My hereditary genes, which can be traced back to Central Asian warrior horsemen, have long manifested themselves in the paternal side of my family. We have over decades, developed a reputation of being footloose, with a preference for the outdoors rather than a solid roof over our heads. In many cases the urge is subtle enough to go unnoticed, but in others like myself and my elder female sibling, it is acute (almost compulsive) enough to be looked upon as a minor nuisance. My sister, who is five years my senior is now restricted by health issues to confine her ramblings lesser afield, but notwithstanding my senior citizen status and reduced stamina, I have continued my forays into the wilds (albeit with a little less recklessness). The pair of us have now come to the conclusion that our restlessness is triggered, amongst other things, by billowing thunderheads, frosty evenings, aroma of wild flowers or the sight of pine clad mountains – perhaps ancient racial memories in our subconscious minds.

Sleeping under the night sky looking up at the myriad of stars is an unforgettable experience, enhanced beyond description by picking, cooking and eating whatever the wild land provides you. I have in so doing discovered culinary pleasures, enough to make the finest chefs, scream in ecstasy. Up north beyond Shinkiari, in the mountains overlooking the Siran River, lies a high windswept feature called ‘Musa ka Musalla’, adorned by an ancient shrine. Almost a day’s trek short of this spot one passes through beautiful lush green alpine country. It is here that one finds a variety of green beans growing wild and in much profusion. I first came across this six inch long flat fruit, known to locals simply as ‘phali’ in the vicinity of the forest rest house at Shaheed Pani, when a goat herder was kind enough to share his food with me – a day old ‘roti’ and a small serving of this ‘phali’, pickled in oil. I have since that day become enamored with the green wonder to the extent of travelling all the way to Abbottabad and beyond to get my share of this natural bonanza.

A little over half way between Kuldana and Nathiagali one comes across a stretch of road heavily wooded on both sides with cedar. Those with a temperament more sensitive than most drivers, are apt to notice a sudden drop in light and temperature as one enters the area. Another feature that highlights the stretch, is the profusion of monkeys in the surrounding trees. Some distance into this ‘twilight zone’ (for this is what I call it), there is a dark clearing on the right of the road and connected to it by a short track marked by a tin roofed, mud plastered ‘tandoor’. While the menu here serves ‘chicken karahi’ and ‘tandoori roti’, knowledgeable visitors are ask for ‘hari phallian’. A small wait is involved thereafter, as a young man is immediately dispatched into the surrounding forest to return a few minutes later carrying stringy looking, freshly picked green beans. Another twenty minutes wait is worth it, as a wok containing the vegetable, stir fried in a mixture of spices along with piping hot ‘rotis’ is placed before you. This in my opinion is a meal to beat all meals and is best enjoyed, while perched on the warm mud platform beside the ‘tandoor’.

Visitors to my house are often served with ‘shami kebabs’. Little do these people know that what they are eating is not meat, but the ground fruit of the wild fig or ‘goolar’. My treks into the Margallas are never complete without sending some urchin shinning up a ‘goolar’ tree to harvest an ample supply of this fruit for our dinner table.

And last, but not the least there is the wild ‘Mako’ (identifiable by its tiny edible berries) and its companion ‘Cholai’. Both these plants, when harvested, julienned and cooked, produce a delectable ‘saag’ dish that is not only good to eat, but extremely healthy. This item is a frequent feature on my table and guests often ask me as to how have I been able to procure out of season ‘sarson ka saag’. My response generally prompts a second long look at what is in the plate before they reach out for a second helping.