Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | A post-colonial Karachi kitchen's lingering scents and memories

Deccan Chronicle.| Muneeza Shamsie

Published on: November 11, 2023 | Updated on: November 11, 2023

Edited by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Tarana Husain Khan

Forgotten Foods: Memories and Recipes from Muslim South Asia. (Image: DC)

Forgotten Foods: Memories and Recipes from Muslim South Asia. (Image: DC)

I grew up in post-Partition Karachi, in a family where cooking was considered an art. My father, Isha’at Habibullah (1911–1991), a company executive at Pakistan Tobacco Company (PTC), was a gastronome. Cooking was his great hobby and he loved to prepare meals for friends. The range of his cooking is encapsulated by his famous brunches. The dishes at these brunches ranged from those considered desi nashta such as paya, nihari and aloo puri, to an eclectic mix of Euro-Anglo-American food including paté de foie gras, waffles, scrambled eggs and several salads. In the centre of the table, there would be a cake prepared by my mother, Jahanara Habibullah (1915–2003): for example, devil’s food cake or Christmas cake in winter. Cakemaking was my mother’s contribution to household cooking. Sometimes she would make a pickle or chutney to supplement those created more frequently by my father.

My mother was very particular about every household detail. In our home, at every meal, the dining table of gleaming dark wood would be laid with placemats, matching table napkins, good cutlery and china. All our meals were served by a bearer or two in white livery. The food was almost always reviewed while it was being eaten; each dish was expected to be exactly right. This was invariably followed by a ‘post-mortem’ — a comment on this or that ingredient which my parents would elaborate on with their incomparable cook Maqbool. He was pivotal to our household and its culinary traditions.

Maqbool joined us as a young man two or three years after Partition. By then, my younger sister Naushaba had been born and we were living in Karachi in a block of company flats — a colonial building of yellow Gizri stone — on Clifton Road. In our breezy apartment, with its arches and verandahs and patterned floor tiles, the back verandah ran past the dining room and led off at a right angle towards the pantry and a traditional kitchen. The latter was equipped with a chula built into the far wall, with holes on top for cooking and another underneath where burning coals glistened; a dark, sooty chimney rose up overhead.

In 1961, my father was appointed chairman and managing director of PTC and became the first Pakistani to head a major multinational corporation in the country. We moved into the chairman’s house next door, a two-storey colonial building with a white exterior, sloping red-tiled roof and windows with green wooden louvres to filter the summer sunlight. In this house we ‘inherited’ Rahim, an exacting, superefficient majordomo. This was the house where, as a child, I had attended Christmas parties, Santa Claus and all. Once my parents moved in, the rituals of Eid and Ramzan became the major house festivals. At the former we ate mince pies, Christmas cake and sandwiches; for Eid we were served traditional fare including samosas, seviyan and halwa.

Qiwami Seviyaan

2lb (around 1kg) sugar
1 pint (around ½ litre) water
½ tsp saffron threads
2 tbsp kewra
8 oz (around 225g) seviyan (vermicelli)
8 oz (around 225g) unsalted butter
2 tins evaporated milk (about 400ml each)
1 packet 200ml cream (or use 6 oz/170g fresh cream)
chopped pistachios or almonds (skinned)


1. Heat oven to 150o C/300o F.
2. Butter an ovenproof dish. I use a Pyrex 12" x 8" x 2 ½".
3. Crush saffron strands and soak in kewra. Put aside.
4. Dissolve the sugar in water and bring to a boil. A clear syrup will be formed. Put aside.
5. In a separate pan, heat butter. Add the seviyan and brown them (but make sure they do not burn).
6. Add one tin of evaporated milk, ½ pint syrup, and 1–2 tbsp of cream. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat slightly and cook for about 5-10 minutes. The mixture will thicken. Stir regularly.
7. Add the second tin of evaporated milk, ½ pint syrup and 1–2 tbsp of cream. Bring to the boil, then lower heat slightly and cook for 10 minutes or until the mixture starts coming away from the edge of the pan while you are stirring.
8. Add the rest of the syrup and cream, kewra and saffron and stir well. Bring mixture to the boil, then lower the heat slightly and cook for another 20 minutes.
9. Pour mixture into the ovenproof dish. Cook in the oven at 150o C/300o F for 15 minutes.
10. Turn down the oven temperature to 135o C/275o F and cook for another 30 minutes.
11. Take the dish out of the oven and let it rest for 20 minutes or so. Scatter chopped pistachios and almonds.
12. Serve warm with cream.

Excerpted from chapter titled "A Family’s Culinary History" by Muneeza Shamsie in Forgotten Foods: Memories and Recipes from Muslim South Asia with permission from Picador India

Forgotten Foods: Memories and Recipes from Muslim South Asia

Edited by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Tarana Husain Khan
Picador India
pp. 294; Rs 599


About The Author

Muneeza Shamsie

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