It is a late January afternoon, breezy and comfortable. Karachi is passing through its transient phase of pleasant weather before summer heat barges in unannounced any week. It is a good day to attempt impossible things.

Mama and I are sitting together, slightly out of sync. I have just begun lunch while she is ahead of me, her plate licked clean and pushed aside to make room for a notebook and pen. She adjusts the reading glasses perched at the tip of her nose and scrolls through the contact list on her phone.

J-K-L…M. Mona mobile (India).

Mona khala is mama’s distant cousin and the closest source we have for a lost recipe.

Nano stopped making kachay gosht ki biryani a long time ago. For decades, it remained suspended in memory and acquired a legendary status. Wah! They would say swaying with their hands to their chest, aisi biryani hoti thi ke hum kya bataein.

But none of the khalas have ever tried making it themselves. Perhaps they thought this was a memory best left ornamental, that being tainted by reality would be too big a loss. Or perhaps they felt it was too towering a challenge, that as the legend around it grew it became impossible to match.

Regardless, I’ve recruited mama to my cause and together we’re working to retrieve it from the past where it’s stuck. Mama opens the Whatsapp chat for Mona khala and sends a cautious 'hello'. We wait.

I look at my plate: five plump hari mirchain slathered in a heap of golden brown masala sitting on top of plain white rice. A large glass of chilled water is on standby near me, ready to put out inevitable fires.

It is the fear of this threat from mirchain that elicits widened eyes and confused looks from guests whenever we serve mirchon ka salan at dawats.

“We can eat the hari mirch?”

They are right to fear hari mirchain. They were never meant to be eaten. Capsaicin, the chemical compound responsible for the mirch’s spiciness, acts on heat (and not gustatory) receptors in the mouth.

Spiciness is not a taste but an infliction of pain, a defence mechanism meant to protect the plant from being eaten by the wrong animal. Those that felt the pain would be deterred, or so the wisdom may have been.

As we rise to meet the challenge *mirchon ka salan* presents, in the span of a few bites curiosity gives way to surprise, then enjoyment. We are deepened by the experience, by what it says about the necessary abrasiveness of survival.
As we rise to meet the challenge mirchon ka salan presents, in the span of a few bites curiosity gives way to surprise, then enjoyment. We are deepened by the experience, by what it says about the necessary abrasiveness of survival.

The human love for chillies says otherwise.

We are simultaneously stung and captivated by them. This apparent contradiction is resolved by the partial neutralization of chillies in our cooking; they are sliced, chopped, mashed, crushed, or simply put in proximity to food to have their spiciness extracted but cordoned off. Unlike this peripheral role, in mirchon ka salan they are not around the food. They are the food.

Seemingly fixed culinary rules that would presume to dictate what a mirch can and can not be (inedible accessory — yes, main dish — no) evaporate away with the steam and sizzle of the meal. The mirchain become edible as they distribute the spiciness concentrated in them to the masala all around. The confinement of the cutting and chopping is answered with complete expansion. This distribution in space becomes a distribution in time and slowly builds up in the mouth in an audaciously spicy crescendo.

As we rise to meet the challenge mirchon ka salan presents, in the span of a few bites curiosity gives way to surprise, then enjoyment. We are deepened by the experience, by what it says about the necessary abrasiveness of survival.

Metamorphosis of the thing cooked and its eater has been at the root of cooking since we first put food to fire. It is widely theorized that the emergence of cooked food was pivotal in shaping human evolution: more energy released from food meant our brains became bigger; the switch from raw, hard food to cooked, softer food moulded our teeth, jaws, and digestive tracts; and our patterns of food consumption diversified from individualistic to more communal.

We made cooked food and cooked food made us. Our present-day encounters with unexpected foods — an unfamiliar ingredient, an inspired combination, a different cooking technique, or (as in the case of mirchon ka salan) a role reversal — encounters that expand our understanding of the possible, contain traces of that ancient evolutionary dialogue, that symbiotic growth and transformation.


***


Bari nano — my great great grandmother — was born in Hyderabad Deccan sometime in the late 1800s. She was named after Aurangzeb’s eldest daughter, Zaibunnissa, who had also been born in Hyderabad.

