It was two Sundays ago that I visited a family in Lahore to honor a long outstanding lunch invitation. The meal held a special place in my reckoning as my grandfather and that of the wonderful hostess had been very close friends since pre independence days. Not only this, but the ‘Master of the House’ and I had been colleagues for more than three decades. I would not have referred to this event in my piece, had I not been subjected to an experience that triggered fond memories from my childhood days.

The overall atmosphere inside the house was so like the one in the house of my parents and grandparents that I was engulfed in a surge of déjà vu. My nostalgia multiplied, when hot steaming stew was served on the dining table along with bitter gourd and meat, exactly in the manner as it was cooked by my late mother. Even though I restrained my sentiments, I could not, but show my feelings to the family, who have earned my everlasting gratitude and affection.

Meals in our home in Lahore were festive affairs without even the faintest element of monotony and boredom. The family dined together (barring the afternoon meal during school days) and our food venues changed with the seasons. During summers, breakfast, lunch and dinner were taken in the high roofed interior of the dining room, where my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother occupied both ends of the table, while the rest of the family occupied the space in-between, according to age and seniority. Our summer menu was very ‘summery’ with a focus on vegetable based dishes, lentils and fresh salads - straight from our kitchen garden.

In winters, breakfast was consumed around a stove in one corner of the pantry, while lunch was served in the verandah that ran around all four sides of the house. A table for eight was laid amidst the mottled sunshine that filtered through blooming bougainvillea and hot steaming stew (exactly like the one in the opening part of this piece) was served with ‘chapati’. Meat pushed out veggies from our menu in the cold season, to provide us with more calories.

What we looked forward to however, was dinner. The fireplace in my grandmother’s room was lit and a ‘dastarkhwan’ was laid before it on the carpet. Dishes brimming with steaming boiled rice, spicy meat curry and lentils were then placed before us, along with high bran ‘chapatis’. We were not allowed to call for our domestic helpers during the meal, but had to get anything we wanted ourselves. The crackling heat of the log fire combined with the low voiced chatter of the entire family created an ambience that was unforgettable. Winter evening meals were not only popular because of the setting, but also the anticipation of getting our night cap – ‘dhoodhi’. This concoction was served to us before going to bed and consisted of assorted watermelon seeds, almonds and some other ingredients of the ‘mysterious kind’ that were finely ground and cooked in milk sweetened with sugar, to form a delicious hot drink.

One Sunday in every week was reserved for a special treat – Sami Dehalvi’s Nihari. Getting this fiery traditional dish was not recommended for tardy risers as one had to drive to ‘Paisa Akhbar’ (a narrow street shooting out from Anarkali) before dawn and then stand in line.

Anyone arriving later than six o’clock was bound to return empty handed. This ‘nehari’ was eaten with ‘khamiri tandoori roti’ obtained from the same outlet. We went through this ‘brunch’ with streaming eyes and sweat running down our faces trying in vain to douse the conflagration within, with glasses of cold water. Alas the doyen of Nihari makers - Sami is no more and his descendants have perhaps taken up other evocations.

It is amazing how a delicious meal and unparalleled hospitality was able to trigger so many memories from a golden age. An age when relationships were based on trust, integrity and loyalty – not on selfish needs and duplicity. I am beginning to think that there was indeed magic in the stew – the magic of genuine affection and friendship.