Daily Times: Sunday, December 31, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore’s bygone eating delights

By A Hamid

Back in the old days, some of the shops in the inner city of Lahore were quite famous. On the road that led out from the Wazir Khan mosque to Chowk Chuna Mandi, there used to stand Khalifa Kebobia’s establishment. There were no two opinions about the unique taste and quality of Khalifa’s kebobs. It was said that his spice mix was based on a secret recipe and this must have been true, because when he placed the kebobs over the grill and fanned the red hot coals to blaze into life, the wind carried the aroma as far as Masti Gate and even Dabbi Bazaar. It is said that Allama Muhammad Iqbal would sometimes come to Khalifa’s place to sample his kebobs. Dr Ashiq Hussain Batalvi in his book of reminiscences wrote that whenever AS Bokhari came to Lahore, he would make it a point to pay old Khalifa a visit.

Then there was Mullah Hussain the sweetmeat seller outside Lahori Gate, right in front of the flower-sellers’s kiosks. Mullah Hussain was an exceptionally handsome man who was always to be found in a Do Ghora silk shirt and a black-bordered dhoti or loin cloth. He would sit there with his legs crossed, a coloured portrait of his hanging right behind him. He was famous for his specially enriched, thick-creamed yogurt lassi or butter milk. He would make his yogurt at midnight, adding the fermenting agent to the milk while it was still a little warm. By morning the yogurt was ready and so firm it was that if the big clay dish in which it was made were held upside down, the yogurt would stay exactly where it was.

It was a treat to watch Mullah Hussain prepare his famous lassi. He would place the required quantity of yogurt in a shaker, throw in a couple of “pairas”, a cream-enriched delicacy, and stir the yugurt vigorously with his “madani’, a wooden implement used for stirring milk to obtain butter. He would sprinkle the mixture with water occasionally and then add some ice which he would vigorously stir for fifteen or twenty seconds. After he was done, he would pour the lassi ceremoniously in a large glass. The soft white butter floating at the top was like a lotus on the waters of a lake. It was believed that Khalifa’s lassi was a guaranteed cure for a bile-producing liver.

A year or so after partition, I recall meeting the celebrated writer Aziz Ahmed in the office of the literary magazine Savera. He had not only published short story collections and novels, but also translated Dante’s The Divine Comedy from Italian into Urdu. “A Hamid,” he said to me, “I have heard nothing but praise for Mullah Hussain’s lassi. Please take me to that place.” And that was where I took him. Aziz Ahmed was a tall man and he was wearing a pale white Hyderabadi-style sherwani, buttoned right up to the throat as was the custom among the princely state’s gentlemen. He was delighted with Mullah Hussain’s fabled lassi. Another famous outlet inside Mochi Gate was Rashiday Halwai’s falooda, a kind of flummery, pressed through a sieve and mixed with sugar and milk. Jut one sip of this magic drink had you marvelling at its heavenly taste. I recall another famous sweetmeat seller inside Mochi Gate’s Lal Khoo. His specialty was almond barfi. This shop was said to be more than a hundred years old and barfi bought from there and placed ceremoniously in big round “thaals” or platters was much in demand during Hindu and Muslim holidays and religious festivals.

Outside Lohari Gate, there used to be three or four kiosks that sold flowers. Their specialty was wedding garlands. The bride’s palanquin and the bridegroom’s car – unless he was riding a horse – were decorated with wreaths bought from these shops. The fragrance of fresh flowers hung in the air around these kiosks. Today paper and plastic flowers have replaced real flowers. The kiosks are still there but the flowers and the flower-sellers are gone. The garland around the bridegroom’s neck is no longer fashioned with flowers but crisp banknotes. The richer the family, the higher the denomination of the bills.

In Rangoon and South India, the betel or paan sellers were women rather than men, but in Lahore there was only one place where a woman often did the honours. This small kiosk was located in the road that runs between Mochi Gate and Chowk Barafkhana. Normally, it was an old man who sat there but sometimes he was replaced by his wife Bismillah. She was a quiet and dignified woman who always had a smile on her lips. Not far from this shop was the famous Arab Hotel. The great romantic poet Akhtar Shirani also lived close by. Most writers who frequented Arab Hotel, including Akhtar Shirani, would satisfy their paan addiction at Bismillah’s place. There were other paan outlets in Laxami Chowk and Shahi Mohalla where you could ask for specially treated tobacco from Benaras and Lucknow to be put in your “glori”. Another famous paan shop was to be found in Commercial Building on the Mall. The owner was once a wrestler. His specialty was Ahmedabadi paan which was pale in colour and so tender that it just melted in the mouth. He would never hand it over to the customer, but slip it into his mouth with his own hand. A customer who did not wish to have his paan this way would be asked to go to the next shop.

Inside Lahore’s Shisha Moti Bazaar was another famous lassi shop. Dr Sant Singh, a tuberculosis specialist who had his clinic in the area, used to advise his patients to drink the lassi sold at the Pehlwan’s shop in Shisha Moti Bazaar twice a day. The man who owned the lassi shop was always kind to children. If a child came for a small quantity of yogurt, he would just give it to him and not accept his two or four annas. Once I took a friend of mine to the Pehlwan’s place for a glass of lassi. The Pehlwan washed the glass and was about to pour the lassi into it, when my friend said, “Pehlwan Ji, please wash it again.” The Pehlwan put the glass down and said, “Go to the next place. There is no lassi for you at this one.”

If you walked down from Chowk Wazir Khan towards Dabbi Bazaar, you came across an establishment dating back to Mughal times where you could buy Kashmiri shawls called dhussas as well as Qaraquli and red Turkish or Rumi caps with black tassles. When I was a child, my father used to get his Rumi cap from here. On your way to Rang Mahal from Mochi Gate, you also came upon the famous tandoor of Umar Khan whose naans were famous all over the country. People would come from other towns to buy them and they swore that when they put them on the table, they had lost none of their freshness or taste. Another famous place outside Bhati Gate was that of Haji Muhammad Yusuf who sold soda water, fruit juices and sherbet. He was a wrestling fan and his shop was decorated with pictures of all famous wrestlers. His shop was called Darul Saroor. A framed Saghar Siddiqi verse greeted the customer with: Bhati ke chowk mein jo ho aana hazoor ka: Ik paan khas cheez hai Darul Saroor ka.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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