Yesterday, I received a gift of fruit from a family friend, who had brought it from the Philippines. I had never seen or tasted this particular variety before and I found it to be full of a new and exotic flavor. As I sat enjoying the experience, I was reminded of my childhood, when everything – even the things that one ate were simple. The fruit that one saw in the market consisted of (amongst other names) mangos, bananas, apples, oranges, tangerines, grapes, pomegranates, guavas, plums, apricots, peaches, grapefruit and melons. We did not have ‘kinoos’, kiwi fruit, pip-less oranges, persimmon, ‘chikoo’ and other exotic looking stuff that is now commonly available in any large grocery store. Interestingly enough, the ‘kinoo’, a byproduct of a tangerine and orange, genetically engineered in Pakistan, appeared in our lifetime, taking the citrus market by storm.

Street food too signified simplicity, unlike the long list of ‘chats’, ‘bhallas’, mixed plates, burgers and ‘rolls’ that we have these days. We had ‘aloo cholay’ normally sold on hand pushed carts that usually stood outside schools. This were a spicy mixture of boiled potatoes, chickpeas, white radish and other stuff that is hard to remember. It was satisfying and incredibly tasty, costing just a couple of ‘annas’ per plate (in those days, a rupee had sixteen annas). Other amazing snacks consisted of ‘peethi ke laddoo’, ‘katlammay’, ‘gol gappay’ and ‘chikkar cholay’. Out of the above, only the ‘gol gappay’ have survived the ravages of change and that too in a mutated form, wherein the sour spicy liquid served with them is no more an extract of dried ginger, but something else that creates the illusion of the original stuff. ‘Peethi ke ladoo’ require a diligent search of inner Lahore, before some old soul still continuing with their preparation, can be discovered. It is the same with the ‘King of Snacks – the Katlamma’. One may stumble across a stand selling the stuff at a shrine or ‘urs’, but then its taste is nowhere near the ones sold in the nineteen fifties. My most favorite amongst Lahore’s street food – ‘chikkar cholay’ is now almost extinct, replaced by the vulgar ‘murg’, mutton and ‘shahi’ versions. I am told that the only spot, where one can expect to find the original thing is somewhere around ‘Masjid e Shuhada’ at Regal Chowk. I am now committed to visiting the place and gorging myself on this elusive delicacy. By the way, this amazing food comes to my aid, whenever someone is critical of Pakistan not being a land of opportunity.

In times gone by, people negotiating Ganga Ram Hospital intersection, where Queens Road crosses Mozang Road, were apt to see an old man and his wooden cart standing on the pavement towards the Mozang side. To ‘chikkar chola’ lovers, this was ‘heaven’. Known to everyone simply as ‘Chachcha’, this master of the culinary arts was a king in his own right. Whenever, I came on leave from a busy career, I would first stop by and inform him that I was home. This was a prearranged signal signifying that for the next ‘umpteen’ number of days, ‘chachcha’ would be my daily source of lunch. Then one day, the old man informed me that he was setting up a ‘tandoor’ across the road for his son. On my next visit, I found not only a tandoor, but a thatched hotel of sorts alongside it, full of customers. Professional commitments and my family’s relocation, kept me away from the city of my birth for an extended period. When I did return, I saw a vacant pavement, where the cart had once stood. As I looked across the road, I saw the ‘tandoor and dhaba’ replaced by a multistoried building showcasing a restaurant on the ground floor. This building belonged to ‘chachcha’s’ son – living proof that Pakistan was certainly a land of opportunity, provided one put in consistent hard work.

I dare not conclude this week’s piece without mentioning the narrow lane that once led to the historic ‘Paisa Akhbaar’ from Anarkali. This was, where early post dawn visitors found themselves in long queues outside two establishments – Sami Dehelvi’s Nihari and the anonymous ‘Bewri Bhaji’ shop across the street. Both these places are now no more, leaving a huge void that no one else can fill in a changing food culture.

 

The writer is a historian.