Shahbano Bilgrami is a reportage editor at Papercuts. A published poet, writer and freelance editor, her debut novel, Without Dreams, was long listed for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize (2007). Shahbano's second novel, Those Children (HarperCollins) was published in January 2017 and shortlisted for the DSC South Asia Prize in Literature.
Foodies in the Boonies
Charting the links between geography and gluttony, feast, and famine, this personal essay is a memory-trip that dreams up some fabled haleem before the actual pitstop – because food and taste and even hunger are nothing if not nostalgia.
I always thought of myself as a ‘big-city’ kind of girl. After all, I had spent at least ten years of my life growing up, studying, and working in one of the world’s largest metropolises. Even at that time, the early 2000’s, Karachi was the kind of place where driving from one part of the city to another required a two-hour commitment and a dogged determination to survive the journey – traffic, pollution, teeming crowds notwithstanding. But I knew no other life and reveled in it. There is still something exhilarating about Karachi that draws millions of people to it; one of the attractions of this great yet complicated place definitely being food.
A decade later, however, I am somewhere quite different: a small American town called Corning. The story of my transplantation from a busy Karachi life to the rural backwaters of a depressed area of Upstate New York is not the subject of this essay though – because as I stare out of the window, directly into the green-and-gold leaves of the nearest tree (and there are many), it isn’t the grand colonial buildings or grey seascape of Karachi that I remember; what I’m dreaming about is its food.
Brought up on aloo-gosht and masoor ki daal – not pot roast and mac and cheese – I believe I had imbibed the flavours of a subcontinental palate as early as even before my birth. The squall that accompanied my bloody emergence from the womb was an imperious cry not only for food, but for food of a certain kind and calibre. Unfortunately, I now live in a town where an ethnic meal consists of stale ‘red’ chicken at the local Indian joint, gourmet fare is grocery-store sushi, and one of the joys of a Saturday night is barbecue chicken at a hole-in-the-wall called ‘Slammin’ Jammin’. I often think back with longing to the days when my colleagues and I used to plan out the menu for the week before Ramzan – rolls and aloo bonday, Students’ Biryani, Karachi Haleem – in decadent preparation for a month of fasting.
My introduction to the word ‘glutton’ came early on in my gastronomical career. I must have been eleven or twelve. On my third helping of biryani, my very own mother lovingly called me a ‘greedy glutton’. I had a passion for food and, more significantly, an alarming ability to consume large, unladylike quantities of it. Heaps and heaps. Till I was literally sick to my stomach. It wasn’t exactly my fault though: the greedy gene ran in my family. Even my father, as a boy, had been known to hide gigantic chunks of gur under his bed for the occasional nocturnal sugar-binge.
I have, over the years, wholeheartedly embraced this part of my heritage, sometimes outdoing even the most gluttonous of my clan. There is a story – still in circulation among close family – of my gorging on an entire glassful of greasy bone marrow from a dish of spicy nihari and of the monumental bellyache that followed!
My food journey has not always been pretty, but it has certainly provided me with the most intense moments of joy in my life. And in this, I am definitely not alone. I see it all around me, here in Upstate New York, in the wilds of West Virginia, and in other parts of the United States where ethnic food options are limited. Because while living out in the American boondocks has its advantages – clean air, gorgeous scenery, brisk summer evenings by the lake, apple-picking in late fall – one of the luxuries it does not afford you is access to ethnic restaurants and, in particular, good desi food.
Hence the universal obsession with good desi food – at least among desis. For most cultures, food is merely an excuse for social interaction. In America, a smattering of cold cuts, cheeses, ‘chips ‘n dips’, and crackers can get you through a successful dinner party. Not so a desi one. Hosting a dinner party in America’s remoter towns is like being cursed with a week-long affliction, beginning with the planning of the menu and the purchase of provisions in gargantuan-sized boxes, followed by the week-long preparation of dozens of appetizers, main courses and desserts. Unless you are another kind of glutton – a glutton for punishment – you really have to think twice before putting yourself through the torture.
