I wrote about my father Isha’at Habibullah (1911-1991) only to realise that his fascination for cooking, his adventurous approach to new and different foods, are closely linked to his tale of displacement, exile and a quest for self. In marked contrast, my mother’s awareness of good cuisine and the importance she attached to it is largely rooted in, and an assertion of, the culture in which she grew up. Both my parents shared an abiding interest in Rampur’s cultural and culinary heritage.
My parents got married during my father’s pre-Partition Lahore posting. They had met during my father’s visit to the hill station, Mussoorie, when he had gone to call on her father, Sahibzada Sir Abdus Samad Khan, who was an old friend of his family.
My mother, Jahanara Habibullah (1915-2003), was born and brought up in Rampur. Her father was the chief minister of the princely state. Her eldest sister Rafat Zamani Begum was married to the ruler Nawab Raza Ali Khan. Both their families were Rohilla Pathans but my mother’s forebears, the rulers of Najibabad, had been executed for the “Mutiny” of 1857. Both the Rampur and Najibabad families and that of the princely state of Loharu, to which my grandmother Sahibzadi Aliya Sultan Begum belonged, had all intermarried across several generations.
My mother’s memoir Remembrances of Days Past: Reminiscences of a Princely State during the Raj, published in 2001, has the 1911 Coronation Durbar on the cover and a photograph of my stunning sari-clad mother at the back. The book interweaves the history and cultural heritage of Rampur with anecdotes of family life. The memoir includes a detailed chapter, “The Royal Tables at the Court of Rampur”, which explains that Rampur menus were famous throughout India and “the chefs here were superb craftsmen and each had his designated skill”. There would be a qaliya master; a kababchi, a specialist in rice, another who concentrated on desserts, such as halwa.
These words remind me of our family’s talented cook Maqbool. I wonder how many of these chefs he would have known, or heard of, or remembered – even though he had been very junior in those pre-Partition years. I wonder, too, what he would have thought of her reminiscences.
My mother describes the various dishes prepared in the royal kitchens. She points out that two main dishes prepared in Rampur kitchens were the qorma and the qaliya: “the former contains coriander; the latter is made of turmeric”. She names a wide range of qaliyas and also refers to a special white chicken qaliya with milk, yoghurt and green chillies as its main ingredients. She describes the Mughal dish shab degh as a qaliya too. This dish involves hours of slow cooking and the addition of koftas which are prepared separately; also whole turnips, as well as gur (raw sugar), “lightly fried with turmeric”, and saffron and kewra water. My mother clarifies that this is a different variety to the famous Kashmiri shab degh.
Remembrances of Days Past additionally contains much discussion of rice dishes. My mother describes dum pukht pulao made of whole partridges, quail or a leg of mutton. She refers to yakhni pulao, which consists of rice and mutton stock. Meanwhile, biryani entails meat first cooked with qorma then mixed with “half-done rice and sprinkled with saffron and kewra”. She moves on from the savoury to an astonishing array of sweet rice dishes, beginning with mutanjan. This dessert “has a sweet and sour flavor”, with sugar four times the weight of the uncooked rice, tiny sweet gulab jamuns studded across the dish as a garnish and tiny spicy koftas for decoration!
Then there is muzaffir, which has less sugar than mutanjan, and fruit preserve (murabba) is added to it. Safaida, a sweet dish of white rice, is cooked in such a way that it completely absorbs the sugar and ghee and “each grain stands out ... and is so white that the sugary syrup coating has the sheen of diamonds”. She also writes of an anar pulao served in special silver bowls called qaabs. Each one is laid out with four pomegranates crafted from sugar and red colouring, with pomegranate seeds created with almond slivers coated in petha – a transparent sweet made of pumpkin. She also refers to a sweet grape pulao and a pineapple pulao.
My mother continues to explore the extraordinarily creative and imaginative abundance of Rampur’s fabled dishes – foods that most of us cannot even imagine today – in her section on kebabs. Here are descriptions of kabab urus e behri, which is made of sanwal, a freshwater fish, cooked, ground and reconstructed to resemble a fish two feet long – with scales, tongue and tail, each of which has a different flavour.
