I discovered the long history of my parents’ culinary fascination when they wrote their memoirs. Unfortunately, my father, Isha’at Habibullah, was very ill when he began his autobiography, which remains incomplete. However, he did condense the pre-Partition sections into a four-article series published in Dawn Magazine in 1991 under the title Memories of the British and Feudal India.
Around this time, my mother Jahanara Habibullah, encouraged by her two sisters, began to jot down her own memories as therapy to help her cope with my father’s failing health and, later, her widowhood. These writings became a book, Remembrance of Days Past: Glimpses of a Princely State During the Raj (2001), translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi.
Later, the original Urdu was published as Zindagi ki Yadein: Riyasat Rampur ka Nawabi Daur (2003; both to be reprinted shortly). The English version was brought out first as the Pakistani branch of Oxford University Press had not yet started publishing in Urdu.
Both my father and my mother incorporate references to food as an intrinsic aspect of life in pre-Partition Lucknow and Rampur. I will explore each city in turn in this instalment and the next.
A colonial childhood
In my father’s first Dawn article, he says that in his childhood he and his two older brothers were brought up by an English governess. This was because their Anglophile father, Sheikh Mohammed Habibullah, a taluqdar of Awadh (and later vice chancellor of Lucknow University), had decided that his three sons would later be sent away to England to receive “the best of English education”.
My grandfather and others in his social circle entertained often, and used to serve European and Indian food as well as vegetarian dishes prepared by Brahmin cooks. My father’s earliest memories include one such lavish dinner, which was thrown by his uncle, Sheikh Shahid Hosain Kidwai (father of the future novelist, Attia Hosain). There, my father’s English governess gave him some jelly to eat. He expected it to be sweet, but to his horror it was salty. This was his introduction to chicken aspic, and it made him feel quite ill. My father wouldn’t touch this savoury jelly for years, but he must have come round since I remember aspic dishes being served as one of his favourite dishes in our Karachi home.
My father and his brothers would accompany their father on shikars in the winter, which my father enjoyed very much. These hunts were very “sumptuous affair[s]” with “a whole enclave of tents” being pitched among mango trees and in other scenic spots. He has very little to say about hunting or the hunt. Instead, he writes of the delicacy and beauty of his father’s shikar elephant
He particularly enjoyed the food: sagpaita dal, les ke chawal, kebabs and qormas cooked in fresh ghee. Then there was the delicious rasawal, which he described as “kheer made with sugar cane juice eaten with very cold milk and wads of fresh balai.” As he noted in his first Dawn article, he much preferred these foods to “the elaborate cuisines of Lucknow”.
A generation later, after Partition, Naushaba and I would accompany our parents across the border from Karachi to Lucknow to visit my widowed grandmother, Huzoor Ammi (the activist and writer, Inam Fatima Habibullah) – if we got a visa to do so. During one such trip, I remember there was great excitement at the dining table because someone had sent us a gift: a beautiful earthenware pot, filled with rasawal. Truly delicious it was too, though it is a dish I seldom encounter in Karachi. As for the balai, I have never seen any as thick as that in Lucknow. I was fascinated by the round layers and layers of solid fresh cream, which were stacked one on top of the other into a pile, having been skimmed from the top of the milk.
As far as I can remember, these stacks were never homemade. Instead, a vendor would come through the back garden to the few steps leading up to the open-air landing near the kitchen door. I would watch with fascination as he removed the requisite number of layers and weighed them on the scales, or tarazu, he carried across his shoulders.
Another Lucknow treat were the special seekh kebabs which were unique to Kakori, the village to which my grandmother belonged. Special cooks would come from the village to prepare them for us on a charcoal anghiti, or brazier. In my memory, Kakori kebabs remain unique, with a lovely glossy texture, subtle flavour and soft texture, all of which made them more delicious than other kebabs.
The kebabs were served on long oval dishes at my grandmother’s long dining table. She always sat at the head with two generations of her family gathered there during these reunions. Large coloured photographs and paintings of her and my late grandfather and other forebears looked down at us from the walls.
Hidden from view, behind a carved wooden screen near the rear door, sat a huge copper bowl on a wooden stand; a flat filigree brass top stretched across the bowl. This was where we washed our hands, with water being poured from the spout of a silver lota by a servant, a bar of soap at hand on a small shelf.
