I grew up in post-Partition Karachi, in a family where cooking was considered an art. My father, Isha’at Habibullah (1911-1991), a company executive at Pakistan Tobacco Company, was a gastronome. Cooking was his great hobby and he loved to prepare meals for friends. The range of his cooking is encapsulated by his famous brunches. The dishes at these brunches ranged from those considered desi nashta such as paya, nihari and aaloo puri, to an eclectic mix of Euro-Anglo-American food including paté de foie gras, waffles, scrambled eggs and several salads. In the centre of the table, there would be a cake prepared by my mother, Jahanara Habibullah (1915-2003): for example, devil’s food cake or Christmas cake in winter. Cake-making was my mother’s contribution to household cooking. Sometimes she would make a pickle or chutney to supplement those created more frequently by my father.
My mother was very particular about every household detail. In our home, at every meal, the dining table of gleaming dark wood would be laid with placemats, matching table napkins, good cutlery and china. All our meals were served by a bearer or two in white livery. The food was almost always discussed while it was being eaten; each dish was expected to be exactly right. This was invariably followed by a “postmortem” – a comment on this or that ingredient which my parents would discuss with their incomparable cook Maqbool. He was pivotal to our household and its culinary traditions.
Maqbool joined us as a young man two or three years after Partition. By then, my younger sister Naushaba had been born and we lived in Karachi in a block of company flats – a colonial building of yellow Gizri stone – on Clifton Road. In our breezy apartment, with its arches and verandahs and patterned floor tiles, the back verandah ran past the dining room and led off at a right angle towards the pantry and a traditional kitchen. The latter was equipped with a chula built into the far wall, with holes on top for cooking and another underneath where burning coals glistened; a dark sooty chimney rose up overhead.
In the mid-1950s, the company replaced this colonial building with a modern block of nine spacious flats. We lived on the top floor. There was an enclosed verandah with big windows, but the remaining area – hall, drawing room and dining room – were open plan, divided by the angle and structure of walls. The dining room, however, had a side-door which opened into the pantry from which another door led into the kitchen with a modern gas cooker and possibly a metallic sink.
My memories of Maqbool preparing our meals, and indeed those of my parents’ brunches, date back to this era. I associate Maqbool with the modern rather than the old-fashioned kitchen, always dressed in an apron while preparing food.
By this time, both Naushaba and I had been sent to boarding school in England, as my father and his brothers had been a generation earlier. This was the norm in our Anglicised milieu in Karachi (though mostly for sons) with due foreign exchange permissions. I was nine when I left and Naushaba joined me when she was eight. We came home for good a full ten and nine years later, respectively.
My parents visited London every other year in the summer holidays to spend time with us. Naushaba and I came to Karachi in the alternative summers and would also visit our widowed grandmothers in Rampur and Lucknow. All this provided a huge contrast to our lives in England and, of course, the food we ate there. We had inherited our father’s genes and were plump little girls, devoted to food, to the despair of our slim, elegant and restrained mother.
In 1961, my father was appointed chairman and managing director of Pakistan Tobacco Company and became the first Pakistani to head a major multinational corporation in the country. We moved into the Chairman’s house next door, a two-storey colonial building, with a white exterior, sloping red-tiled roof and windows with green wooden louvres to filter the summer sunlight.
In the Chairman’s house we “inherited” Rahim, an exacting, super-efficient majordomo. He was well acquainted with the social demands of a Chairman’s life as well as the British company directors who came from London on official visits. They stayed with us, as was the norm. On these occasions, daily meals were very formal with cut glasses, the finest cutlery and chinaware, and three courses of English or European food, followed by coffee.
‘Ladies only’ events
This was the house where, as a child, I had attended Christmas parties, Santa Claus and all. Once my parents moved in, the rituals of Eid and Ramazan became the major festivals in this house. At the former we ate mince pies, Christmas cake and sandwiches; for Eid we were served traditional fare including samosas, seviyan and halwa.
Rahim also supervised the “ladies only” events held by my mother: coffee mornings, bridge and mahjong parties as well as milads where two or three women with beautiful voices would sing or chant verses celebrating the life of the Prophet. At these milads, guests would sit against bolsters scattered on white cloths spread over the drawing room carpet before enjoying a sumptuous tea.
