A Karachi-wali pines for the gol-gappi-walla of Delhi, and can’t have enough of the fare at Nathu’s, Haldiram’s and Saagar.
As I sit down to write this it is the start of Ramadan, and what better time of year to talk about food. Across Southasia, Muslims are denying themselves food and drink during daylight hours, in order to experience the hunger that reminds them to be grateful to Allah for his benevolence, and to be generous towards those less fortunate. But a majority of non-Muslim observers, as well as many Muslim rozedars (fasters), are convinced that Ramadan is not so much about fasting as it is about feasting. I lived in Dubai during the late 1990s, and my non-Muslim friends there could not wait for the Holy Month to arrive. Once it did, they all started clamouring for invitations to iftaar, the ritual break of the fast at sunset. In the offices of the newspaper where I worked, the fasters were few but the partakers of iftaar many – and the latter were always the first to arrive at the canteen for the modest servings of pakoras (gram flour dumplings) and fruit, sometimes not even waiting for the azaan to signal the end of the fast. It is Ramadan, then, a time for fasting and for food. And for no other reason than that it is also a kind of food, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about chaat – that most delightful of all North Indian snacks. I discovered chaat rather late in life. It is something many Southasian women are introduced to in college, thus beginning a love affair that continues for the rest of their lives. But while I received my college education in a land that may be blessed with five rivers, it has no idea whatsoever about chaat. In Lahore, what passes for chaat is the confused mix of aloo and choley served at the dozens of khokas in the winding lanes of Bano Bazaar and Anarkali. The setting is quaint but the food downright unappetising for my ‘upper-class’ palate, with operative letters being u and p, as in Uttar Pradesh. Yes, it was in Lahore that I first discovered chaat, and discovered that I did not like it. A second revelation, however, came in Dubai. My father, who grew up eating chaat in the small town of Badayun in western UP, lost touch with the taste of his youth when his family migrated to Pakistan in the 1950s. When he was posted to Dubai four decades later, he took us with him in the search for that tantalising taste in Indian restaurants across the tiny Arab emirate. We tried dahi bhallas that were not so bhala, aloo tikkis that were quite icky, and gol gappas that were not quite so jhakkaas. Having already developed an aversion to chaat, I became even more disenchanted with this most unsavoury of savouries. I tried to convince my father that what he was looking for would be impossible to find. It was the taste of youth, and not of chaat, that
he craved. And that, sadly, was long gone. But my father insisted on eating his way across Dubai’s chaateries, and we decided to indulge his obsession.
Great gol gappas In November 1998, just before I moved back to Pakistan, I decided to take a trip to India. My first stop was Delhi to visit my friend Raman Kwatra. I had one evening in Delhi before I caught the overnight train to Gorakhpur to visit my maternal uncle’s family in my mother’s childhood home. That evening in Delhi, after a hectic afternoon’s shopping, Raman decided to treat me to his favourite snack – gol gappas. We arrived at Nathu’s in Bengali Market, and as soon as I realised it was a chaat joint I could not hide my sudden lack of enthusiasm. After all, I had been envisioning scrumptious skewers of tandoori paneer. It was only by reminding myself that Nathu’s would probably serve some sort of paneer – most likely pakoras – that I was able to put on a brave face. But Raman had other ideas! He insisted that I try the rava (sooji, or semolina) gol gappas. In most North Indian chaateries, the gol gappa counter is often situated just outside the restaurant entrance, around which hungry customers gather with disposable plates. The gol gappi-wala prepares each gol gappa by hand, and then serves it to you individually. This is a wonderfully personalised way of eating, but to my unenthused palate I found the process rather unhygienic. But Raman continued insisting. Not wanting to offend my host, I finally relented. I held my breath as I gulped the gol gappa – and could not believe my tongue! Even before I had swallowed the mouthful – the delicious sweet-and-sour tastes of the tamarind chutney, yoghurt and mint water making passionate love to my taste buds – I motioned to Raman that he dare not think of eating a single rava gol gappa, having noticed that there were barely a half-dozen left. Since that day, if there is anything that matches my love of Indian cinema, it is my devotion to Indian chaat. Whenever I travel to Delhi I make daily pilgrimages to Nathu’s or Haldiram’s or Saagar, or any other chaatery recommended by friends or family. I will even eat at a thela if a more hygienic chat joint is not in sight. I have also been able to take my father along on some of these trips, where sojourns to Nathu’s and Haldiram’s are again a daily ritual. Eyes always larger than our stomachs, we let loose on rava gol gappas, aloo tikkis, mixed chaat plates and lachcha tokris. While he rediscovers the tastes of his youth, I make up for my chaat-deprived childhood. Back home in Karachi, Ramadan is the time to recreate the wonderful flavours of North Indian chaat. Because I love to cook almost as much as I love to eat, come Ramadan I make sure that we are well stocked with tamarind chutney (which we call sontth), boiled potatoes, yoghurt, choley, paapri, green gram and other items that go into a plate of chaat as can be found at Haldiram’s. Sadly, rava gol gappas are beyond my amateur skills. But some things are better left to experts.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)