A patron of the literary arts and a formidable poet herself, princess Zaibunnissa’s politics threatened Aurangzeb so much that he had her imprisoned. The exact reasons for her imprisonment are unclear. Was she secretly supporting Dara Shikoh? Was it a love affair with her father’s political rivalry? Or was it the secret support for her brother and his rebellion?

Her imprisonment stretched on for twenty years and only ended with her death. These tragic circumstances of her life drip conspicuously from her words (an interesting contradiction for someone whose chosen takhallus was Makhfi) and it is hard not to think about them when reading her poetry.


The wine of my delight has lost its taste;
The earth of my existence turns a waste,
No wholesome grass grows there, but only weed;
My flaming spring of life has passed indeed
I searched for joy, but never found the end
My empty hands, outstretched, can greet no friend
And if God’s pardon never come to me
Then less than withered grass my prayers must be
But, Makhfi, look with a discerning eye
Deeper than thy despair thy bliss may lie
Though on the path of love thy feet may tire
New strength shall come to thee, and new desire

From the English translation of Diwan-e-Makhfi


When nano and khalas answered my questions about bari nano’s life, “tragedy” was a recurring word.

Un ke saath bari tragedy hui thi. Infertility. Husband’s second marriage, four sons. A miracle pregnancy after 12 years. The anticlimactic birth of a daughter. Five daughters. The loud, uncompromising demand for a son. Being branded a failure for her inability to produce an heir.

Eventually, even a son not being good enough. Tragedy. To bear all of this in her lifetime and then to have her memory distilled to the most painful parts of her life, to be recounted in perpetuity, is another tragedy in itself. A generational sadness lingers where the history of a fully formed person should have been.

Or could there be more on closer inspection? But Makhfi look with a discerning eye.

I wanted to know her beyond her suffering, beyond the rigid expectations that had dehumanised her. I wanted to know which blooming flowers made her smile the most, which tunes she hummed in the rain, what dreams she gently placed under her eyelids on noiseless nights. But any concrete traces had long vanished. There were only crumbs to find.

To know her I would have to reimagine her using whatever was left. Sparse facts would have to be buttressed with extended metaphors and wishful thinking. The crumbs extrapolated, their moral lessons inverted.

There is no specific word for who she is to me. Language is guided by necessity and what use would there be for a particular name for a long-dead ancestor? The verbose great great grandmother was supposed to be good enough for the odd occasion that called for it but each syllable was a hurdle I had to cross to reach her.

The reimagining had to begin with a name. As Zaibunnissa, she had been conscripted to play out the time-old story of suffering, of punishment and imprisonment where men issued decrees and carried out sentences. As nani and parnani she had become a bogeyman. Ya khuda, humein aisi qismat se mehfooz rakhna. Ameen. As great great grandmother she was deemed irrelevant.

It is a tenacity preserved even after being cooked. When I imagine the journey of the rule-defying mirchon ka salan in my family I think of bari nano as a young girl in Deccan, working with her mother in the kitchen, helping out in small ways with the puffed-chest enthusiasm of a child allowed a peek into the world of grown-ups.


But as bari nano, she could transcend these confines. Bari nano, with its implied closeness and reverence, could fit snugly in my hands and from there become a prayer spoken into existence, because names and their meanings are inexplicably destined to reach for each other even across space and time.

An heir produced, a lineage propagated, a dominating narrative thrust like an arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead) — this mechanical, unsentimental approach meant to replicate hierarchies founded on subjugation if this is what a legacy is supposed to be then the allegations against her are true: bari nano failed to produce a legacy.

But if her life’s story can be seen through the lens Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about —  a story which cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process — then it is obvious that her legacy is omnipresent.

The reason I began to ask about bari nano’s life in the first place was that I wanted to know more about the person embedded in all the Hyderabadi food we cooked, whose presence could always be felt.

There she was behind the khatti daal we made regularly, in the tamatar ki chatni we paired with anything that needed livening up. Every year she joined us in greeting mango season with kairi ka dopyaza and when mehmaan told us the bagare baingan were delicious, she soaked in that applause.

The food passed down from her continued to nourish us and be a source of joy.


***

Hari and laal mirch, beloved chillies from the capsicum family and essential parts of our cuisines, are not native to South Asia. For millennia the heat-imparting spices in our food had been long pepper and black pepper. They grew in specific regions of South India and were so valuable that many European countries launched entire expeditions to discover new sea routes to India.