After my father’s retirement as Chairman of PTC, we moved into our own home: the modern house my parents built in the-then comparatively new Defence Housing Society. Maqbool and his family came with us, as did Rahim.
This new house was divided by a central courtyard with patterned floor tiles and edged with potted plants and a small fountain in one corner. The kitchen was long and rectangular and had a small storeroom at the far end for crockery and glassware. There was no pantry. The gas cookers and sinks were located near the wide windows. Opposite, smaller windows were created higher up for cross-ventilation but most of that wall was lined with cabinets at upper and lower levels.
A sliding serving hatch opened out onto the adjoining, polished wooden cabinets in the dining room. My father’s kitchen utensils bought on his trips to England – special kitchen knives, different thermometers and cutters, together with the various beaters, processors and cake tins that my mother used – were stored in this section of the kitchen; the gas cooker my parents used stood nearby. My father now had more time to spare despite many distinguished appointments in the corporate sector, and would prepare food for his friends, children and grandchildren. I particularly remember the soup or stock he would leave to cook on the stove for hours on end. The gas cooker that Maqbool used daily was further down in the same row.
Throughout this time, Maqbool held his own, producing the finest food. He managed this whether he had to cater just for the family (and later Naushaba’s little children and mine), or on a grander scale for the formal and informal dinners my parents hosted. At these, there were both Pakistani and visiting (mostly British) guests as well as diplomats and public figures – the latter were often old family friends.
My parents were aware of the traditional culinary world of both Lucknow and Rampur to which they belonged. Maqbool also came from Rampur. He had clearly revealed his talent early, because he had worked in the royal kitchens of Khasbagh Palace, albeit in a junior capacity when he was very young. He understood the careful melding of spices which my mother often declared to be the essence of good cooking. This was considered one of the great attributes of Rampuri food and included the restrained use of chillies. In Karachi, Maqbool was trained further by my father, who greatly valued Maqbool’s culinary skills.
Maqbool’s repertoire was vast and paid great attention to detail. The koftas and shami kababs he made were stuffed with a very fine chopped mixture of green coriander, green chillies and onions. The qiwami seviyan were cooked in such a way that each seviyan strand, plumped by the sugar-syrup it had absorbed, glistened with the sheen. Then there was the crisp toffee he shaped into baskets with curving handles above – one basket per serving – filled with fruit salad in thick cream.
There was one speciality that I have never seen elsewhere: a pudding made of a large Swiss roll covered with thick white cream and dots of yellow-coloured cream, to resemble a corn cob and with green leaves made of marzipan on either side. Once, in my early twenties, before I was married, I asked him if he would teach me to cook. He said, “Arrey, Aap! Aap ko kiya seekhaoon ga? Aap to khansama rakhein gi!” (What, you! What can I teach you? You will keep a cook!)
In my parents’ homes in Karachi, spicy desi food was usually a special treat two or three times a week. Most days we ate “Angrezi” food, which included those everyday dishes so popular in the subcontinent and which I never encountered during my years at boarding school in England: potato mince cutlets, cock rolls and crumb chops. Then there were the usual soups, roasts, spaghetti, salads, baked fish and fried fish. Sometimes we had soufflé or lobster thermidor or crab au gratin. Maqbool also made the lightest pastry imaginable – flaky pastry for vol-au-vents and mille feuille and shortcrust pastry for quiches, jam tarts and other puddings.
Maqbool died of a massive heart attack in the late 1970s. Both my daughters, Saman and Kamila, were very little at the time, but both remember Maqbool with great affection. Their grandparents loved to have them over and, each time, the two little girls would be asked beforehand, ‘What would you like to eat?” They adored all Maqbool’s food, but their absolute favourite was lemon meringue pie. This dish is made in our house to this day, by Saman. She became an enthusiastic pastry maker, aged eight or nine – and lemon meringue pie was an early thing she learnt from her first cookery book.
