Little Lahore, Dubai, September 2023
Please note that this is a long read, and I recommend that you order yourself a meal before you decide to sit down with these words. The classic breakfast from Little Lahore was my choice for this story's scripting and narration, and I loved that it came with choices between Masala Chai, Karak Chai, and Lassi!
He’s always full of recipes.
Away from home, his wife and children, for the last 17 years — he’s learned to cook, not because he had no choice, but because genders aside, he believes each of us should know how to cook ourselves a meal. We’re not on a first-name basis, rather we’re on a first-to-share recipe basis. A hardcore meat-eater from Lahore, he swears by the Chicken Qeema he cooks, yet, he’s always happy to admit that his Aloo Bhaji is as good! “I don’t cook that, often, though,” he shares as he offers to order in a portion for me. His home, his first home, is under construction in Lahore, on the outskirts of the city, “I want my children to breathe in the fresh air, and eat from the farm.” We joke that after being a manager for so long, he’d turn into a farmer raising animals, and nurturing plants. He can’t wait to start that life, he adds, “To return home for more than the one month of annual leave.”
He licks his fingers, sheepishly, “I know is rude to do that, but this is how you polish off the Qeema from the plate.” Indeed, he prefers the Qeema but tells me that, “The tangy Aloo Bhaji is a classic in his home.” We talk about how Qeema is best when shared with a bunch of dost-yaar. Next, he tells me he can cook a ‘savage’ daal, a word he’s picked from his teenage daughter over the last video call. I mock his ever-changing vocabulary, and as soon as my back is to him, I too sheepishly polish off the bhaji from my fingers!
It’s his last day at work.
For 47 years, he worked in the same organisation — and performed his tasks with diligence and happiness. Now, he wants to head home and sleep every Sunday. And the best Sunday sleep is guaranteed with extra helpings of Lahori Channa and Poori. So, for his farewell, we’ve decided to make sure he (and us) eat enough of his favourite meal. He’s full of stories, which start, with ‘Hamare Zamane Mein…” and end up with him and his cousins gobbling more-than-allowed portions of street food. Lahori Channa is one from his childhood album, which he still holds close to. The lunch hour goes beyond the said hour, and nobody complains, for the flavourful chickpeas and stories win over.
“We’ll miss walking in here and not having you tell us boring stories,” we laugh. And he tells us, he’ll narrate them on YouTube. His granddaughter has set him an account, he says. “We look forward to that,” we tell him, and he once again shows us he’s ahead of the game, “It’s a private channel!” And just like that, over Lahori Channa and laughter, another e-mail address is deactivated by the systems department. Tomorrow, we’ll begin again, “Hamare Zamane Mein…”
He’s missing Ammi.
He wipes his hands off the sleeves of his now fading yellow, but most loved graphic tee-shirt. I don’t think he’s wiping the extra oil off the Pooris though. I am not sure how you consume your meals, but if you flatten the Poori to squeeze the oil off it — then, let’s say you ain’t eating it right. What’s a Poori, if it is not pillowy and a little oily? But I digress, back to him. He’s probably teary-eyed, and that’s where the sleeves help. Of course, he’d never confess to it, and neither would any of us point it out. He’s missing Ammi.
He’s in his late 30s, but that’s until the food is in front of him — that’s when Ammi’s only son, the only child smiles and even grins. Place a plate within the reach of his hands, eyes, or nose — and he forgets everything that is tumultuous in his life. We talk of the salwar kameez that he’ll buy for his Ammi, this winter. He laughs and says to no one in particular, “Perhaps, I can order one for you.” The halwa in the sectional plate demands his attention and just like that the offer for the Pakistani salwar kameez gets forgotten, as spoonfuls of the sooji halwa provide the much-needed comfort. The colour in the halwa is perhaps from the usage of orange pulp, or it could be simply food colour — irrespective — it does its job — melts in the mouth, reminds him of ‘maa ke haath ka khaana’ and the eyes get moist.
This tale would have occurred only in my imagination, were I living in India. For the last 11 years, I’ve called Dubai my home, and here, each table can be home to my friends from my
land, and that of my neighbouring land, Pakistan, as well. Here, Ammi, Maa, Mom, and Aayi — all add a dollop of extra ghee to the halwa, and irrespective of our age we never leave a chance to tease our mothers on how ‘we’d gain weight because of their love.’ And while we may have the fanciest of napkins at our disposal, at times we make an exception, where we overlook the eating etiquettes and lick the fingers clean. And when it is a Sunday, we celebrate it with a heavy meal that induces sleep and laziness.
Once Upon A Table is a series that will appear and disappear from time to time. A series that will be filled with anecdotes, reflections, questions, and observations. To become a part of it, drop us a line, at email@example.com.