Rampur was also known for its legendary halwas and sweets. Several had very poetic names too. There is dar e bahisht (gateway to paradise), a “flaky sweet made of almonds or pistachios, ghee and sugar and cut into squares”; naan e santara (naan of oranges) made of “orange peel, orange juice ghee and sugar and shapes into small flat rounds resembling roti”. Hardly anything is within the realm of the ordinary by today’s standards. The khase ke laddoo made of gram flour might resemble the ladoos of today, but were so large that each weighed “about a quarter pound” and the gram flour was mixed with “ground pistachios, almonds and raisins”.
She writes of other specialities, some of which I had the good fortune to taste during my visits to my widowed maternal grandmother, Ammajan, in Rampur with my parents in the 1950s and 1960s. My grandmother lived in Rosaville, the family home. My aunt, Fakhra, her husband, Sahibzada Masuduzzafar Khan, and their children, my playmates, were nearby, in Lalazar, their amazing art nouveau house. There Fakhra, a talented artist, had painted beautiful murals across entire walls, created unusual furniture, drawn women with bangles and flowing skirts on the cupboards of a bedroom, sculpted a gargoyle in the lush garden as well as herons and frogs around a fountain and much else. I was completely enchanted by the place.
Often we were invited to meals at Khasbagh Palace next door. Sometimes my eldest aunt, Rafat Zamani Begum – known to me as Khala Huzoor – and Nawab Raza Ali Khan would insist we stay there for a few days too.
The meals at Khasbagh were astonishing. I still remember the crispy diamond shaped loz e Jahangiri named after the Mughal emperor. These sweets were made of “almonds, ghee khoya, sugar and layered with crushed pistachios”. Then there was halwa sohn, made of wheat, which is “the king of halwas” and still available today. The difference is that the halwa sohn I ate at Khasbagh was far superior to any I have eaten elsewhere in Rampur, or indeed my hometown of Karachi. In the Khasbagh version, the grain was very fine, the colour darker and each piece sat on the serving dish cut into beautifully neat shiny squares.
I remember too, the puris “made of clotted cream, collected layer upon layer to form a cake and served with sugar” – as my mother describes them in her memoir.
Above all, I was spellbound by the namish, “a great delicacy made of collecting layer and layers of froth from sweet milk”. I found it fascinating to be told it was made by pouring sweetened milk from a height from one dish to another, over and over again, to create a froth, which was then left on the rooftop in the cool of the night under the dew. It was eaten with a tunki, a very crisp, thin and large roti, which my mother rightly describes in her book as “biscuit-like”.
I was very taken by a simply delicious main course murgh mussalam dumpukht pulao and was equally spellbound by its appellation – such an amazingly rhythmic and guttural pronunciation.
On the other hand, I seem to have had my first taste of paya in Rampur too, though I am not sure why. But the Angrezi schoolgirl that I was, on a summer holiday from school in Sussex, I was just horrified at the sight of all that jelly, the bones and marrow in such a dark liquid! The paya had been made especially for us, but I could hardly touch it. I felt quite ill to see the grown-ups, our friends and family, tucking in and saying “Wah! Wah!” while commenting on the superlative quality of the dish. In later years, I realised my husband, Saleem, would have greatly enjoyed that meal . . . I learnt to appreciate paya and nihari thanks to him, after I got married.
In Khasbagh Palace, we would be served these wonderful meals in a beautiful wood-panelled dining room hung with oil paintings. The two or three round tables arranged for us would take up but a small portion of that huge space where banquets must have once been held. My memories date back to a time when the princely states were no more, of course – though I would imagine there were still separate kitchens in the palace for European and Brahmin food.
