The Holy Grail


Some live to eat, while others eat to live. Food unlocks treasures of the soul and takes me to places, not of euphoria, but of contentment and peace (something so rare these days). And where food is the proverbial Holy Grail, Nani was the abundant provider of my source of happiness.

Nani has multiple culinary specialties, but this story is about one that would render me blissfully blissful every time it was laid in front of me - a dish called "aloo ki bhujjiya". There is no direct translation in English, but the closest would be ‘diced potatoes in gravy’ - a term so pathetic and inadequate in every way, that it really does bastardize its nirvanic essence. This shameful render by the English language sometimes makes me wonder what use years of colonization and euro-centric education really had for me.

Can food unlock the post-colonialist in you? Nani’s aloo ki bhujjiya does, every time.

The oldest memory I have of Nani’s aloo ki bhujjiya starts on a rainy afternoon about 15 years ago. It was the monsoon season in Karachi, and the heavens had plundered forward after their 9-month hiatus, bringing welcome relief to the thirsty eco-system. The thanks and praise given by Karachi’s flora and fauna were quickly neutralized by anger and disdain from Karachi’s citizens, who cursed their bad luck and inept government for fashioning poor infrastructure out of large, shallow contracts. I remember that my parents were travelling and Nani was out that afternoon, so Nana was on-call to pick me up from school. I was waiting patiently after the school day had ended amidst the chaos and anarchy of the Karachi rains and watched him roll up between the steaming curtains of water in his ancient (he considered it ‘vintage’) car.

Vintage models are meant to be nurtured and used conservatively as they don't swim well in a monsoon. It was no surprise when reason triumphed over passion and Nana's car broke down on the ride home. We spent 2 hours trudging with the sodden vehicle to the nearest mechanic and getting a half-baked job done that would get us home, where we promptly slumped into our seats in the kitchen. It had been a long afternoon for both of us (especially for me, tired and frustrated 2 hours past lunchtime and mortified by the whole episode). To add insult to injury the electricity had gone (textbook Karachi monsoon) so roti couldn’t be made and I had to eat the aloo ki bhujjiya with toast, which admittedly did make my heart wobble in trepidation.

As far as I can remember, this is still the most memorable culinary experience I’ve had, to-date. At the first bite, the warm aloo ki bhujjiya propelled me to a transformative space where the textures, levels of spices, and mesmeric ingredients worked in tandem to paint a picture of eternal paradise. I had been taught in school that heaven contained streams of milk and honey, however, that afternoon as I blasphemed, I knew God would forgive this enlightened experience when his golden trumpets sounded on my day of reckoning.

The dish summoned forth my inner peace. I stopped thinking about what the afternoon ahead of me entailed, or what I needed to do that year in school to beef up my grades. I revered my cherished dish, cooked by the chef I loved. That fleeting feeling of peace and tranquillity has become so hard for me to garner that I hold on to that day in my mind possessively, and will do so till the day I croak.

Years later whilst in college in Australia, I was overcome with the audacity and foolishness to try walking on water and attempted to mirror Nani’s aloo kii bhujjiya. The result made me emotionally (not physically) nauseous. I realised that no matter how hard I tried, the result would always fall short, because it’s not the taste of the food that counts, but the places it takes you.

It flooded towards me that Nani’s aloo ki bhujjiya was a labor of love. She knew it was my favorite dish, and would place it heart and center on important days (my school graduation, trips back to Pakistan during university breaks, and on days when I would call her up, and tell her to take me back to basics). My attempt at making aloo ki bhujjiya was just like the dish’s English translation – pathetic and inadequate.

Nani is getting on now; she’s in her late 60s. However, in her mind, food is still one of her greatest duties to me, and one she takes on with zest and zeal. Every time I see aloo ki bhujjiya served anywhere but at my Nani’s house, it’s a jumble of bittersweet. The honeyed memories it brings ring harsh against the shallow substitution.

I think joyfully of the foundation behind my relationship with Nani - one that’s nuanced and layered by our connection to her food. Today I've learned that words seem cursory and provide poor substitutes - I will let my thoughts marinate until I see her again.