Men in a Woman’s World

12 Nov

In South Asian societies in general and in Pakistan in particular, women are expected to be fantastic cooks. The ability to cook well is almost a rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. Most of my South Asian friends will attest to the fact that their mothers and aunts are amazing cooks whose dishes they crave to eat.

Interestingly enough, ours was not a typical Pakistani household where women toiled in the kitchen giving shape to family recipes. The influences that shaped my interest in cooking over time were the tireless efforts of the men (khaansaamas is the term used in Pakistan) who I have observed in the kitchen throughout my childhood and teenage years and it is to one such man that I want to dedicate this post to.

Sher Zaman, the cook in my maternal grandparents’ house in Gurumandar, Karachi arrived 6 months before my mother’s birth, which was exactly 50 years ago. Over the decades he became not only a family member but an institution to be reckoned with. He was notoriously moody and cranky especially when he was tasked with cooking for a family event or large dinner. He was also fond of switching to from talking in Urdu to Punjabi although none of us really understood it. He would also love to watch Indian soap operas with us peering from the kitchen while something was probably burning on the stove. His idiosyncrasies aside, he made the most delicious aaloo gosht, mutton chops, cornflakes ki kheer and chicken cutlets which he used to call ‘cutless’.

Sunday lunch was a traditional ritual in my grandparents’ home where all the children and grandchildren would gather to enjoy Sher Zaman’s cooking. His cooking became a point of reference for three generations in our family. Till today, my cousins and I reminisce about certain dishes he prepared, his eccentric and loving personality and above all, memories of his cooking evoke a sense of nostalgia about our family home in Karachi. He was also a master story-teller relating fairy tales of demons and fairies to my sister and I when we were young. During the last few days before he retired from cooking and left to settle in his village in Hazara, he started making a rather bland version nihari which I rather cheekily termed geriatrics nihari!

It was Sher Zaman’s simple but immensely flavourful cooking that is a fond childhood memory I will always cherish. In an inadvertent manner, he gave me the gift for appreciating the art of cooking.

Photo Courtesy: Tayyab Naqvi

– Rida


5 Responses to “Men in a Woman’s World”

  1. Tayyab November 12, 2010 at 12:54 AM #

    Rida, Excellent write-up on Sher Zaman (fondly called Baba), and a wonderful tribute to him. If only he could somehow be informed about this, he would be delighted!!!

  2. Nadia November 12, 2010 at 11:58 AM #

    Rida – This brings back so many great memories! He was/is quite the personality and an integral part of Bibi & Abbi’s household and our collective experiences there. Whenever he would get a bonus for his work, instead of celebrating with his family he would throw a lavish dinner for our extended family making the best dishes out of his repertoire – he really did think of us as his own. By the same token, he would also get angry with us as if he were his own. I remember Zebi Apa and I asking him for a cup of tea one evening when he was stressed out about making dinner. The hilarious part was how scared we were to even ask him – his reaction was silence with a look like he was going to wring our necks for our audacity. We waited in mystery for what seemed like eons wondering if the much-desired tea would ever show up – we didn’t dare step into the kitchen again after the initial reaction. About an hour later a steaming cup of chai showed up next to me, but the silent treatment continued the rest of the evening 🙂 Miss those days and miss that home.

    • Food Across Borders November 13, 2010 at 5:27 PM #

      Thanks for sharing that anecdote, which I can totally imagine in my mind right now. Gauging his temperament before asking him for something was definitely hilarious at most times! Glad you got yr cup of tea in the end 🙂

  3. Shivani November 12, 2010 at 3:59 PM #

    This is so, so sweet Rids 🙂 This reminds me of our cooking maids at home, how I miss their cooking. Mom ko toh phir bhi Germany bula loon to cook, but I can only have Parvati’s delicious orange pulaos when I’m back in Delhi.
    Kya yaar tumne toh poora nostalgia chaalu kar diya apne readers mein~

    Aur zara yeh cornflakes kheer ki recipe toh dena? Badi interesting sound karti hai yeh..

    • Food Across Borders November 13, 2010 at 5:29 PM #

      Thanks for the comment Shivani! mmmm orange pulao sounds intriguing.
      will try to find this cornflakes ki kheer ki recipe from my aunt and share with you.

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