My grandmother was extremely fond of paan. There was always a silver paandaan by her side in the drawing room with a silver spittoon nearby.
My other great memory is of the pickles my father made during one such trip to Lucknow. I have no idea what the pickle was, but I do know that in Karachi my parents would leave pickles to mature in sealed jars for a year or so. Even so, imagine my amazement in Lucknow one winter, when three or four huge ceramic pickle jars around two feet in height were brought out to the driveway and placed before my father. While my grandmother looked on proudly, my father proceeded to unscrew the lid of each jar and inspect its contents. The pickle had been made on his last trip to Lucknow and had been sitting there waiting for him since.
In my father’s childhood, his English governess always took his brothers and him to Nainital, the hill station now in Uttarakhand, to escape the summer heat in Lucknow. By 1919, at the age of eight, my father “was struck by the fact that aristocratic ladies who observed purdah in Lucknow did not do so in Nainital”. The hectic social life for which the hill stations were famous included wonderful picnic parties where “the ladies used to be busy cooking” their specialities. This made a profound impression on him and influenced his “gourmet propensities”, as he wrote in the first article of his Dawn series.
Many of these ladies were European – and so he became particularly interested in European food. This proclivity perhaps also stemmed from the fact that he knew he would be leaving to study in England soon.
In February 1920, my grandfather accompanied his sons to England. In his incomplete draft memoir, my father describes a delicious breakfast in Paris en route to England in 1920. He also mentions that, at school in England, his fellow pupils were amazed that as a Muslim he was not allowed to eat pig and was instead served kippers or haddock. To my surprise, Christmas festivities, which meant a lot to the Habibullah brothers in both their British and Indian lives, receives only passing mention, as does the rich Christmas pudding embedded with silver sixpence coins.
My grandfather left his eldest son, Ali Bahadur (“Sonny”), at a public school, Clifton College, in Bristol, and the two younger ones, Enaith (“Bubbles”) and Isha’at at a prep school, Rottingdean, in Sussex. After joining his school, my father only returned to Lucknow once, during a short trip in 1931, before he returned to India for good in 1935. However, the Habibullah brothers saw their father again in 1924 when he came on a visit to England with their five-year-old sister, Tazeen. Their mother Inam Fatima was also present, and she described that trip in her Urdu travelogue Tassuraat-e-Safar-e-Europe.
The journey to England was her first by ship, and she had just come out of purdah. She had never seen Bombay before, let alone the sea, and once on board, she was very worried about the food. What was halal and what haram? She dared not eat anything but boiled vegetables.
Her fascination for the new worlds she discovered, including the workings of government, the women’s movement in Britain and the Muslim world and the work of modernising Muslim scholars, brings imperial, interwar Britain vividly to life. She was, however, rather unimpressed by that choice English meal served so often by the privileged – roast meat and boiled vegetables – which had a disparaging effect when translated into Urdu as bhuna gosht and ubli hui sabzi.
‘Tears of happiness’
Sections of Tassuraat have been elegantly translated into English for a chapter in the forthcoming Three Centuries of Travel Writing by Muslim Women, edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley, Daniel Majchrowicz and Sunil Sharma. One passage captures Inam Fatima’s joy at being reunited with her sons during their Easter holidays. She, my grandfather and Tazeen arrived at Dorchester Station. The three Habibullah brothers with their English guardian were at the station to receive them and accompany them to the house my grandparents had rented in Dorchester.
She writes: “The [cooks] had prepared food for us, but at that moment I was neither hungry nor thirsty. I was seeing my darlings after an eternity. Tears of happiness and joy flowed from my eyes.”
Her descriptions of England include a trip to the seaside resort Weymouth where she became acutely aware of the culinary deprivation of her sons:
“There is a restaurant here called Trocadero. The boys told me that they serve a ‘gravy,’ or sauce, that is better than the ones you get in India. We went for lunch. The poor boys haven’t had an Indian meal in such a long time that they were thrilled to eat there. I thought it was terrible.”