Kamila’s culinary skills developed much later – after she settled in London. She became a rather inventive cook, as was her grandfather. But in her second novel, Salt and Saffron, a description of iftar, of breaking the daylong fast during Ramazan, recreates for me the delicacies my parents would have served. She writes:
“We started with the requisite date, of course, to symbolize fidelity to the first Muslims in the deserts of Arabia, but then . . . on to gluttony! Curly shaped jalaibees, hot and gooey, that trickled thick sweet syrup down your chin when you bit into them; diced potatoes drowned in yogurt, sprinkled in spices; triangles of fried samosas, the smaller ones filled with mince-meat, the larger ones filled with potatoes and green chillies; shami kebabs with sweet-sour imli sauce; spinach leaves fried in chick-pea batter …”
Maqbool lives on in family memory. My parents did not find a cook equal to him again. By the time he died, it was rare indeed to find one with his repertoire, particularly when it came to European food, puddings, pastries and halwa.
Their subsequent cooks and other staff came from different regions of Pakistan, but there was another Rampuri cook vital to my parents’ household after Maqbool was there no more. This was the elderly Amjad. He used to work for my mother’s cousin, whose daughters were my childhood friends. I seem to have known him forever. He was certainly a household name in my maternal family. He was reserved and very polite – and I always associate him with the churidar pyjama, dark sherwani and dark cap he always wore. I have no memory of him in the kitchen per se. He gave up his full-time job eventually and started to cook freelance for us and a few of our relatives, preparing specific dishes such as that Rampur speciality, adrak ka halwa, or his amazing dahi bara on important occasions.
There was also Sabir, who was of Rampuri origin too. He had a rather chequered career and from time to time would just vanish from our lives. He worked for my parents a couple of times, decades apart, as a bearer and once for me. In between he was a factory worker and trade unionist. Occasionally he cooked specific dishes for my parents in the post-Maqbool era. He had a shock of dark hair, wore shalwar kameez and moved around with great agility; then at some point he disappeared entirely.
In all these years I took my mother’s knowledge of food for granted: it never occurred to me to question how or why she came by her information since she didn’t cook any of these dishes. After she passed away, I was astonished to find that she had left behind four whole exercise books scribbled with recipes, some in English, mostly in Urdu, plus little envelopes with recipes folded inside.
Among these papers, I found she had one recipe for sheer khurma, but three different recipes for qiwami seviyan in three different books. One is marked “Qiwami seviyan tarkeeb Sultana Masood”, namely, the method given to her by her friend and relative, Sultana Masood. There are three recipes for another Rampur speciality, adrak ka halwa, including one attributed to Amjad and Sabir (though I have no recollection of Sabir’s version).
Other traditional desserts include loki ka halwa, shahi turkey, kheer, firni, plus two versions (including Amjad’s) of gajar ka halwa and anday ka halwa. She has also written down three recipes for kichra, a main course usually associated with Ashura, the tenth day of Moharrum and distributed as niaz. Among other main courses. I discovered an unusual salan hara dhania, alongside Amjad’s murgh musallam, Sabir’s qorma and Sabir’s aaloo ki katliyan. The latter is so easy that I was surprised to find it there, until I came across several other straightforward recipes – even one for an omelette.
I soon realised that these recipes, along with those of the usual meat-vegetable combinations such as saag gosht, provided that essential knowledge which ensured everyday fare for the family. Throughout this extensive and varied collection, there are recipes attributed to friends or relatives, including one each by Naushaba and me, as well as tamatar ka Hyderabadi cut az Sorayya Mazari, baigan ki sabzi az Gaiti, tarkeeb machli az Bajia, Tuba’s biryani, and lime pickle by Begum Amjad Ali. There are two more lime pickle recipes (one typed in English, the other handwritten in Urdu) and a wide range of pickles and chutneys from achar shaljam khatta, achar aam and prawn achar to nauratan aur am chutney, tamatar chutney and imli ki chutney.