This search for trading routes landed Columbus in the Americas where he found the chilli pepper and took it back with him to Europe. When their search for black pepper landed the Portugese in India, they brought the newly acquired chillies with them.

Chillies had gathered mild interest in Europe but in India, they were well received because their flavour profile matched perfectly (and even surpassed) the existing spiciness of the cuisine. They could be used in addition to or as a substitute for long and black peppers.

But where their flavour was similar their growth pattern was strikingly different. They grew faster, had a greater yield per acre and most importantly, their cultivation didn’t have to be limited to the south. They could grow almost anywhere. Being easier to grow made them significantly cheaper and resulted in their widespread use among the masses.

The sovereign status long-held by long and black peppers, garnered because of their exclusivity, was ultimately challenged and dismantled by the unassuming chillies.

It is a tenacity preserved even after being cooked. When I imagine the journey of the rule-defying mirchon ka salan in my family, I think of bari nano as a young girl in Deccan, working with her mother in the kitchen, helping out in small ways with the puffed-chest enthusiasm of a child allowed a peek into the world of grown-ups.

Her small hands excited to be using a mortar and pestle for grinding peanuts, draining water from the imli and tomato mixture, getting to stir a spoon in the pot if she was lucky. I think of her hands, larger and grown, settling in a new kitchen and cooking this salan by themselves. Then years later guiding smaller hands in the ways of the mortar and pestle, the peanuts and imli, the stir and wait. The novice becoming the expert, the circle beginning again.

From bari nano mirchon ka salan travelled to her daughter, then her granddaughter, her great granddaughter until it reached her great great grand daughter (who decided it was a delicious meal but also a subject for pontification).

A recipe, like a threaded needle, moved through each of us, crisscrossing its way from a woman in colonial-era Hyderabad to her descendant in present-day Karachi.

It pierced through the turmoil of migration and financial instability, a sea of diverse ethnicities each with their own rich food traditions, and the eroding effects of time itself, and managed to stitch us together. It was a thread so tightly strung that plucking it on one end could send vibrations along its entire length.


***


Mona khala sends 12 minutes of instructions spread over eighteen voice notes.

Aik kilo chawal mein aik kilo gosht aur uss gosht mein aik kilo dahi.”

Ensuring the right quantity of these relative to each other is crucial. Too much rice and the biryani becomes bland, too little and the masala overpowers.

The ratio of meat to yoghurt has to be controlled similarly. It’s a delicate balance but when done right it forms the reliable base around which all other ingredients come together and harmonize.

The voice notes are less exact about the rest. Six large onions, eight or nine if the onions are small, but determining which onion is small, which large is left up to andaza. Lots of dhaniya, pudina and mirchain in the dahi. The lots left up to andaza. The same for thora garam masala and acha khasa zafran.

Most of the recipe Mona khala provides is built around the principle of andaza.

Often misunderstood as guesswork, andaza is the practice of using all five senses to navigate the uncertain with instinct. The margin of andaza can be narrow and call for minor calibrations only, or it could be left wide open and create space for bold improvisations. There are no fixed answers, only an evolving conversation between you and all the knowledge you’ve collected over time.

When Mona khala leaves much of the biryani up to mama’s andaza, it is a sign of trust, of believing that despite making kachay gosht ki biryani for the first time, mama already knows its heart. Being familiar with other recipes of bari nano, she would be able to find her here as well.

We made cooked food and cooked food made us. Our present-day encounters with unexpected foods — an unfamiliar ingredient, an inspired combination, a different cooking technique, or (as in the case of mirchon ka salan) a role reversal —  encounters that expand our understanding of the possible, contain traces of that ancient evolutionary dialogue, that symbiotic growth and transformation.


Kachay gosht ki biryani is also known as Hyderabadi biryani or dum ki biryani, for its origin or technique, but we’ve always called it by the name that broadcasts its peculiarity. Unlike regular biryani where the gravy is cooked beforehand, in this version the meat is raw when added to rice.

Together the gosht and chawal are sealed in a pot and cooked slowly on a low flame. It is a technique called dum pukht — dum meaning breath and pukht meaning to cook.

When the seal is opened the flavour-infused steam bursts through with the force of a long-held breath finally being released. Time and planning are central here: marinate the meat a day before you plan to make it, put biryani on dum more than an hour before you plan on eating it, half boil the rice before putting them on dum, prepare ingredients for the marinade before they have to be mixed in.