During his 16 years in Britain, clearly my father continued to long for “desi” food. In 1921, after my father and Bubbles joined Sonny at Clifton College, my father and Sikander “Siku” Baig became particularly good friends. Siku’s father, Sir Abbas Ali Baig, was posted at the Indian Council at Whitehall and had a house near the school. Every Sunday, Lady Baig would invite her sons and the Habibullah brothers to lunch and, according to his published memoirs, gave them “sumptuous desi meals” of biryani, korma and kebabs.
Up at Oxford
In 1929 my father went on to study at Oxford University. There he came to know many more Indians. He made lifelong friends, joined their various clubs and societies and identified strongly with India. He recalls in the third article of his Dawn series: “We were a most united lot and our friendships were not monopolised by feelings of religion or region.” There are references in his writings to the social life he enjoyed, including thé dansants, or teatime dance parties, and reasonably-priced three course menus, but in neither case does he specify what the food was like.
In his draft memoirs, he adds that, in London while working for his bar exams, he and his friends frequented the famous Indian restaurant, Shafi’s in Gerrard Street. Apparently, they had been taken to it by Nawab Ali Khan of Akbarpur, known as “Nawab Chakkan”, who my father described as a “a great gourmet” who had also introduced “items of Lucknow cuisine” such as “karelas and several daals” to the restaurant’s menu.
In 1935 my father returned to India. He had been away so long that he had great difficulty in adjusting. He notes in his memoirs that he felt like “a fish out of water” and thus tried to “Indianise” himself by wearing sherwanis and churidars and chewing paan. Eventually, he defied his father, giving up the legal profession to join what was then the Imperial Tobacco Company in Calcutta (now Kolkata), and later in Lahore. He loved the Bengali metropolis, as he did Lahore. In both cities, he had many Oxford friends and a great social and gastronomic life.
His work, however, took him across many other regions. In his memoirs, he refers to the “excellent food” he was served in the paddleboats he travelled on between Khulna and Narayanganj. He also explains that, in Bengal, he discovered new vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods, claiming that the meat there “was much more tasty … than elsewhere”. In Lahore, thanks to his friend Nawab Muzaffar Ali Qizilbash “whose table was well-known”, he was introduced to “Pathan food” such as khichri kuroot, shalgambatta (a form of shab degh) and chapli kebabs, which he describes as “not as spiced as in the UP or Calcutta”.
He also referred to the exquisite French cuisine of André Malik, the French wife of his friend, Tufail Malik. His friendship with Syed Babar Ali, another great gastronome, with whom he shared a great love for cooking, as long as I can remember, dates back to this time too.
Living in Karachi later, my father continued to indulge his love for seafood and the only sport he excelled at: deep-sea fishing. In the early days after Independence, lobsters, prawns and crabs – products that now earn millions as exports – were readily available too.
A favourite Karachi outing when I was a child was to go “crabbing”. We would hire “bunder boats” manned by local fisherman who would sail us round the harbour, providing us with fishing line and baits to catch crabs. The fisherman would cook them there and then on the boat to serve fresh with our dinner. On our Sunday trips to the company’s beach hut at Sandspit and later Buleji, fishermen would also come by and sell us freshly-caught shellfish, including lobsters for a rupee or two.
An extensive bookshelf
I remember that my father had a habit of sitting around reading cookery books and magazines in the way others sit and read fiction and non-fiction. These ranged from Gourmet Magazine to a recipe book dating back to the time of Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh. His bookshelf also included many other books, including those by author and broadcaster Attia Hosain.
She was my father’s first cousin and also married to his eldest brother Sonny. She lived in London after Partition. Her only novel Sunlight on a Broken Column, published in 1961, included a passage capturing the ambience of different festivals, ranging from Diwali to Eid, with a brief reference to food: “Bowls of sivain, rich golden threads of honey sweetness decorated with silver beaten into paper light as whispers, flecking one’s lips, and jugs of steaming milk, and thick many layered cream.”
In 1962, she also published Cooking the Indian Way, co-authored with Sita Pasricha. This was one of the earliest post-war, diasporic cookery books. The co-authors drew on personal experience to make traditional South Asian cooking feasible to the busy housewife. My daughter Kamila, who now lives in London, still uses this book, as I do in Karachi, to make various dishes, including stuffed pepper curry, dhansak, vindaloo, khatti dal, mulligatawny soup and sukhe aaloo chilke waley. I inherited the copy that Attia had signed for my father: “Isha’at, thanks for the help.”
