In the old days of the grand houses of South Asia, both before and after Partition, it was common practice to employ more than one cook to prepare the food for the household. So many people – servants and family members – populated these establishments that they were like small countries of their own, with many tastes and preferences which needed to be catered to and indulged, and a constant demand for meals at all hours of the day.
So the big houses would hire multiple cooks: one solely for the servants, another for the masters’ standard Pakistani food, and where there was an appetite for European fare, a third expert in Western dishes alone. The regular cook was called a borchi, but the expert was called khansama, or chef. The Nawabs of Awadh, seated in the capital Lucknow, had started this tradition in the post-Mughal era, which found its way to different parts of India. This included Sindh, where my paternal grandfather lived as a prosperous landowner in the mid-twentieth century.
According to Anoothi Vishal, writing in No Ordinary Cooks: The Rise and Decline of the Tradition of Khansamas, the khansama was a product of the Mughal courts, of feudal India and the British Raj, one born in “dak bunglows, bureaucratic homes, Railways catering, army messes and elite clubs”. And while the khansama tradition faded away when feudalism was abolished in India, it found traction in Pakistan, in both feudal establishments and the well-to-do families of the city-dwelling upper classes.
A rare talent
One such khansama, a slight, unassuming man called Nabi Bux, prepared the Western dishes in my grandfather’s bungalow at 17 Civil Lines in the cantonment area of the Pakistani city of Hyderabad over a period lasting about 30 years. Anyone who tasted his exquisite food fell under his spell; he was known as a man of rare and unusual culinary talent. No other khansama in Sindh could compare.
Nabi Bux, who did not have a last name that anyone knew of, was from Lucknow. He came with his family to Hyderabad, Sindh, from Delhi in 1947, on one of the trains that brought Muslim refugees to Pakistan. As a young boy he worked for a British family in Delhi as a member of the general household staff. Peeking in the kitchen, he soaked up all manner of English and continental dishes which he saw the khansamas prepare. Somehow he learned all their recipes and brought his knowledge with him to the new country, looking for an opportunity to reinvent himself as a khansama.
We know very little about his life in India, and nobody knows where he worked in Hyderabad when he first came to Pakistan. However, he arrived at 17 Civil Lines in 1954, and stayed with our family long after my grandfather died in 1961.
My grandfather, Muhammed Ali Shah Jamote, was the Sardar, the head of his Syed clan, a powerful position of influence and honour in those post-Partition days. At that time the political establishment was still shifting, and influential figures of the area provided a certain amount of stability in a time of transition. A steady stream of visitors, family members, political figures, military officers, and ambassadors poured through the Hyderabad bungalow and my grandfather’s ancestral home in Matiari, a village 29 km north of Hyderabad. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who would one day become prime minister of Pakistan, was a frequent visitor.
At 17 Civil Lines, guests attended formal sit-down dinners with ten or 12 courses served on Royal Albert crockery and Sheffield-made silverware with bone handles. For dinners like these, Nabi Bux prepared almond or tomato soup, fruit or shrimp cocktail, then roast meat; his specialties were saddle of lamb, mutton chops with mint sauce, and steak and kidney pie. He made baked fish with tartar sauce, followed by a heavenly almond soufflé or a steamed pudding for dessert. His showstopper was a basket made of delicate orange peel, filled with carved oranges and Chantilly cream.
Afternoon guests were served tea in a Shelley tea set, for which Nabi Bux prepared an English-style cream tea, complete with tiny fairy cakes, scones, and cucumber sandwiches.
The dining room at 17 Civil Lines was not a luxurious grand hall; it was round and of average size. But it did boast one luxury item from the 1950s: a refrigerator that hummed impressively in a corner. In the style of the old cantonment bungalows, the dining room had one window covered in patterned drapes, plain whitewashed walls, and colorful floral floor tiles. Even with only a punkah whirring overhead and no air conditioning, the room always remained a little cooler than the rest of the house. Guests crowded around a small table covered with a white tablecloth, the important ones sitting at the table, others standing behind with plates in their hands. Large glass-fronted cabinets held wine and shot glasses for the drinks served at these meals.
A garden buffet
If more than ten or 12 guests came to lunch or dinner, then a buffet was laid out in the garden of the bungalow. This was a beautiful green space with sweeping champa and tall palm trees, manicured hedges, a multitude of prize-winning flowers, and comfortable stone benches. A shamiana, or canopy, was set up on winter evenings; guests helped themselves liberally to a table heaving with fresh fruit, Viennese-style cakes from Hyderabad’s famed Bombay Bakery, and other appetisers while waiting for the main meal. The Jamote household was known for the its hospitality, no expenses spared to keep guests well fed. That expense included Nabi Bux’s salary, which at Rs 75 per month in the early 1960s was more than any other servant in the household received.
When the masters of the grand houses traveled, the cooks would accompany them, taking up residence wherever needed. The cook helped bear the strain of additional people at the host’s table, impressed the guests with his expertise, and provided the master with favorite dishes he simply couldn’t bear to be away from for too long. My grandfather’s guests would journey to the family farm outside Matiari for shooting parties in the vicinity; they all needed feeding in a style which complemented the reputation of the Jamote household.