My only memory of Angrezi food is during a stopover one year with Khala Huzoor in her modern Delhi home. There was some delay over lunch because one of the adults had been held up somewhere. After a while Khala Huzoor suggested that since it was getting late, my sister Naushaba and I should go ahead and eat first. We were led into the dining room, with a long gleaming table laid with due formality. We did not find this unusual, nor the fact that the food was served formally by a bearer (because that was the norm in our Karachi home too). But we had never imagined a lunch with quite so many courses: soup, fish, roast meat, desi dishes, desserts and fruit. Being well-brought up little girls, we thought we had to partake of every single dish. By the end, we staggered out, our eyes glazed. My mother couldn’t stop laughing. She told us that the staff must have thought, “Mashallah, what healthy appetites!”
In her childhood before her first European trip, my mother was probably little acquainted with Angrezi food. This was despite the fact that her Anglicised father was well-travelled and her three brothers Yusuf, Yunus and Yaqub were being educated at British India’s well-known English schools. In 1931, however, my mother and her sister Fakhra discarded purdah, aged sixteen and seventeen respectively, because Fakhra was recommended a sanatorium in Switzerland to cure her tuberculosis.
After she regained her health, the two sisters and their mother travelled in Europe, spent some weeks in London and returned to a greatly changed, modernised and Westernised Rampur under the newly-crowned Nawab Raza Ali Khan. In Remembrance of Days Past my mother comments on the delicious Italian food they ate en route to Switzerland via Genoa on board a Lloyd Triestino ship. When it comes to her description of London, though, she merely says: “English food is plain, but the puddings and tarts are delicious.”
I have vivid very early memories of Rampur. This is because in that (unimaginable) time, when visas were not an issue between India and Pakistan, Naushaba and I were there entrusted to the care of Ammajan for several months. This was when my father was sent to Britain for a training course by his company and my mother accompanied him. I loved the family house with its fluted arches and verandahs, elegant interiors and spacious grounds, lily pond and rose garden, as well as its own private mosque. At some point I learnt that the front part of the house, including the bedroom where I was staying and the elegant dining room and drawing room had once been a part of the mardana, for men only.
The back door of the dining room opened out to a long wide passage – part of which, in my time, served as the pantry where the fridges were kept – which divided the house between mardana and zenana areas: the entrance to the zenana opened out into a large courtyard at the back and at one end was a staircase leading up to first floor where all the bedrooms were (and more open air verandahs). I am not sure where the kitchen was, though I have a notion that it was in the vicinity of this courtyard somewhere. Perhaps it was near the area in the far corner by some low steps where, as a small child, I was fascinated by a woman sitting by a circular chakki grinding wheat into atta.
My mother’s book Remembrance of Days Past, however, covers a different dimension of Rampur and its food traditions than I could ever have imagined. This includes descriptions of ornate rituals which were held in purdah. One such ritual was the sawani celebrations during the rainy season, which was welcomed by songs and music, new clothes, special foods and young girls sitting on swings. She explains that since the monsoon embodies romance and the quickening of life, sawani was a wedding ritual too, celebrated by the bridegroom’s family to welcome a young bride. She includes Khala Huzoor’s description of her own rich and sumptuous sawani ceremony held by her father-in-law, Nawab Hamid Ali Khan, culminating with her and her bridegroom, the future Nawab Raza Ali Khan, being positioned together on a swing. Here the references to food, the “trays with a variety of snacks [which] had been provided for the guests” and “arrays of delicious dishes elaborately laid out on tablecloths”, are integral to the atmosphere: the music, the guests and their sumptuous attire.
My mother also refers to the symbolism of food in elaborate rituals. Her description of her sister Fakhra’s wedding includes the mayun ceremony when round sugary sweets (peendiyan) are symbolically placed on the bride’s upturned hands for good luck, while fruits are placed on her lap. My mother devotes an entire chapter to various wedding rituals, well known across the sub-continent, and how they were conducted in Rampur. Several of these, such as mayun, mehndi and arsi’ mushaf, continued to play a vital part in post-Independence Indian and Pakistani weddings. This includes my own nuptials and those of all my friends and relatives, although these rituals were greatly toned down compared to those in times of yore.