But the sad truth is that if you live in a rural backwater, and you are accustomed to desi food, you either have to cook it yourself or starve. Stories still circulate of a fabled past – the ‘60s and the ‘70s – when the earliest American desis, the gastronomic pioneers, used their wit and ingenuity to make everything from kulfi to naan in their new American homes.
It is true that people who love food love it unconditionally and irrespective of geography. However, there is a unique kind of hunger, a sort of desperate and insatiable longing that exile, distance, and unattainability bring to the equation. I’m not saying that only people in exile from their homeland crave the tart-sweetness of a Karachi chaat or the hearty satisfaction of Lahore’s chikar cholay, but that all of these delectable dishes take on a deeper meaning when your access to them is limited or denied. The separation is sometimes as painful as unrequited love, leaving an emptiness, a gnawing hunger for the familiar foods of the past. After all, why does nothing ever taste as good as the kulfi Amma once used to make?
Interestingly enough, there is a scientific explanation for this seemingly irrational craving for food as a vehicle for memory. In his book, ‘The Omnivorous Mind’, John S. Allen argues that ‘We all have our food memories, some good and some bad. The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting.’ He further elaborates on the physiological role of the brain’s hippocampus, which ‘has more direct links to the digestive system. Many of the hormones that regulate appetite, digestion, and eating behavior also have receptors’ there.
It is no wonder then that these foods from our past become the stuff of myth, legend, even fantasy, especially after a glum night of rubbery Big Macs or yards of New York-style pizza. They are the topic of animated discussions between desi friends over meals at Red Lobster or Olive Garden, or between sips of tepid tea-bag chai when all we ever dream of is doodh-patti. Being a foodie in the boonies requires patience and self-denial. Days, sometimes months go by without a hot chapli kebab, but there is a strange kind of pleasure to be had from talking about one. Nothing can beat the cathartic effect of an imaginary food orgy, where shaadi ka korma is discussed in rapturous detail along with the taftaan and Coke. As Allen argues in his book, these foods and others are evocative of memories and connect us, in a deep and fundamental way, to the countries we come from.
Ultimately, however, there is only one solution to this hunger:. Sooner or later, the phantom meals we imagine have to become real. It is then, wild-eyed and hungry, that we set off for the desi quarters of the nearest big cities, driving great distances from our remote homes to the meccas of desi food. These pilgrimages to Oak Tree Road in Edison, NJ, Devon (lovingly [mis]pronounced ‘Diwaan’) in Chicago, or the fabled Gerrard Street in Toronto bring with them gorging and excess. Once the meat and groceries have been purchased, the mandatory Indian film watched, the true purpose of the visit emerges. Leaving pretense behind, all thoughts of ‘ambience’ and ‘character’ are forgotten as we sit at plastic tables in grimy dining halls wading elbow-deep in haleem. Breakfasts of aloo-puri followed by nihari for lunch and tikka-kebab for dinner are crowned with the simple, sweet glory of a meetha paan.
Aaaaaah, sweet gluttony!
Fighting off heart burn and the nausea of over-indulgence, the drive back home from one of these expeditions is always a dreary one, the looming sign of a McDonald’s in the distance indicating that restaurants Sabri and Shahnawaz have been left far, far behind. No amount of frozen ‘laal’ seekh kebabs or tubs of greasy karahi taste quite like the originals.
With the scent of nihari still on my fingers and the odor of deep-fried pakoras in my hair, I hover over the last Styrofoam box of biryani. As a glutton, I want it all. As a mother, I’ve learned how to share. Pushing the box towards my three girls, I watch as they shovel spoonfuls into their greedy little mouths. They have, it seems, drunk deep of their gene pool. Their food memories, a combination of biryani and country-fried steaks, will one day lead them on their own gastronomic adventures. Perhaps, as adults, they’ll remember the little town in Upstate New York where they grew up and their Amma’s ‘chaawal-chicken’ the way I remember Karachi and my adolescent encounter with a tumblerful of marrow.