My friends say that I am a ‘foodie’ and this pleases me no end, in spite of the fact that in my family’s opinion, I don’t eat ‘healthy’. I consider this point of view to be untenable, simply because I eat all things ‘halal’, whether they walk, hop, fly, swim or crawl and many of these are healthier to consume, than our run of the mill domestic sustenance. Sitting at my table is an adventure for my guests (and somewhat tense too) for they do not know what oddity will be served to them. By and large, I have emerged from these encounters successfully and with a few more converts to the notion expressed by my favourite travel host and fellow foodie that “if it looks good, eat it”. It is therefore not surprising that my favourite television shows are those that feature travelling chefs and their culinary expeditions.

My love of cooking and eating was perhaps seeded and abetted by my late mother and the exciting childhood activity called ‘hundkulia’ (derived in all probability from the word ‘handi’). On holidays, my mater would place three bricks to make a U shaped ‘choolah’ under the old ‘peepal’ tree next to our kitchen. She would then help me fire it up with dry sticks, whisk out a miniature copper cooking pot, a wooden spoon, some raw vegetables, clarified butter, necessary spices and leave me to mess with them anyway I thought fit. She would however visit ‘my kitchen’ a few times to see, how I was getting on (and right my wrongs). The end result would be proudly served for lunch along with our regular menu and praise heaped upon the little chef for doing a good job. As time passed, I became ‘tolerably’ good at cooking and even began experimenting with food.

The other day, on returning to my home after an outdoor ramble, I was delighted to see a re-enactment of my childhood days in the area behind the kitchen. There was my five year old granddaughter and her 12 year old brother, cooking the ‘hundkulia’ in exactly the same manner as I used to, with their parents supervising the exercise. The mini potatoes and spinach produced by my little chefs were something that I would happily consume every weekend. The passage behind my kitchen lined on one side with a raised bed of herbs, has now become a regular cooking venue, where I can relive my childhood years by simply watching the little ones cook stuff, which to me is better than anything prepared in a real kitchen by a real cook.

I have during my travels enjoyed almost every type of sea creature ranging from sea weed, shell fish to calamari and its kin and have praised the Creator for the bountiful harvests that the oceans can provide. I have munched on spicy roasted grasshoppers and found them to be nutritious and tasty. I have cooked wild plants with more flavour than cultivated spinach and I have enjoyed salads containing greens that other people might consider weeds or fodder.

My most memorable food experience occurred during a trip to Granada in Spain, where having spent hours walking around the great Muslim palace of Alhambra and suffering from an acute need of something to eat, I saw a small restaurant showcasing, what looked like ‘Shawarma’. Being wary of the meat on display, I walked inside and asked the man behind the till in English, if he served ‘kosher’ food since I was a Muslim. What happened next was unforgettable – a strange excitement seemed to take hold of him, as he shouted to someone called ‘Ahmed’ in the basement that there was a customer in their establishment, who was a brother. Up the steps ran a carbon copy of the person on top. While I ate the ‘Shawarma’, the twins (who were the owners of the eatery) watched me indulgently. At an unseen signal, one of them went downstairs and remerged carrying a huge jug full of white liquid and three large sized glasses. The first mouthful of the white drink, blew me away. This was the best salted ‘lassi’ that I had ever tasted and of all the places in Granada.

My status as a foodie has led me to some amazing places at home – places that are not fancy, like the thatched roadside hotel in Hasan Abdal that makes an amazing local delicacy called ‘Katwa Gosht’ or a similar establishment near Khanpur Dam that serves mouth-watering freshly caught and fried cold water fish, but I am keeping those stories for another Sunday.A