird statues with the dough that lay dusted with flour in a shallow aluminum tasla (kneading bowl); I couldn’t roll the “peyra” (balls of dough), round enough, no matter how much I tried. Meanwhile, I would watch Ammi roll the dough perfectly into small flat discs and slip them into melted ghee without a single splash. The disc would gently sink to the bottom of the wok and in less than a minute begin its rise to the top in the gurgling, bubbling liquid. Ammi would sift each one, skillfully dripping all the fat back into the wok as the crisp yet soft kachori would be placed in a (chalni) sieve tray so the remaining fat could slowly drip off. I would watch the rest of the nashta (breakfast) being prepared in anticipation.
My mornings would start with a trip to the corner butcher stand. A short walk through the narrow back alley, one could already see a small line to the butcher’s kiosk. The shop was an open wooden crate on stilts, probably 2 cubic meters in size, on wooden posts, with blue plastic netting around to prevent the flies from entering in all directions. This box of a shop had a sense of temporary permanence that served its purpose, a reminder that like all things, someday, it would disappear without a trace. A raised platform where the butcher and his assistant would sit with the cuts of mutton, beef, and often a half or full carcass of a goat hanging within his hand’s reach. I would go as early as possible as he would only have a limited number of goat liver for sale.
Life was simple, fresh meat, no refrigeration, take it and be grateful. I would impatiently watch him skillfully section each part, and clean it from the membranes attached to the tendons. Wanting to lay claim to the prized liver, from behind the line “Bhai!! Kaleji Meri Liyae Rakhna” I would loudly announce my meager presence, speaking out, asserting the butcher to hold the entrails for me. As if I had any clout, but I had to assert myself here and everywhere. When you are the youngest in the family of many, this becomes a survival instinct. The butcher would smile, acknowledge me with a nod, and keep on working. There was nothing one could do if the person ahead of the line bought the liver. Once it was sold, it was gone. I had to be an early bird to get the kaleji.
On my return, I would pridefully display my shopping skills by presenting the liver, kidney, lungs, and heart that cost less than a single rupee, and Ammi’s approving smile or its absence was enough of praise to know that I had done a good job or if the butcher had duped me. She would carefully wash and slice the liver using the “Haswa”, a stationary foot knife with a reverse scythe-like blade, that would enable one to cut using both hands. I later found out that haswa was mostly used in Bihari and Bengali households and was not known among most other muhajir families. Ammi would adeptly cut the liver into meticulously uniform cubes along with the pink lungs, rings of cartilaginous windpipe, heart, and kidneys. I would watch her intently. I loved watching Ammi prepare food. She had an air about her while cooking, and a finesse that turned every morsel into an explosion of flavors. It remains embedded in my taste buds and my memories. I believed that Ammi could make even the stale food taste scrumptious, however, it wasn’t unusual for Papa to comment on the lack or excess of salt. Perhaps it was a tradition, but she never complained about it. Papa was the ultimate word on if the food tasted well. Ammi was very aware and confident of her culinary skills. But her secret ingredient were not the spices, the skillful hands, or her recipes. It was pure love of those whom she cooked for, respect for the food as a blessing, and her love for creating a tasty morsel. To me, she was an artist in the kitchen and outside.
At times, she would prepare the masala for the kaleji on the sil/batta (grinding stone) and then transfer it proportionally into the hot wok that would simmer the brown paste along with cubed contents. The paste would be so fine and saturated with a complex aroma that exuded as it was heated in the melted ghee. Each ingredient was ground to the perfect texture to ensure that each spice maintained a balance in taste. This was a labor of love. The alchemy of spices. The smoky flavor of the ingredients would permeate the small kitchen and then flow out in all directions. While that was going on, she would peel the potato with a small paring knife so deftly that each potato, no matter how bruised and blemished it may have been, would come through as a round yellow sphere that would be sliced thinly so it would cook evenly. Each slice would be uniform and I marveled at her expert hands that went about slicing them without missing a beat. The potatoes would be sauteed along with caramelized onions, a splash of salt, ground black pepper, and dried red crushed chilies that added a bit of heat but more of a hint of pungency to the fragrance of this concoction that tasted heavenly.
The Sunday breakfast menu was often kaleji, bhujia, omelette, kachori, and sometimes Baji would bring out her stash of balai (clotted cream) that she had been storing for days from the daily deliveries of the fresh milk, or Appi would add with the leftover torai bhujia from the dinner the night before. Rarely some suji halwa with toasted almond slivers would show up as a surprise. There were always additional family members who would drop by unannounced.
Chai was served but not to the children. The fluffy quilted tea cozy reminded me of a lihaf (comforter) made for the porcelain teapot. Its unveiling was followed by the pouring of the fuming gold amber liquid, adding a dash of milk and sugar before it was served. The color of tea would transform into a terracotta cloudy blend, as the tea was passed on to every adult. I never felt deprived though I do not recall ever being offered tea or drinking it. “Bachey chai nahee peetay” (Kids don’t drink tea) was enough to know that I wasn’t going to get it. The dark ironwood brown table was adjacent to the bookshelf that held the only radio in the house. It was a Cossor. A large box with glowing vacuum tubes in the back and two knobs on each side. One for tuning and the other for volume. Radio Pakistan would be tuned to the Sunday morning ritual, broadcast of a family comedy drama “Hamid Mian Kay Haan”. And 15 minutes of lighthearted comedy would fade into family laughter, teasing, and unspoken expectation of who would get the remainder masala before it got swiped by someone else. Simplicity and contentment were practiced but not preached. Abundance was in our minds and hearts. Love for the family and mankind was the only asset that was treasured. We were never poor. Poverty was a measurement of money; and there was certainly a limited amount of that. We were wealthy because there was an excess of love and the presence of unlimited joy. Food was enough to curb the appetite, to rejoice the flavors, to sustain, but not means to gluttony. Every day had its ritual and each day was one that was lived in presence. A house that was barely 100 square meters, was a mansion for a family of 7, and often many more. Sharing every aspect of our lives in close quarters was the norm and though we all lived in this small home, it was large enough for anyone who needed a place to stay.
The feelings and the taste remain in perpetuity as I look back and remind myself of the blessings that the Creator has bestowed upon me. Yet another testament to the small butcher’s kiosk that my temporary presence will also fade along with the forgotten memories of the past.