No matter what country you live in, one of the key challenges for a desi in any part of the world is acquiring a truly heart warming, gratifying meal. Sure you might be indulging in the all-too-hip burgers and fish `n’ chips and pizza home deliveries day in and day out. But there comes a time when even the most westernised of desis looks back and wishes for the simple goodness of honest, wholesome Pakistani cuisine like daal-chawal or the more festive biryani, tikkay and kebabs.With a culinary assault that the British like to label as the “Asian invasion” though, it was to some relief that I came to, learn that desi food is not a rarity at all, even in the kingdom of England. In fact, curry and chicken tikka stand parallel to, if not above, the English tradition of fish-and-chips as the nation’s favourite food today.
My first memories of having English food include a number of rather flaccid meals seasoned largely with salt and pepper and con-verging peculiarly on potatoes of all kinds and shapes: mashed potatoes, jacket potatoes, baked potatoes, hash browns, potato chips,
potato pie, potato cakes and the list goes on. If things got really adventurous, some additional lemon juice or vinegar would find its way into the recipe but that is about the most there is to English food. gora waiters carrying dainty little trays around the place, we were greeted by the presence of two solemn looking desi bairaas sporting bushy whiskers, gelled back hair and smart waistcoats.
Seating ourselves at the table, we picked up our menu cards. Presently, one of the waiters came up to take our orders; tandoori chicken would do for now along with a helping of chicken biryani. To my surprise, the waiter stared at me for a good three minutes in utter disbelief and then said, “Bibi aap yeh naa lein; aap ko suit nahin kare ga. ”
Hardly believing what I had just heard did a waiter actually tell me off, what was this world coming to? I adamantly asked him to bring the same. “Laikin madam, yeh goron ki dish haye,” he reiterated. My mercury levels rose higher still; what did he mean it was a goron ki dish? It said tandoori chicken and biryani right there on the menu card; what was so gora about it anyway?
Finally succumbing to my instructions, a very distressed waiter returned with the order. Truly enough, tandoori chicken turned out to be a curiously sweet curry loaded with salt and pepper with the occasional chunks of It is little wonder hence that I could not help but anticipate visiting the city of Manchester, home of the Curry Mile, Rusholme and imagine helping myself to good old, proper desi food. Sure enough, as evening sets in, the entire
lights up like the food streets of Karachi and Lahore as if awaiting a grand celebration any minute. Desis of all shapes and sizes step out with families and kids, laughing and chatting loudly as they make their way to their favourite eat-ins. Twinkling neon lights reveal rows of endless restaurants named in the desi tradition: Darbar, Dildar, Kebabish, Lal Haweli, Lal Qila, Mughli, Nawab, Punjab, Sanam, Shere Khan, Shalimar and numerous others. There is hardly a gora as far as the eye can see and for a split second there, you forget that you are in fact in the heart of England.
The first time I walked into one such restaurant with my husband, I found myself smiling in spite of myself; instead of the usu floating chicken; as for the biryani, it was little more than a sorry little pile of yellowed rice bizarrely topped off with a fried egg and no meat whatsoever..
But every restaurant trip is a learning experience here; apparently the definition of tandoori for a gora is anything smoky and sweet whereas biryani is largely a tasteless vegetable rice dish instead of the heady, exotic meat pilaf that we desis are used to. What’s more curry, for all we know, is a meat stock spiked up with double cream and butter whereas kebab is anything on a skewer, be it meat, fruit, vegetables or even marshmallows!
Bitter sweet experience has literally taught me though, that it takes time and a love for food to pinpoint that handful of restaurants that truly chum out the best there is to desi cuisine here in England. In my quest to find that rare gem in an ocean of eateries, today I step into yet another restaurant to try out their “authentic” Pakistani cuisine.
This time though, I have planned things out well in advance, and so I ask the waiter, “Bhai koi desi dish bataiye ga.” He gives me a funny half-smile that he reserves exclusively for his Paki clients, “Madam fikr hi na karain,” and then turns to his fellow waiter, “Oay Amjad, laga toe karhai apnay `ishtyl’ ki!” Sure enough, Amjad does what he does best and soon, I smell the rich aroma of my desi karhai sizzling in the kitchen. Long live the Asian invasion, I think to myself; now this is what I call authentic Pakistani food.