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Wednesday, 18 July 2012

My naani ma's delicious 'Nihari'!

Some of my happiest childhood memories are associated with the time i used to spend with my maternal grandparents and cousins during the summer holidays. All ten of us-the cousins-from different parts of the country use to descend annually on to this huge,sprawling house, where my beloved naana and naani ma used to live  in Darya Ganj-in Old Delhi. This house was very typical of the olden days and had a huge,open central courtyard with fountains, a variety of birds in their cages,low seating areas with lots of colourful cushions and all kinds of trees like Jamun,Mango,Banyan from which swings and hammocks dangled. This courtyard was surrounded by a maze of large,spacious,airy rooms with high ceilings which were all interconnected and where we used to play hide and seek,'chor sipahi','dark room' etc hiding behind and under the heavy,antiquated teak furniture.

But my favourite room,if it could be called a room, in this house was the mammoth, old  'Rasoi' or kitchen with the olden style 'chulas',full scale tandoor,an ancient wood fired oven where rusks and biscuits were baked and an open fire where the pit roasting was done. This room was completely redolent with the most divine aromas where the 'khansama' or the cook who had been with the family for decades,churned out delicacy after delicacy to feed ten very hungry mouths! And my God what insatiable appetites we had!!! We would barely finish a hearty breakfast and then wanted our mid morning snack and when that was done, would start enquiring as to what's cooking for lunch and then once lunch was done would start requesting for Pakoras,Samosas,Jalebis and Sandwiches for tea!!! Gosh! It was never ending and i really pitied the old man and his assistant in the kitchen! They really earned their keep when we were around during the holidays!! But the best bit was when my naani ma used to step into the kitchen and weave her magic with her 'karchi' (ladle) and 'kadhai' (frying pan)!

I still remember the thrill of anticipation that used to run down our spines when we were told that naani ma was making something special for us for the next meal. She was the most awesome cook ever and transformed the simplest of dishes into the most divine creations. For example let's take the humble 'daliya' (porridge) which we used to have for breakfast everyday,she would cook it with raisins,pistachios and milk on a very low flame and once done instead of adding sugar,she which would mix jaggery into it and top it off with thick,clotted cream.The end result would be a breakfast dish fit for a king!! It would be that delicious and wholesome.

She was also a fabulous non vegetarian cook and made the most delicious aromatic 'Dum' Biryanis, tender,spicy,floating in 'asli ghee' Roghan Josh,fragrant,hearty, broth like Haleem with the over riding smell of freshly roasted Garam masala and Adrak, Raan which would be marinated a good twenty four hours with all kinds of exotic masalas and spices and then cooked over an open flame till the tender meat actually fell off the bone,melt in the mouth,buttery,velvety Kakori kebabs and the list goes on and on!! I can feel the drool in my mouth as i recount all this but her all time popular speciality was undoubtedly a superlative curried mutton creation called 'Nihari'!!!

Now without further ado, let me explain to the uninitiated as to what this dish is all about!!! It's basically mutton-the best,most tender pieces preferably taken from a kid not a full grown goat(as that meat can tend to be a bit tough)-which is  'bhunaoed' lovingly and painstakingly in 'asli ghee' with ginger,garlic,onions,'besan' (gram flour) and to which then a whole variety of  'khada' (whole) and ground spices are added ,some water and then it's sealed and left to simmer overnight on a very low flame. It is the best example of slow cooking that there is in Indian cooking and believe me it's worth the effort and toil!!

It's not an exaggeration to say that when my naani ma used to unseal the 'haandi' in the morning and add the juliennes of ginger and slit green chillies, bits of coriander and lemon juice as garninshing to the pot,the entire street or 'gali' used to get infused by the aroma and we had hungry,greedy neighbours knocking on the door to partake of the feast. 'Nihari' surprisingly is a typical breakfast dish and so obviously consumed in the morning (which is a good idea since it's so heavy and rich and you actually need the whole day to digest it). It's usually paired with a kind of sweet,salty,buttery ,flat,round bread called 'Sheer Mal' which are cooked with milk,sugar and saffron!! This combination is worth dying for and is part of our family's most treasured food folk lore!!

But alas!! We don't get to taste such heavenly delights anymore because my naani ma is now unfortunately very sick and ailing. She's suffering from severe diabetes, cardiac problems, has a steel ball in her shoulder from an accident that she had, has had pelvic surgery and needs urgent knee replacement surgery as well .She's barely hanging in there but i still admire her never say die spirit,independent nature and devoutness!

She still offers 'Namaaz' five times a day and reads the 'Koran' and fasts all through the entire month of 'Ramazan' even though she has been firmly advised by her doctors not to do so but she refuses to listen and does not abandon her beliefs and the routine that she has been practising all her life. She stoically and steadfastly holds on to her pride and dignity and is stubborn and obstinate as hell.May Allah bless her and take care of her. However old,weak,sickly and frail she might become, i will always remember her as this alive,super energetic, supremely efficient,radiant,potent figure always bustling  around in the kitchen and giving ten instructions simultaneously to the minions around her and preparing feasts for ten very greedy,rowdy and hungry mouths!!!

Sunday, 15 July 2012


Oh! How i miss being a kid!! Those were the days! No tension other than maybe sprouting a pimple tension, just on the eve of a date,no worries other than the worry of the new cute boy in class not noticing me and noticing my "worst enemy"-yes those were the days when we had worst enemies and best friends,no real responsibilities other than maybe getting decent grades,being respectful to elders,practising good hygiene and being some what disciplined and regular in our daily routine!!

