Monday, January 15, 2007

How Do You Know When A Columnist Has Run Out Of Things To Say?

When he starts talking about what he's been eating the last couple of months.
The eating binge started when my host Ijazul Hasan picked me up from the airport and drove me straight to lunch at Shahid Amjad’s farm. There, in very picturesque surroundings on a glorious winter day, we tucked into saag, seekh kebabs and a delicious pulao.

Worse was to follow: I had come to attend young Jafar Ali’s wedding, and the food at the mehndi was seriously good. There, Anis Hyder Shah mentioned a place he knew that, according to him, served the best meat in Lahore. Having lived many years in the city, I wanted to check out the joint that had escaped my carnivorous attention for all this time. And as Anis knows his desi food, I promptly accepted his invitation to go there for lunch the next day. It took us 40 minutes of awful traffic to get to Neela Gumbud, and I was starving by the time we walked into the lane off the square where Ghafoor cooks his legendary mutton-chholas. A few beat-up metal tables were scattered about the sidewalk, and we asked Ghafoor for his best cuts of meat. Imagine our disappointment when he informed us that after the blood-letting over Eid, his meat supplies had not been resumed. But as a consolation, he offered us chicken-chholas instead. While the dish was good, it wasn’t up to Abbot Road standards. I will have to return one day to verify Anis’s claim.

A brief diversion here about the humble chhola or chickpea: when I first arrived in Lahore around 40 years ago and began my long, cholesterol-laden relationship with gurda-kapuras, friends urged me to try the chicken-chholas (or chickur-chholas), but I turned up my nose at this seemingly vulgar combination. The truth is that the chickpea does not figure prominently in Mughlai or Lucknavi cuisines, and I assumed the dish was peasant fare not to be taken seriously. How young and foolish I was. The chhola, when lovingly cooked, absorbs the flavours and juices of the spices and meat with which it is simmered, and releases them when you bite into it. When properly prepared, it offers a slight resistance to the teeth before giving up its essence. A steaming bowl of chicken-chholas accompanied with hot roti from the oven has few equals among Lahore’s splendid array of street food.

The next day we drove to Ijaz’s farm in Sheikhupura where, again among bucolic surroundings, we had an excellent lunch featuring saag and a chicken curry, using desi fowl naturally. It must be said that the company and the setting can make or mar a meal. And at the farm, both were of the very highest quality. Dinner that evening was at Javed Masood’s where I encountered beef in a meltingly tender shab-degh for the first time.
I think it's safe to say that I'm going to be ordering desi take out for lunch. Yeah, Devon Avenue.

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