Away from the kitchen and proper ovens and utensils, Nabi Bux was a master of improvisation. He made vegetable soup over an open fire; he would prepare the day’s catch, grilled partridges or a wild rabbit, on a spit over hot coals. When King Hussein of Jordan came to Pakistan in 1955, he visited Tando Mohammed Khan, a nearby village, to shoot partridge; Nabi Bux was sent to the home of the King’s host to cook for him.
Nabi Bux lived in Hyderabad with his wife and children, and every day he would arrive for work at 17 Civil Lines on a bicycle. A literate man, he made a habit of reading the newspaper in the morning before starting the day’s work. On Sundays, he cycled to Kotri and went fishing in the Indus River. Although he was a reserved man, almost aloof in his demeanour, he made a firm friendship trio with my grandfather’s driver and valet, the three of them forming the upper echelons of the servants at the bungalow.
Nabi Bux stayed on at 17 Civil Lines after my grandfather’s death, continuing to cook for my father and his older brother, the latter of whom inherited the title of sardar and carried on the lifestyle that came with it. In the 1960s, my uncle hosted Presidents Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan when they both came for shoots to Matiari, and Nabi Bux cooked for them too.
In the 1970s, my father, mother and I settled in Karachi after spending five years in the United States. Nabi Bux traveled often from Hyderabad to stay at our house for a few weeks, cooking the Western dishes that we craved after those five years in America. I liked nothing better than to come home from school and find a plate of sliced jelly rolls waiting for me, a tureen of hot custard standing beside the plate.
By this time, Nabi Bux was an old man; our small family’s demands were much easier to fulfill. My grandfather’s driver, Abdul Ghani, also came to work for us in his old age, and the two of them were the best of friends, always reminiscing about the old days at 17 Civil Lines. I spent many hours in their company, playing chess with Nabi Bux, while Abdul Ghani showed me pretend magic tricks with cards and Nabi Bux’s reading glasses, which would disappear and then reappear in a flower pot or behind a stack of plates.
I’d known neither of my grandfathers, who had died before I was born. Both of them had had affectionate but austere, somewhat formal relationships with their children, my parents. They might have been less reserved with me, a small granddaughter, but I never had the chance to find out. Although gentle Nabi Bux and Abdul Ghani would not have thought of themselves as anything other than beloved family retainers, I saw them as substitute grandfathers, showering me with the love and attention that elders in our culture bestow upon the young.
One day in 1981, Nabi Bux was called to Rechal, the farm of my great-uncle, an hour away from Hyderabad in Tando Allah Yar. He was meant to cook Western dishes for the Lebanese ambassador. It was a job that required endurance and strength, as conditions on the farms in rural Sindh were still primitive. Nabi Bux had grown old; my parents and uncle made his workload lighter and easier in their more modern kitchens, equipped with ovens that ran on Sui gas. A lifelong smoker, he had become asthmatic in his old age. Beside his regular medication, my mother fed him a concoction that came from her mother: burned peacock feathers crushed and mixed with honey, which he said made him feel better.
At Rechal, the makeshift kitchen was small and poorly ventilated; there was no oven and Nabi Bux was cooking on coals, improvising as he had in his prime. Racing to get the food ready on time, Nabi Bux inhaled the smoke that gathered in the close, stuffy kitchen, unaware of the danger he was in. He suffocated, then collapsed. He was taken to a hospital but could not survive the asthma attack that had overcome him and he died on that hot summer day.
My parents and my uncle were inconsolable when they heard this terrible news: so was Abdul Ghani. My mother and father sat me down and told me gently that Nabi Bux had died. When I asked how, they said he’d been asphyxiated, but I was nine years old and I did not understand what that word meant. Later, I overheard my parents lamenting that Nabi Bux, old and frail, should not have gone to Rechal; he should have been spared the unsafe working conditions and been treated more gently, more carefully in light of his age and health.
We knew we had lost a gem, someone who linked our family to the days of the past, to the generations that were no longer there. A dignified, gifted man who had, I thought, overcome the difficulties of his life to become both friend and family to us all. How easily such illusions are shattered, though, in the chasm between Nabi Bux’s meticulous, disciplined life and his accidental, untimely death. My grandfather’s noblesse oblige, my father and uncle’s ideas of fairness and generosity were overshadowed by a vast, bottomless class inequality that Pakistan may never overcome.
My mother preserved many of Nabi Bux’s simpler recipes, writing them down as he dictated them to her while he cooked in our house. But the secrets of Nabi Bux’s most intricate dishes died with him. Only the memories remain.
Nabi Bux’s Jelly Roll
6 egg whites/4 eggs yolks (separated)
½ cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 drops vinegar
½ cup sugar
1. Beat the whites of the egg, add the sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.
2. Add yolks, slowly mix, and gradually add flour and baking powder.
3. Pour into a prepared square baking tin. Bake at 350 degrees F (180 Celsius) for fifteen minutes until both sides become golden brown.
4. When cool, cover with raspberry jelly and roll in wax paper.
5. Open the paper, then slice the roll, cover in powdered sugar, and add cream or custard sauce.
Bina Shah is a Karachi-based writer and the author of five novels. Her latest work is Before She Sleeps (Pan MacMillan India), a feminist dystopia set in a future Middle East.
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.