My father seldom followed a recipe exactly, but tended to throw in a “dash of this or that”. If I consulted him over a recipe from a cookery book, he would pore over it and tell me how to adjust it to local ingredients. I learnt to cook after my marriage and, though he dictated some of his recipes to me, I never knew him to write any of them down.
In the late 1970s, however, Zuhra Karim, a family friend and editor of the women’s monthly She, invited him to contribute recipes to her series Man in the Kitchen. He did so for several months and was given an entire page each time. Sometimes he would present an Angrezi and a desi dish alongside each other such as “Chicken Fricassee or Blond Chicken” and murgh mussalam. In another issue, he focused on two puddings, trifle and crepes Suzettes, both of which are particular favourites of mine.
His “Iftar Specials” consisted of his “four favourite sherbets”: imli, keri, falsa and kaghsi nimbu. There were also recipes for two types of shammi kebabs and two types of seekh kebabs, plus a mushroom pulao using black Morel mushrooms (guchchi) found in Hunza and the northern areas of Pakistan. Of course, he could not miss out his favourite seafood and included a “prawn curry” and “Lobster a la Reine”. I rather think the recipe for the former is his own invention and I still use it frequently. It has one added advantage: if I have a guest allergic to prawns, I substitute the shellfish for skinned boneless mackerel (surmai) boti cut into cubes – and it still works very well.
The version I have given below includes in brackets the minor alterations I make to the original according to my personal preferences. I hope the recipe works for you, as it does for me.
1 large packet of frozen prawns (roughly 1 kg), defrosted at room temperature and soaked overnight in the fridge with water, a small piece of crushed garlic and 1 tbsp of lime juice (author’s note: I use fresh prawns).
3 oz pure Mustard oil (author’s note: I use ordinary oil)
1 large onion, skinned and chopped
1 clove garlic, skinned and chopped
1½ tsp haldi (turmeric)
1½ tsp of the following combined spices:
aniseed (author’s note: I don’t use this)
mustard seed (author’s note: only include if you are not using mustard oil)
white cumin seed powder
1 level tsp each of the following:
cardamom (about 3)
cinnamon (1” stick)
black pepper (about 10)
nutmeg and mace (half tsp each, ground)
1½ cups yoghurt
1 tsp lemon juice, or tamarind juice to taste
1-2 tsp finely chopped fresh green coriander leaves (hara dhania)
- Heat mustard oil just below smoking point until the mustard smell has disappeared. While it is heating, mix together all the ingredients with the exception of the prawns and the lemon/tamarind juice.
- When the oil is hot, take the cooking pan off the fire and immediately pour in all the mixed items. Don’t be frightened by the sizzling noise!
- Put the pan back on the heat and, after lowering the heat slightly, cook until the aroma disappears and the oil comes to the surface. This should be done on a high medium heat, stirring continuously to prevent burning.
- Once the masala and yoghurt mixture is cooked, add the prawns, lower the heat and cook for 15-20 mins. If you are using tamarind juice, add this about 5-10 mins after you’ve added the prawns to the mixture; bring it to the boil and lower the heat again.
- Just before serving sprinkle chopped coriander leaves (hara dhania) on top as garnish. Serve immediately.
- The tamarind juice is made by using a dessert-spoon size lump/block of tamarind and covering it with 1-1½ cups of hot water. In Pakistan where I live, this tamarind block consists of the tamarind pulp with seeds. Let it soak for 2-3 hours. This will soften the pulp which can be easily rubbed off the seeds in the water where it has been soaked. Strain this mixture and throw away the seeds. Keep the liquid and add this to the prawn mixture according to taste - I usually add about a ½ cup. The remaining tamarind juice can be used for other purposes.
- Often, instead of 1 kg of prawns, I use fish, specifically 1 kg surmai (mackerel) boti cut, as they say in Karachi: with skin and bones removed and cut into squares approximately one-and-a half inches each.
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 is the second part of her culinary memoir. Read the first part here.
This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Husain Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.