Broadcaster Moneeza Hashmi remembers the quiet, unpretentious meals of her childhood.
I do not have clear memories of all of us, the whole Faiz family, sitting down at the dining table to eat together every day. Neither do I recall any particular occasion when we would all get together for a family meal. This was probably because my father, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was rarely home at mealtimes. Moreover, my mother, Alys Faiz, being a working mom, had to keep to the schedules of her office, as well as making sure we young girls, my elder sister Salima and myself, were never late for school.
What I can remember from my school days, back in the 1950s, is that each day during the winter term we would receive from home a tiffin, as we called it, or lunch box. All of us school friends would sit together in the grounds and share our lunch while we laughed and talked non-stop during the long lunch break. The food in that lunch carrier was always simple. One roti and one curry, sometimes a dal and sometimes veggies.
Courtesy: Moneeza Hashmi
Our dinner at home would mostly be a snack food. Perhaps omelettes and toast or Hunter’s beef sandwiches. Maybe dal and plain rice. When we had a treat, it would be a sort of pancake made with mashed potatoes and cabbage with a fried egg on top. I used to look forward to that as it was a hot meal.
Our dining table seated four. My father always sat at the head, and my mother next to him on his left-hand side, with me on his right and my sister Salima opposite him. The table itself was not too big, made of rather cheap wood and rickety, with a plywood top, and the chairs were straight-backed and simple. The tablecloth was cotton. The pattern, I remember, was a hand block print from the famous Jhandoo Khan who had a shop in the Mozang area of Lahore. The colours were turquoise and bright blue with matching napkins. We always had placemats too, but I don’t recall their pattern. The plates were white and made from simple china. Our cutlery was the most basic forks and spoons. The glasses were again straight and plain.
The dining room was next to the pantry, so our bearer would be in and out carrying the food. The kitchen was a few steps down, but the food was never cold when it reached us. These were not the times of microwaves or ovens, but we did have a toaster in the pantry, as well as a kettle to warm the water for my parents’ tea.
There was never much talk at mealtimes. I cannot remember us eating together often, as lunch was always between my sister and myself or in school during winter. Dinner was usually a threesome as my father was almost always in the office at that time. Now and again, we had breakfast together on Sundays, but, on reflection, that too was not as frequent as I would have liked.
We had two servants in my childhood whom I can remember clearly, even to this day. Mohammad Ali, our cook, was a Punjabi and spoke only that language. I am surprised even today thinking how well my British mother Alys Faiz conversed with him. He stayed only in the kitchen and was never found in the main house.
The second servant was a sort of Jeeves figure who was known as “Bearer” throughout his life. I remember him as an oldish man who spoke only fluent Urdu. Again, how he and the cook got on is beyond me, but I never heard of any arguments or disagreements happening in the pantry or the kitchen. Our bearer used to double up as a sort of nanny for us two sisters as well. Since my mother worked for a newspaper, her hours were long and we would be left in the care of this male nanny. He looked after our food and our laundry, making sure we did our homework and at times even putting us to bed. He would cycle home late every evening after the dishes had been washed and dried. He was there too in the early morning to give my parents their “bed tea” and see us off to school after serving breakfast. He was with us for so long that I cannot recall how many years it was exactly. I do know my father depended on him for everything and my mother would admonish him at times for spoiling my dad.
What I can remember of my father’s eating habits was that he was always completely dressed before he sat down for breakfast, which consisted of a fried egg, toast and tea. He would always eat his egg on his toast with a fork and knife and sip at his tea. His lunch, if at home, was again simple: a roti and possibly dal and some vegetables. We were not a meat-eating family, probably because we could not afford it. Both my sister and I were brought up with simple tastes in clothes and food. Now, I reflect this must have been the case because of the strains on our parents’ finances.
My father was fond of eating spinach in all forms, so I am told. He liked the desi palak and also sarson ka saag with missi roti. My paternal grandmother would sometimes send us exotic sweetmeats, which she must have learnt from the other Afghan wives of my paternal grandfather who lived in the same house. I loved to eat them and can smell their aroma even today. Unfortunately, nobody from our family learnt the recipe from Bebe ji, as we called our grandmother.
I recall my father as quite a modest eater. Perhaps his smoking killed his desire to eat. By the time he sat down to food, he was either too tired or too stimulated for getting on with the next engagement. However, when he did sit down at the table, he ate slowly and carefully, chewing his food quietly and cleaning his plate completely.
I am told he liked meatballs, which we call koftas, with gravy. He preferred roti to rice, and I can still see him breaking his roti into small pieces and picking up the meatballs one by one. He liked chutney made of coriander and green chillies, but was not a fan of hot spices. Pickles were something he was partial to, and his favourite was mango pickle. He also sometimes liked to have a paratha, a roti which preferably had butter mixed into it and was then fried. This bread is rich but so filling and satisfying. Parathas are still usually enjoyed in the winter as they keep you full and warm.
His morning and afternoon tea habit continued throughout his life, almost like a ritual. In the morning, his newspaper accompanied his cuppa. The afternoon tea was just a simple cup without any snacks. He would sip the tea slowly and gently with a cigarette in one hand, usually remaining silent.
When we shifted to London in 1962 for two years and lived in Cornwall Avenue in Finchley, I remember he started liking steak and kidney pies, as did I. During those days in Britain, our evening meals were again simple. Usually, we had fried eggs on toast and baked beans, sometimes chicken sausages. My mom probably did not want too many dishes piled up to be washed, and so she kept it straightforward. Also, in Britain, there were no servants, so it was only my mother doing all the housework. I was still going to school and my elder sister Salima was at university.
Yes. We were a simple family with simple tastes and simple needs. I think we still are.
Moneeza Hashmi is a broadcaster, television producer, media consultant, and former general manager of Pakistan Television. She is also the youngest daughter of the prominent Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Husain Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.