A lot of befores have to be calculated, perhaps too many for those barely getting by one day at a time.

Nana’s deteriorating chronic illness, the family teetering near the edge of poverty and homelessness, and that twisted sense of doom and despair that comes with having six daughters in desi society. It was a mountain and a half of problems and for many years nano was too depressed to do much.

They were teenagers themselves when the older daughters had to take over the housework and care for their younger siblings. A lot of old family recipes faded away during this time. The kabab, the qorma, the meetha simply could not be accommodated in cramped spaces run on tight budgets.

Decades have passed and the spaces are broader, the budget forgiving. It is time to retrieve things that were lost — the food and the person behind it.

Jis bagonay mein paka rahay apan log woh bilkul khulla bagona hona chahiye. Chotay bagonon mein maza nahi ata.

Nano would talk in Dakhini with her side of the family and switch to northern Urdu for everyone else. With the passing of her ammi, khalas, mamu, and cousins, the opportunity for speaking her native dialect, for inhabiting its world, faded on a receding horizon.

Bagona became pateela. When nano is absorbed in retelling stories of her childhood in Hyderabad — of curious glances stolen to watch Hindu girls do riyaz, of wandering, strolls through the markets of Palgarh, of conspiring with her cousin to sneak off to the cinema — a few sentences in the old dialect will find their way out of her. It’s a gratifying instance of crossed wires.

The nano of the present, a woman in her 80s whose days consist of worrying about her grandchildren, reading Quran, watching T.V, and shifting between the bed, sofa, and wheelchair, and for a brief moment slips into a younger version of herself. A version who walks to school, goes to the neighbourhood mela with her sister, is so intrigued by the food of the angrez that she learns to make a cake.

It is also a kind of construction. The past was not this idyllic. She didn’t study beyond seventh grade. Her mother didn’t approve of excursions to the mela. The cake didn’t rise. But it doesn’t matter, in the memories nano has built she focuses on the joy of the process.


***


On the night before Sunday mama will begin preparations by going over her notes. She will inspect the pyaz with her hands and conclude they are medium-sized. She will use two fistfuls of dhaniya pudina and sprinkle garam masala directly from a container, approximating with her eyes.

She will add lots of hari mirchain and then some more for good measure. All the ingredients will fall into place like old habits returning.

Metamorphosis of the thing cooked and its eater has been at the root of cooking since we first put food to fire. It is widely theorized that the emergence of cooked food was pivotal in shaping human evolution: more energy released from food meant our brains became bigger; the switch from raw, hard food to cooked, softer food moulded our teeth, jaws, and digestive tracts; and our patterns of food consumption diversified from individualistic to more communal.


On Sunday mama and I will take the pateela to nano’s for lunch. Khalas will gather in the kitchen and watch with nervous excitement as we break the seal. The scent will diffuse to every corner and for a short while the entire house will smell like zafran and nostalgia.

When we finally sit down to eat mama will be disappointed to find that the biryani tastes nothing like her childhood. It’s a failure, she will think, pushing and moving the chawal on her plate.

Nano will reassure her that it’s a good first-time effort and remind her of the incident when she miscalculated the cooking time so gravely that everyone was struck down by diarrhoea for days. We will laugh over more instances of failed experiments and from the myth of the insurmountable kachay gosht ki biryani a human reality will emerge.

As we’ll clear the plates, Suraiya khala will remember how delicious khubani ka meetha used to be (and maybe we could revive that as well?) and Rabia khala will say that next Sunday she will take a turn attempting this biryani but unlike mama she will scour desi food blogs and YouTube channels until she finds the perfect recipe (selecting it on instinct, of course).

Mama will sulk a little, soon Rabia khala will have the opportunity to playfully rub this failure in her face.

But chillies are fruits to the botanist and the pain they inflict is flavourful to humans and stories are carrier bags to Le Guin and bari nano is still remembered and thriving, so was mama truly unsuccessful?

Maybe this is how constructions and reconstructions are supposed to be: layers applied in collaboration, forming sediment beds that reflect the conditions of their time.

That night at 11:30 pm my chronically insomnia stricken nano who can never sleep until at least 2 in the morning will announce that she is going to bed.

Aaj apan jaldi soyein ge.

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