Winter Memories of Lahore

Recently, my dear friend Shivneet invited us to her house for brunch. After serving delicious aaloo parathas, she prepared "Indian coffee" for us. She used Nescafe instant coffee. She took equal parts of coffee and sugar and added just a few drops of water to this mixture. She then whipped it vigorously for several minutes until the dark brown mixture changed to a luminous golden color with a creamy consistency. Each of us then added a spoonful of this mixture into our cup and poured hot milk over it. The result was a perfect cup of frothy coffee with the taste of home.

In Lahore during the winter, a magical thing used to happen. The street food vendors of the city sprouted a new variety of specialty stands or dhaabas. Overnight, right next to the seekh kebab, burger, and shawerma stands, a small row of carts appeared selling delicious and satisfying foods perfect for the dry chill and thick fog of Lahore. Hot and sour and chicken corn soup were the best! Sometimes I used to stop at the market twice in one day just for a large bowl of steaming soup that was brought to my car right in the middle of the shopping area. I would add generous amounts of thinly sliced Serrano chilies, vinegar, and a special red chili sauce and enjoy the soup lazily. 

Large carts served as makeshift street shops for sellers of nuts and dried fruits. They displayed heaps of almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, and peanuts still in their shells along with dried berries, apricots, and prunes . We used to buy them by the pound. Then in the evenings, my sisters and I used to sit in front of the TV and crack nuts while we watched our favorite shows. I always started a knitting project in the winter and tried my best to multitask, but was always left with an unfinished scarf by the end of the season. The blaze of the gas heater was a warm comfort and we tucked ourselves under my mother’s heavy chenille comforter – green with fuchsia roses – all three of us huddled together.

One year my eldest maternal uncle visited us and dropped off a  winter specialty that I had never had before – hunter beef. According to Wikipedia “Hunter Beef is native to Pakistan. The beef is marinated in spices and Potassium Nitrate and then baked. It is usually used in sandwiches and salads.” It was DELICIOUS! Sometimes on particularly cold nights, I crave hunter beef and wish I could go back to the dimly lit kitchen of my mother's house. She used to keep slabs of plastic wrapped hunter beef on a crystal tray. I used to take a little piece as I passed through the kitchen and munched on it in the drawing room with a copy of a book of poems in my lap and the fog making strange shapes outside the windows. 

And then there was coffee. Small, neat looking stands in busy marketplaces boasted the perfect cup. Back then, for a few rupees and a few minutes of your time, you could take your pick between a Styrofoam cup of fake coffee spat out by a machine with capsules of artificial could witness a work of art. The seller would make small heaps of instant coffee and sugar in a porcelain cup and whisk it with water deftly and swiftly. You could see the mixture turning thick and creamy, changing color, looking ready for that steaming cup of milk. He would then add the hot milk to it from a steel saucepan being heated on top of a portable gas stove. The liquid hitting the cup would make thick sloshy appetizing sounds. Foam would rise to the top of the cup and settle there like a small sea of bubbles. The perfect cup of street coffee. There used to be nothing better on a cold winter night back then.

Today, after having a particularly depressing conversation about the state of Pakistan - safety gone to hell, country splitting apart at the seams, large expensive restaurants serving all cuisines of the world, street food close to forgotten,  and 70% of the population going to sleep with an empty stomach, I - in a state of guilt and disillusionment - took out the small jar of Nescafe from my pantry and threw a spoonful in a cup with two packets of Splenda. The result, though imperfect, was tasty - it induced nostalgia and inspired this post. My endeavor can be seen below in pictures.