When you are a big foodie like me, there are multiple cuisines that can make your mouth water and compel you to want to move away from a daily diet of just desi khaana.
For my husband and me, the cuisine of choice is always a variation of Asian offerings – Chinese, Thai, or the occasional Vietnamese on the days we like to step out for a meal. Constantly on the go since the last few years – from a two-year stint in Germany and now in the capital city of the UAE, Abu Dhabi, we have had the pleasure of indulging in some of the most delectable culinary experiences from around the world.
But it was only when we moved to the Middle East early this year did we get acquainted with the culinary kitchens of our neighbour across the border – Pakistan.
Keeping the political rhetoric and history of the two countries aside, and pulling off the layers of turmoil and turbulence that the two countries have been embroiled in since Partition, what we see below the surface are commonalities that cannot be ignored. The overlapping of culture cannot be ignored between two countries that were literally cut from the same figurative cloth many moons ago. A fitting example of this is their cuisines.
For the love of biryani
The food of Pakistan is very similar to that of North India, the difference being that Pakistani dishes also incorporate flavors and elements from the Middle East as well as Central Asia. From a blend of Mughlai meats whose origins date back to Medieval India during the reign of the Mughal empire, Mughlai food consisted of a cocktail of Pakistani, Hyderabadi and North Indian spices and cooking styles.
During our constant pursuit for good food in the city of Abu Dhabi that is truly a haven of expatriate culinary experiences from around the world and also offers enough so-called desi options to keep us engaged enough to not long for our kitchens back home, we chanced upon the wonders of Student Biryani.
One spoonful of this rice-based delicacy had me hooked. The flavours, the spices, the cooking style that had surely gone into the creation of this magical dish had us entranced. Never had I ever tasted biryani that satisfied and tingled the taste buds the way Student Biryani did and ached for more with every bite.
When you arrive at Student Biryani in Abu Dhabi’s bustling Tourist Club Area, you are greeted by a bright red sign on the door and a simple red-and-white awning underneath it. Nothing fancy, the two-story structure harks back to another era, in another land as if to transport you back not just to the culinary experience but also an ambience to create a befitting atmosphere.
The restaurant with its simple, pleasant interiors, booth tables, hospitable and friendly staff and an impressively large food menu is testimony to their focus on only the one thing that matters here every minute of every day – the food.
A gnawing curiosity as the trigger, I decided to delve into the origin of the restaurant with the aim to try and uncover more about how and why it was started – And why it was called "Student Biryani". There had to be a story there!
I was not wrong. There was a story and it was a compelling one.
Stories in food
One Haji Mohammed Ali started a small eatery in the middle of Saddar city in Karachi in 1969. Catering to students of nearby schools in the area, it was first named Café Students.
The food was home-cooked, the biryani was made with love, passion and slowly it was hard work and dedication that allowed Ali to expand his business. In 1976 he opened a franchise that could seat a hundred people. The name Café Student was soon changed to Student Biryani and then there was no looking back. The brand blossomed and thrived.
Haji Mohammad Ali is no more but his legacy lives on and continues to fill the eager stomachs of its loyal patrons with its unwaveringly scrumptious culinary offerings even today.
There is no dearth of Indian and Pakistani restaurants in Abu Dhabi today that are always teeming with not just Indians and Pakistanis but also the myriad other expatriate residents that enjoy their curries, haleem and biryanis. Compact or expansive, downtown or suburban, these joints don’t really have a peak time traffic scenario. Any given time of the day they are packed to capacity.
A Pakistani driver who was driving me to work one day had drummed up idle chatter and the conversation steered in the direction of food. “India mein kya pasand karte ho Madamji?” (What do you like eating in India, Madam?)
“Butter chicken, dal makhani aur paneer. Aur haan ghar ki biryani.” (Butter chicken, black lentil and cottage cheese. And yes, home-made biryani).
“Arrey, aapka butter chicken toh kamaal hai. Lekin hamari biryani toh chakhiye. Sabh bhool jayengi.” (Your butter chicken is delicious but try our biryani. You will forget all else.)
He quickly proceeded to tell me about Kareems restaurant that had a sizeable menu roster of Indian and Pakistani food. Student Biryani had worked its magic and now I was all ears for any such dining out suggestions.
Beef, goat, chicken and mutton are the meats of choice on most Pakistani Dastarkhans or large cloths spread out to eat on when the guests are too many or during celebrations. Some also deploy the use of Takhts or raised platforms by sitting cross-legged much like the Afghans do. I hope to be able to witness such a gathering one day!
Interestingly both India and Pakistan have many staple dishes in common. Perhaps one of the most common of these is rice. A meat curry or a lentil with rice is not uncommon in both countries. Nihari is another kind of meat cooked overnight to achieve the precise tenderness of the meat before consumption and is another Pakistani delicacy that can be found in parts of India too.
Some of my colleagues at work are Pakistani and most lunch breaks will bring the familiar and welcome waft of Pakistani meats indicating that biryani is on the menu again. Being the only Indian, I am quickly ushered into the small pantry by this motley bunch of varying nationalities all willing to share their meals.
For an hour everyday this tiny pantry becomes the nucleus of the promise of cross-cultural camaraderie through the wonders of our respective cuisines.
They say the ‘way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’. Our hearts may not always be in the right place when it comes to our two nations but sometimes the way to an Indian man’s heart can be through some Pakistani biryani. And sometimes a Pakistani heart aches for a good Indian butter chicken.
This article first appeared on Dawn Images.