For Tamil cuisine, away in Pakistan

Published - November 04, 2018 12:43 am IST

I often have to visit Pakistan where I teach Islamic Theology, Koranic Studies, Persian and Arabic. Since I’m nuts on idli, dosa, rasam and sambar, even in Pakistan, I’ve managed to find places across Pakistan where I can get almost authentic South Indian dishes as I get in Madras (please, no Chennai for me; it grates). I love the way dosa and upma are made by Malayali Muslims in Chitral, Pakistan. They migrated to Pakistan from Kerala after Partition.

But the best and crispiest dosas that I’ve tasted in Pakistan are served by Tamil Hindus and Muslims, who are concentrated mainly in Karachi and Lahore. Before descanting on dosas made by Tamils, I must mention that in 1986, The Dawn of Pakistan carried an article on Tamils of Pakistan. It mentioned that Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (nephew of the Nobel laureate Sir C.V. Raman), who got the Nobel for his ‘Chandrasekhar Limit’ in 1983, was born in pre-Independence Lahore. Mani Shankar Aiyar was born in Lahore. Emmanuel Nicholas, a former schoolteacher of Pakistan’s one-time Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, was born in Sialkot. And Catholic Bishop Victor Gyanapragasam was from the erstwhile Layalpur, now Faisalabad.

The newspaper mentioned that the British Frontier Railways in the NWFP required accountants with sharp mathematical abilities and found Tamils to be the best-suited for the job, just as Ramanujan, whose mathematical genius awed the world, not just the British mathematician Sir Thomas Hardy. So many Tamils were sent there and a few of them chose to stay back even after Partition.

The Madrasi Para (‘colony’ in Bengali) behind the Jinnah Post Graduate Centre in Karachi is home to some 100 Tamil Hindu families, who still speak impeccable Tamil along with Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi. This is where you get authentic Madrasi khana , or dastarkhwan (as it’s known in Pakistan), in Pakistan. Two types of coconut chutneys with a bowl of piping-hot sambar and a crisp dosa with mildly spicy potato filling (often containing garlic) can transport you back to Madras if you happen to be a Tamil or an Indian. The taste is awesome, to use a cliche.

I have tasted food made by Tamils settled in Singapore and Malaysia also, but the finger-licking taste of original South Indian dishes that I experienced in Karachi is unique. I had idly with medhu vada and chutney and sambar, served on a banana leaf.

On one of the visits I also had koottu, which is a stew of vegetables or greens, usually made with lentils, and spices which makes for a side dish for a meal consisting of rice, sambar and rasam. This I had at ‘Virundhu’, which means ‘feast’ in Tamil. The owner’s father migrated to Karachi from Madras in 1946. The owner, Ganesan, served me thayir (curd) along with poriyal (dry fry of vegetables). I didn’t have this in India despite my many visits to Madras and Bangalore.

British culinary expert Gordon Ramsay aptly said the original taste of a localised cuisine in a faraway place makes the food nostalgically all the more tasty. This can very well be said of the typical Tamil gastronomic delights in Pakistan. One feels a home connection and makes a trip down memory lane. The feeling is indescribable. It’s akin to describing a rainbow to a sight-impaired person.

After partaking of the wholesome Madrasi dastarkhwan (food arrangement, in Persian), I said thank you in Tamil. The owner asked me if I knew Tamil: Tamil pesuweengalaa ? I told him I understood it very well but could speak only a smattering of it. He then broke into flawless Urdu, much to my amazement. And he wrote his name and address in Urdu!

Now, I’ve begun to take my Muslim friends to these Tamil joints and they too swear by the taste of idiyappam, sevai, kozhukattai, aapam and typical Chettinad chicken. By the way, many Pakistani and Indian Muslim friends of mine are of the opinion that South Indian Chettinad chicken can beat the over-hyped butter chicken of Punjab province of India and West Punjab.

My Muslim friends in Pakistan love a certain pink-coloured soft drink served after food, and thakkali saadam (tomato rice) in these South Indian eateries in Pakistan’s metros.

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