The last time my sister came to Pakistan was 5 years ago. In five years, she’s missed the passing of several close relatives, two weddings and a newborn baby (18 days old). From among her friends, she’s missed three new births and another two weddings. She was more than excited at the thought of finally coming home, even if it was for just ten days.
Her greatest excitement, however, was not over seeing her friends, or cooing over new babies. It was, to some extent, over seeing her mother (and her sister) again. For the most part, she was psyched to be eating Pakistani food again. She made it her mission, in fact, to eat as many Karachi staples as possible. She shared her status on Facebook, asked her friends for recommendation and reminders for foods she may have overlooked, and had a list ready even before she flew. She emailed the list to me and my mother so that we could have her favorite dishes cooked and ready for her first meal in Pakistan.
My sister’s list wasn’t limited to meals cooked by Mom. She was craving kebab rolls from DHA Market. For those unaware, kebab rolls are made of a fried nan, better known to desis as ‘parathas’, wrapped around succulent barbecued beef or chicken pieces and moistened with a spicy green chutney. It’s one of those casual foods that you can get almost anywhere in Pakistan, but the DHA Market rolls are wrapped in a crisp and flaky paratha, and I have yet to figure out what makes their chutney stand out so much. Either way, it’s not an easy taste to replicate.
From Mom, she got a light, delicious biryani. Anyone who knows what biryani is knows that it’s cooked in a great deal of oil, and is laden with spice. We’re a health-conscious family, however, and while we can handle the massive amount of spice in our foods (Pakistani foods are incredibly hot. Even the hottest Mexican chilli can’t compete. If a Pakistani ever landed on Arrakis, he’d be the planet’s biggest spice trader), we prefer it to be less greasy. Biryani is a dish of rice and meat cooked separately and then merged together. It takes a great deal of skill to make it because the flavours of the meat have to permeate the rice even though the rice is boiled (and strained) before the meat is layered into it. It takes skill because the cooked rice is soaked with the gravy from the meat. In ordinary circumstances, this would overcook the rice, but well-made biryani has perfectly cooked rice that separates with ease. The finished dish is garnished with chopped coriander and crisp, fried onions.
My mother cooked her low-oil, low-spice biryani twice for my sister. The second batch was canned and flew back to Rochester, NY, along with a dish known as ‘mirch ka salan’. I am at a loss to describe it. It’s not actually a Pakistani dish, nor an Indian one—it’s a dish peculiar to Hyderabad Deccan in India, but won’t be found anywhere outside of the princely state. When my family migrated from India to Pakistan during Partition, they brought their recipes with them. ‘Mirch ka salan’ is literally translated into ‘chilli curry’, and it’s one of those dishes best paired with biryani. In fact, Hyderabadi biryani is cooked without chillies, or any ‘red’ ingredients at all (such as tomatoes, which is a regular base, along with onions for our curries).
‘Mirch ka salan’ is cooked with large green chillies, fried and then sautéed in a concoction of ingredients that include poppy seeds (kash kash), desiccated coconut, sesame seeds, and cumin. A healthy dose of red chilli powder and tamarind gives it the zing that makes it an unforgettable taste (or it just might be the minuscule opiates present in the poppy seeds. Who knows?).
While my sister took back Mom’s food, she couldn’t can or package Karachi’s fried chicken, better known as ‘broast’. It’s not your standard fried chicken. It isn’t spicy either, which makes it’s popularity in a country that thrives on spicy food a little weird. Broast is breaded, battered chicken deep fried in a giant pressure cooker. We have the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise here, but it can’t hold a candle to the taste of local broast. The broast franchise closest to home, Jan’s Broasted Chicken, knew us by sight. In the ten days my sister was here, we had lunch at Jan’s almost every other day.
The rest of the time, when my sister wasn’t gorging on Mom’s cooking, she had chapli kebab from Burns Road, a savoury flat kebab made of beef and pomegranate seeds and fried in a large vat of oil. She ate bun kebabs from the corner stall at the local market. Bun kebabs are local versions of burgers, but without mayonnaise or ketchup. Then there was our particular version of Chinese food with its fried prawns and crispy fish, the Pakistani-inspired version of shawarma (which means, the spicier version of the Middle Eastern staple), chicken tikka, haleem, nihari, reshmi kebab, karahi, gol gappay, chaat, pulao, halwa puri, kulfi and a host of tastes and flavours from all over Pakistan that have found their way to the largest city in the country.
Her visit reminded me, as did all the food we ate while she was here, that we are a nation of diverse people. That we enjoy life most when we’re stuffing our faces with greasy, spicy food that isn’t necessarily cooked in the most hygienic conditions. And that, if we just thought with our stomachs instead of our prejudices, we would have no problem getting along under one sun.