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.
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|Blogs - Life, Loss and What I Ate|
|By Sahar Ali|
Because I’m writing about food, I like to read what other people are writing about food. The culinary memoir is an emerging genre. I’m reading Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah these days, a culinary memoir about the writer’s year in Paris which arguably is the culinary capital of the world. In the first chapter, dedicated to the city’s plat du jour (plate of the day) steak-frites, she writes: “I’m not a voracious carnivore but there’s something about being in Paris that makes me want to sink my teeth into a bloody piece of beef.”
I smiled when I read that because just a few hours earlier, I had been thinking exactly the opposite. That I am a carnivore to the core but there’s something about freshly slaughtered meat that makes me not want to sink my teeth into a bloody piece of beef. Or mutton.
And the reason slaughter is on the mind is because of Eid ul Azha, which is the only occasion I come into contact with bloody beef. Or mutton.
Eid ul Azha or “Bakra Eid”, its more popular name, is celebrated with passion in my father’s side of the family. While I love their fervor, I’m with my mother and her family on this. They like to shut themselves away at home and pretend it’s not happening.
But the ritual slaughter of cows and goats is taken very seriously in Abboo’s family. Sacrificial animals are bought a few days before Eid. The children of the household take responsibility for the care and tending of the animals. The highlight of this is parading the animal down the street several times a day, like walking the dog.
My brother and other male cousins couldn’t contain their excitement when a goat was brought home before Eid. My mother and I didn’t share their enthusiasm. We felt sorry for the poor animal and tried not to get to know it at all lest we feel even worse than we naturally would when it was slaughtered. At night I would lie awake listening to the plaintive baa baa of the black goat. My mother would fret over its scattered droppings, and the mess of grass and other feed that would require cleaning later. We both wanted to pretend it was not happening but the bleating and the pellets made it all too real.
The dawn of Eid wasn’t a joyous or exciting occasion as the previous Eid, Eid ul Fitr. We dressed with a heavy heart, not really looking forward to the events that lay ahead. The sacrifice usually took place at my Taya’s house where my Dadi also lived. We had long moved from the twin houses in Nazimabad to the seaside suburb of Defence where our homes were within a few minutes’ drive. In Defence, Phuppo Amman’s and our families had become neighbors while Barey Abba and Dadi lived about a mile away.
There was quite a line-up of goats for slaughter at my Taya’s. He had a large garden with lots of space for the animals to be tethered and slaughtered. It was like the guillotine of the French Revolution, one by one the animals were led to slaughter and then chopped up into the cuts of meat for cooking that afternoon’s meal. Some of the meat was for sharing with family members, and one portion was distributed to the poor.
If I hadn’t been so averse to the sights, smells, sounds and aftermath of slaughter, I would probably have enjoyed watching Phuppo Amman and Khalid Chacha argue over the meat. They were overly familiar with the anatomy of the cow and goat, knew the best bits and cuts, and weren’t afraid to fight for them.
While the children looked forward to watching the slaughter taking place with what seemed to my mother and I to be sadistic pleasure, we stayed indoors trying to ignore the metallic smell of spilt blood decomposing in the heat. The pools of blood would first coagulate, turning a deep, deep red. Flies were everywhere, buzzing around the hide, flitting about the skinned carcass. Like pilgrims on Hajj, they circled round the butcher busy hacking away at sinew and tissue and bone. The steady chop-chop of his cleaver left a random pattern of lines on the thick slice of tree trunk that was his chopping block.
Ammi and I avoided the kitchen where meat-laden trays would be arriving, ribs for the pulao, legs for roast, chopped up shoulder and thigh for a meaty stew. Ammi was least interested in our hissa of the cow. She mainly wanted qeema, and some of the least appetizing parts for Pixie, our mutt.
Ammi wasn’t a carnivore. The only way she would eat meat was if it was ground up into qeema. I was (and continue to be) a carnivore but I couldn’t bear the smell and taste of freshly slaughtered meat. I liked mine long dead, frozen and thawed before I would eat it.
Dadi who presided over the Eid feast, was mindful of her daughter in law’s and grand-daughter’s discomfort. So she made sure there was poori with aloo on the menu. While the rest of the family tucked into pulao and fried liver and meat cooked with garlic and chillies, Ammi and I were grateful for the potatoes.
When it came time to wash away our piety, the spray of water from the garden hose rehydrated the congealed blood turning it bright red again. It flowed down the driveway and into the street, streaking the cement, asphalt and dust.
Dadi and Ammi both passed on within a year of each other and Eid hasn’t been the same. Ammi succumbed first to cancer in May 2004 and Dadi died of old age in January 2005. The Eid after Dadi’s death, there was nothing vegetarian on the menu. I ate rice from the pulao which I drowned in raita to camouflage its meaty taste. I missed Ammi because I was alone in my misery. And I missed Dadi. She would have looked out for her grand-daughter.
When Eid came around next year, I wasn’t about to go hungry again! So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I offered to help out with the menu and bring dessert. The offer was readily accepted because the gathering was large and with multiple qurbanis to handle in the kitchen as well as preparation of the afternoon meal, my Tai and her daughter-in-law were grateful to have dessert taken off their hands. My plan was to sneak in a vegetarian dish as well, along with dessert, so I wouldn’t go hungry. If I brought it along with dessert, it wouldn’t seem offensive that I was bringing my own food to the lunch. At least, that’s how I saw it.
But as luck would have it, an even better plan unfolded, one I strongly suspect Dadi orchestrated from the Heavens above. My Khala was also invited for Eid that year. With both her sons living abroad, Khala Ammi’s closest family was Ammi. After Ammi’s death, my father’s family adopted Khala Ammi . In their characteristic generosity, she was invited for most family get-togethers.
Now, Khala Ammi doesn’t eat any meat, not even qeema. She will try the occasional kabab but she can’t handle anything that looks and tastes like meat.
The night before Eid, I received a panicked phone call from Saima, my Taya’s daughter-in-law.
“Eek! What shall I make for Khala Ammi? She doesn’t eat meat and there’s nothing vegetarian on the menu!”
“Don’t worry,” I told her, smiling to myself. “I’ll bring something she can eat.”
And that is how my mutter paneer became a permanent part of the family’s Eid feast. As it turned out, there were others, Ruby Baji and my niece Khadija, who were delighted with the vegetarian option. From then on, every year on Eid I cooked mutter paneer in my red non-stick wok to be served alongside the meat lover’s menu.
On Eid ul Azha celebrations in the US there are no slaughters to avoid, no bloody beef or mutton to deal with. But Dadi’s looking out for me nevertheless. My cousin Nusrat, who has invited us for Eid brunch this year, is serving puri aloo.