And the added bonus was that my dad was a "fauji" so it meant moving to a new place every two years-some quaint,sleepy little town like Deolali,Wellington,Mhow,Guwahati,Pune (yes! Pune was pretty sleepy during those days!), new house-and usually we lived in these palatial bungalows (according to current day standards!) with a huge front garden and a back garden and a separate kitchen garden (can u beat that?!!) ,new neighbours which almost became like extended family wherever we went,new school, new teachers,of course new friends and new infatuations and crushes!!

Life was exciting,carefree and funnnn!!And i just loved the whole process of packing up and moving to a new town and viewed it as some great adventure!! I enjoyed sorting things out, junking the rubbish,delighting over trivial treasures collected,reminiscing and storing all the important (to me!) stuff  in cartons,steel trunks and crates!! Aah! I remember those steel trunks and wooden crates! They are a staple in the forces and are completely unique and immediately recognisable!!! It was literally out with the old and in with the new!!!

Those days we didn't have all these "fancy shancy" Packers and Movers and we did everything ourselves. So we the kids collected all our friends together, supposedly to help pack and made a real party out of it!! Stuff was traded/exchanged,photo albums were pored over and funny incidents recounted, comics books were argued about and bargained over,old school books were sold to the local 'kabaadi", audio cassettes (remember those??!) were fairly distributed and some old favourites lovingly wrapped in newspaper and stored in cartons, impromptu catwalks were done with the clothes at hand and old favourites kept and the not so favourite ones were given away, addresses and phone numbers were exchanged with fervent promises of always staying in touch and being best friends forever!! Those were innocent and idyllic days! 

Meanwhile the adults had their own gig going! All the aunties and uncles that our parents were friends with got together again ostensibly to help in sorting and packing but it was more like an impromptu party with free flowing beer (what a staple that is in the "fauj"!! They guzzle it down by the bucketfuls!!!) and kebabs and of course music!!! In fact i credit my initiation into serious music, to these impromptu get togethers that we had on a regular basis!! Everyone would get their favourite record (remember those black,circular discs that would be played on those antiquated gramophone players??) and we would listen to the Eagles,Jim Reeves,Cliff Richard,The Carpenters, symphonies of Beethoven and Mozart etc.They of course had a battery of helpers with all the "bhaiyas"  and "sahayaks" and everything was very efficiently and superbly organised!!

I consider being a "fauji" kid a real privilege and honor. We were exposed to so much more,we travelled more-literally the length and breadth of the country,we experienced more-different customs,cultures,dietary habits, oddities and eccentricities of different types of people,we learnt always to put our best foot forward,to adapt to new situations and adjust with new people, we learnt to compromise,improvise, innovate and evolve.Maybe our fathers were not Mr.Money bags and our parents had to plan and budget and we certainly didn't have the best of clothes or fancy gadgets and didn't experience instant gratification in terms of material goods but we had something far more important and valuable-we had belief and ideology and principles!!

 Our fathers served the nation! They were officers and gentlemen! They protected our borders,they fought against the enemy so that we could sleep safe at night, they were engaged in the most noble of pursuits of protecting motherland and country!! Patriotism flowed in our veins and made our chests swell with pride!! Even now when i see an officer in full ceremonial uniform i get goose pimples!! There's just something so dignified,dashing and glamorous about him and he towers head and shoulders above everyone around him!!!

As a young girl i nursed many a romantic dream about marrying someone from the forces but destiny had different plans for me!! We all were a big, happy extended family- the whole unit-my father was in the artillery, a "gunner" he was called and there was such a unique bond and camaraderie between him and his fellow "gunners." Everyone knew everyone and all occasions were celebrated together and all losses mourned over unitedly!! It was about brotherhood and kinship and pride!

Why do you think that kids from the forces back ground do so well in life?!! They do so because they have a strong sense of self belief and self confidence, they are taught to be self reliant, to be independent,strong ,to have views and opinions and are not made into "sissies" and "pansies" holding on to their parents apron strings!! They are encouraged to think independently and have faith in their beliefs plus also most of us have also played active sports all our lives!!

 We were encouraged to go out there and play,just play!! So be it badminton,tennis,squash,volley ball,basket ball,horse riding,golf,swimming-we did it all and all these facilities were easily available and accessible to us!!! There was always a club with all the necessary facilities in which ever cantonment area we stayed!! And frankly there's nothing like sport to toughen you up both mentally and physically,to build your character ,to help you to brush aside the minor bruises and bumps and get on with it, to build up a sense of team spirit,sportsmanship,of kinship,of healthy competition,of forming life long bonds with your team mates and coaches alike!! Don't u agree??

Life was one big,never ending party and it all ended too soonn!! Yes, it was also daunting at times when our fathers went to forward areas and the families stayed back in the peace stations-when there were tensions on the borders, deadly skirmishes,terrorist threats,when our fathers were called on active duty to the front-it meant long absences,sleepless nights,tension/anxiety,sad, lonely mothers and tearful reunions but it also grounded us.

It made us realise the value of family,of discipline and the concept of duty before self!!! It made us realise the virtues of selflessness and the concept of right and wrong! It molded our character and made us strong!! Strong to take on this big,bad world and anything that it may throw at us!! So like i have said before-"bring it on"-i am a "fauji" brat and proud to be one and i will match you punch for punch and blow for blow!!! I will not be a pushover or a doormat and will be a person of strong beliefs and convictions and that my darlings is both a promise and a threat, which ever way you  choose to see it!!!!