There are no recipes by Maqbool. I can only assume that my mother wrote most of these methods down after he passed away to instruct future cooks. One exercise book has a solitary date, November 1975, very much in Maqbool’s lifetime. However, it refers to my mother’s culinary speciality – Christmas cake – with an added note: “The recipe is not quite right.” In an envelope, I found a letter dated 1976, written on the official letterhead of the British Deputy High Commission, Karachi and signed Nellie Eaden, with a recipe for plum pudding attached. There is another plum pudding recipe and one for crème Suisse, both seemingly written by British visitors to Pakistan.
The list of recipes is endless: scones, walnut bread, coffee cake, brownies, Swedish tea ring, two for cake icing and a detailed description of how to make mango ice cream in a special ice-cream machine given by another friend, Yusuf Bhabha.
Then there are recipes for Chinese dishes so popular in Pakistan, and a slew of Angrezi dishes including mulligatawny soup, plucked partridges and parsley potatoes, roast duck and lots of patés including one by my father made of kidneys. Added to this are some basic essentials: white sauce, chicken stock and apple pectin.
For me, these recipes are an extraordinary walk down memory lane. Both the recipes and the people my mother mentions evoke so many images of a bygone past. I also see how my mother kept herself informed about different dishes and their ingredients, and the constant possibilities for improving every dish. I believe this work was common to many women from her generation.
I learnt to cook gradually, and only after I married, from some recipes given to me by my father and some from cookery books recommended by him over a period of time. The only recipe I “inherited” from my mother was her Christmas cake which I make almost every year. The recipe was originally given to Saman, my teenage daughter and family pastry-maker. I ventured into trying this a year or two later – and it worked perfectly! I had been rather intimidated by its intricacies at first. I was never told either by my parents or my husband Saleem Shamsie what I should or should not cook.
Somehow, I seem to have collected recipes, and made kheer, andey ka halwa, gajar ka halwa, sheer khurma and qiwami seviyan long before: I can still see my father sitting there at the end of his dining table, sometimes flicking through a cookery book or two, or sometime just giving me the details straight from memory/experience, pausing to ponder a little as he dictated these recipes to me. One such recipe is the qiwami seviyan below, a traditional dish that my parents always served at Eid, as I do. In the old days, it used to be decorated with finely beaten silver foil (chandi ka varq) alongside the almonds and pistachios, but these days I don’t risk it unless I can be sure it really is silver and not some unhealthy metal made to resemble varq.
2 lb sugar
1 pint water
½ tsp saffron threads
2 tbsp kewra
8 oz seviyan
8 oz butter
2 tins evaporated milk (about 400 ml each).
1 packet 200 ml cream (or use 6 oz fresh cream)
Chopped pistachios or almonds (skinned)
- Heat oven to 150C / 300F.
- Butter an ovenproof dish. I use a Pyrex 12” x 8” x 2 ½”
- Crush saffron strands and soak in kewra. Put aside.
- Dissolve the sugar in water and bring to a boil. A clear syrup will be formed. Put aside.
- In a separate pan, heat butter. Add seviyan and brown them (but make sure they do not burn).
- Add one tin of evaporated milk, ½ pt syrup, and 1-2 tbsp of cream. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat slightly and cook for about 5-10 mins. The mixture will thicken. Stir regularly.
- Add the second tin of evaporated milk, ½ pt syrup and 1-2 tbsp of cream. Bring to the boil, then lower heat slightly and cook for 10 mins or until the mixture starts coming away from the edge of the pan while you are stirring.
- Add the rest of the syrup and cream, kewra and saffron and stir well. Bring mixture to the boil, then lower the heat slightly and cook for another 20 mins.
- Pour mixture into the oven proof dish. Cook in the oven at 150C / 300F for 15 mins.
- Turn down the oven temperature to 135 C / 275F and cook for another 30 mins.
- Take the dish out of the oven and let it rest for 20 mins or so. Scatter with chopped pistachios or almonds.
- Serve while warm with cream.
Muneeza Shamsie is a Pakistani writer, critic, literary journalist, bibliographer and editor. She is the author of a literary history entitled Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani English Literature (2017) and is the Bibliographic Representative for Pakistan of the Journal of Commonwealth Literature.
This article is part of a series curated by Tarana Husain Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. Our thanks to Razak Khan, too, for his comments on an earlier draft. The series links to the project Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.