Similarly, foods served on religious occasions or festivals in my mother’s time are not dissimilar to culinary traditions today. Her account of Eid-ul-Fitr in Rampur is filled with wonderful descriptions of joy and celebration when the Eid moon is sighted, marking the end of the month of Ramazan. She recounts that her father always broke his fast after Eid prayers with sheer khurma, which is seviyan cooked in milk, though she says it can be prepared in different ways. She writes of qiwami seviyan which is cooked in syrup with four times the amount of sugar, while muzzaffir has less sugar but is cooked with saffron. She gives a detailed description of how the yellow vermicelli-like strands of seviyan are made at home from kneaded farina.
Of course, today seviyan are bought dry and packaged from supermarkets or grocery stores. They are synonymous with Eid-ul-Fitr and served in every household, but usually as a sheer khurma version prepared in milk. Sheer khurma was always present at my parents’ home on Eid and served to visitors who came to call and also for sit-down Eid lunch en famille. The same can be said of homemade qiwami seviyan, alongside other sweets bought from the shops, such as barfi, halwa sohn and rasagullas. I have only seen qiwami seviyan occasionally in Karachi.
I have mentioned in my first installment that adrak ka halwa which I associate with my family is a Rampuri speciality – as far as I know, though my mother does not refer to it in Remembrances. In her recipe book, however, she has three versions of it including one by “Sabir and Amjad”. I have no idea which came first. There is no indication of any date.
As long as I can remember, adrak ka halwa was regarded by my family and select guests as a great treat, but it seems to be virtually unknown in Pakistan today. My Karachi friends have certainly never heard of it and if I ever allude to it the usual response is that the mere thought of such a thing – a halwa made out of ginger – is so off-putting. I have often wanted rectify this and make an adrak ka halwa one day, the finest of halwas (just my opinion!). The taste of the ginger blends in with all the other ingredients (basically cream, milk, sugar, asli ghee) to give a wonderfully nuanced flavour.
The recipe I have was given to me by my father. It is a simplified version of one given by both Sabir and Amjad, but with similar ingredients and quantities. I have never tried it though. I was rather discouraged because it involves grinding the ginger on a sill-bhatta three times, and no one uses the sill-bhatta in my house anymore! Rather more recently, I considered using the food processor but we have such a low gas supply in our cooking appliances these days, that making halwas (and cakes etc) is but a pipe-dream (so as to speak!). I am truly grateful to Dr Tarana Khan in Rampur for trying out this recipe for me and it really worked – though she used the food processor.
Adrak ka Halwa: Sabir and Amjad’s recipe adapted by Isha’at Habibullah
1½ pao. milk (first batch)
2 seers milk (second batch)
3 pao fresh, young ginger
1 1/2 pao fresh cream
1 pao almonds, shelled and peeled.
1/2 seer asli ghee (saltless butter can be used as a substitute)
1 1/2 seer sugar
kewra to taste
Day 1. Blanch the peeled almonds and grind very finely. Soak unpeeled ginger in water overnight.
Day 2. Peel ginger. Grind it very finely on the sill-batta, three times adding the milk (batch 1) for the grinding. Do not add water. Strain and keep the ginger aside.
Add all the ingredients except the sugar and kewra to the 2 seers of milk (batch 2). Bring to the boil then lower the heat. Keep stirring the mixture all the time.
When the mixture thickens, add sugar, allow it to dissolve and keep stirring until the mixture is dark brown. By this time it should be smooth and thick, but soft enough to be scooped out with a spoon. Add a teaspoon or two of kewra and allow the mixture to cook for a few more minutes (c. 5-10 minutes).
Do not allow the ghee to separate.
Estimated cooking/stirring time: 3 hours.
Note: to convert desi weights into kilos:
1 seer = 2lbs
1 pao = 8 oz
Sabir and Amjad’s Original Recipe - written down by Jahanara Habibullah
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 concluding part of her three-part culinary memoir. Read the first part here and the second 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.