It was Sahar Ali’s love of writing that opened up career choices for her in journalism and development communication. Sahar has spent her 20-year career working for The News and Khaleej Times newspapers and non-government development organizations IUCN, The Asia Foundation and Panos South Asia.
During these two decades she continued writing freelance for various Pakistani and international publications, and even did short stints on radio (Cloud 89 on City FM 89) and television (The First Blast on Dawn News).
Now married, a mother, and newly migrated to the US, Sahar is on a whole new adventure. Life now bears no resemblance to the footloose and fancy free existence she led in Pakistan as a single working woman, but her blog celebrates the two constants in her life, her love of food and writing.
|More sharing options at the end of the article|
|Aloo Gosht, The Ultimate Pakistani Comfort Food|
|Blogs - Life, Loss and What I Ate|
|By Sahar Ali|
There’s nothing like a comforting pot of aloo gosht to take you home, or back to your childhood.
When I was three years old, my mother and I took a trip to London. It was the first I was flying so far away from home. I fell asleep soon after the plane took off. When I woke up a few hours later, Ammi asked me if I was hungry. My eyes still bleary, I yawned and nodded yes. “What do you want to eat? she asked me. “Aloo gosht,” I replied in half a heartbeat. This made my mother laugh. She should have known better than to leave the choice to me. How was she going to conjure up a plate of aloo gosht on a PIA flight?
There’s no doubt that if there was a list of Pakistani comfort foods, aloo gosht would top it. But my reasons for choosing this classic curry of meat-and-potatoes have to do with my childhood memories of lunchtimes with Dadi.
Ours was a double-income household, unusual for Pakistan in the early 70s. Throughout our early childhood both my parents donned an airline uniform and went off on “duty” at the Karachi Airport to check in and deplane passengers traveling on PIA. While it was not unusual for my father to be working, my mother was able to do so because we lived in a joint family.
My parents, my little brother, our pointer Lassie and I lived in a two bedroom house while next door lived my father’s older brother’s family, Dadi, Phuppo Amman, a widow with her two teenage sons. We lived in twin homes separated by a wall that divided the inner courtyard in half, but the grounds were connected and we shared the front and back gates, garage, servants’ living quarters and driveways. Because Dadi and Phuppo Amman lived next door and stayed home, my mother could continue working after she had us. We also had a live-in nanny and a cook whom Dadi and Phuppo Amman watched over with an eagle eye while my parents were away.
When we were old enough, we were enrolled in a nearby pre-school. When Sameer and I returned home from Madam Montessori, Dadi would be waiting with a deliciously simple meal prepared by Farooq, our cook. They were my Dadi’s recipes and Farooq’s haath ka maza did justice to them. My favorite season was winter because it was then that lunch was served in our room rather than the dining room. Dadi would be sitting on the large bed in the room Sameer and I shared, cross-legged under a cozy, hand-made quilt. As soon as we were changed out of our school uniforms by Mrs. Clemens, our rather severe nurse-turned-nanny, we jumped on the bed and snuggled up to Dadi under the quilt. Soon after, lunch was wheeled in on a trolley – steaming pots of aloo gosht and dal and puffy chapattis fresh off the tava. Dadi would make nivalas and feed us because we hadn’t quite mastered the art of folding a piece of roti to scoop up saalan, bits of succulent boti and creamy potato. Sameer certainly hadn’t, at age 3, and though I probably had, I didn’t mind being indulged by Dadi.
It wasn’t often that Dadi pampered her first granddaughter, or indeed any grand-daughter. Her own father, a wealthy landowner of his time in Pre-Partition India, had brought up his own six daughters without any frills or indulgences. His philosophy was to prepare them for a life of austerity should that be their destiny. If it was, then there wouldn’t be any discomfort. And if they married into wealthy families, then it wouldn’t take long to get used to the comfort. Dadi’s life as the wife of an honest police officer in the Indian Police had not been a luxurious one. With five children to look after, she had no tolerance for nonsense and tantrums. Grandchildren didn’t soften her stance. Medicines would be administered while using her leg to hold down flailing limbs so that her hands were free to do the pouring. Naughtiness was often punished by seating the offender in a bathroom sink that was installed in the inner courtyard. With our butts sunken into the bowl of the sink, it was impossible to jump down from that height without risking a broken bone or jaw. And just in case we tried, Dadi was sitting right there on the day bed, chopping vegetables or sewing, making sure we entertained no such notions of escape.
Boys were her weakness, and she had been granted a steady line of grandsons; five, till I interrupted the steady flow of testosterone. She had wanted me to be a boy; she thought first-borns should be. I had spoiled her plans. But then along came my brother two years later, not just a boy, but a fair, golden-haired, blue-eyed beauty of a baby. It wasn’t long before he became her favorite. As the baby of the family, and a handsome boy, indulgence was his birthright. This was especially in evidence at mealtimes.
With Mrs. Clemens hovering and Farooq turning up every so often with a fresh roti, Dadi fed us with her hands as she told us tales of prophets from the Quran containing strong moral lessons. We grew up on this diet of tender meat and tough morality.
What aloo gosht lacks in imagination, it makes up for in representation. It is a taste of home – familiar, comfortable – reminding us of our childhood, of a time when life was simple, meals were hearty, and families ate together.
I’m sure there as many recipes for aloo gosht as there are homes where it is cooked. We each have a special ingredient for this classic dish. Maybe you use a dollop of yogurt, or a ladle of tomato puree for a tangy taste to the curry. Perhaps yours is a purist version that includes neither of the above. Maybe you like your gravy thick. Or you may be partial to a watery broth that drenches your roti.
One of my favorite variations was what I tasted in my aunt’s home in Lahore when I was studying there. On weekends, I would look forward to her cook’s aloo gosht that was nothing like the version made in our home. His secret, other than the naturally divine taste of ingredients in Punjab, was deep frying the potato wedges before adding them to the gravy to soften as they boiled.
Although it doesn’t get more Pakistani than aloo gosht, this is not an item you will find on a restaurant menu. So imagine our surprise when we came across it at a Pakistani restaurant in Houston on a recent trip. Bismillah Restaurant is a mom-and-pop kind of place with a cafeteria ambience and home-style food. They serve nihari and biryani and other menu staples, but their most popular items are the everyday dishes that we have grown up with but will never outgrow.