From India to Pakistan: A journey for kebabs and family


From India to Pakistan: A journey for kebabs and family

Pakistani restaurant Student Biryani in Abu Dhabi takes writer back to her Lahore roots



Grilled tandoori chicken
Grilled tandoori chicken Image Credit: Shutterstock

Increasingly, there is a feeling. Some days it is an even deeper emotion as I wonder whether I belong to a generation that is the last one standing, for whom the partition of India and the years preceding it hold some sentimental meaning. Even within my peers it is a shrinking club - those who are holding on loyally to the stories of our forefathers and tracing their lives across the border are dwindling.

The sacrifices of so many of our freedom fighters are almost forgotten, and politics consume a narrative that tries to make the uninitiated believe that we have no past or at the very least a bygone era that is intrinsic to our history. But I know differently because I heard stories, and that too in the living room of my home.

Virendra and Raj Lakshmi
Virendra and Raj Lakshmi Image Credit: Supplied

My grandfather was a freedom fighter who was jailed eight times by the British before the age of 21.

My favourite memory of him is of being ensconced on the maroon and red carpet while he sat in front, on the sofa with its carved headboard in the high-ceilinged living room at home, regaling us with a piece of his history. Watching cricket with him was a close second.

He was behind bars for a stringent act that was implemented against only five others by the British - one of whom was Mahatma Gandhi. He was also in Lahore jail with Bhagat Singh, the night the legendary freedom fighter was hanged. But what I always remember most fondly is the time when I didn’t do well in my studies.

Jyotsna Grandfather
Virendra with one of the leaders of the Indian freedom movement, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Image Credit: Supplied

“I never did well in mine also,” he would say. The only difference was that he gave those exams in a Lahore jail with a guard standing outside.

Then there was my grandmother who when she finished school received a hastily redone certificate, where the word ‘son’ was cut out in ink and replaced with ‘daughter’. Not many girls were sent to schools in those days, and she went on to graduate from Kinnaird College, Lahore later.

My grandmother also had stories of their house on Nisbet Road, which as children fascinated us. There was a courtyard in the center, where the vegetable vendor would display his wares to the women of the house, who looked on from the balcony upstairs. A basket would roll down and was raised again with the vegetables. If they met with approval, money for the vendor came down the same route.

So, no matter what, history will always have its witnesses who have been passed down - memories. The phrase ‘Jis Lahore na dekhya, o jamya nai’ keeps coming back to me, as in recent years the urge to visit the city from where my family migrated only intensifies, and

I regret not paying more attention to the family stories or asking for more before time ran out.

Sometimes though the closest journeys have the longest distance.

Jalandhar my hometown is two hours from Lahore in Pakistan, the capital of what was once undivided Punjab. Yet, every year the bucket list gets carried over to the next and for the last two years I have even stopped making one. But fortunately, over time whether through work or a common love for the dramas, I have made some lovely connections there. Quite a few are themselves searching for their Indian roots, while others have promised to treat me with the best kebabs.

But in the meantime, I took a trip that bridged the distance not of the line that physically divides but of a culture and humanity that resonates.

UAE has been my second home for the last nine years, whether full time or in bits and parts. My husband was already in the city when I came to Abu Dhabi and his first words to me were: “There is the most amazing Pakistani food here, and you will love it.” And thus started a trip of discovery, familiarity and comfort.

We didn’t hit upon the perfect place overnight. It was only during one of my numerous taxi rides that a driver from Lahore much to my delight in chaste Punjabi mentioned this ‘authentic’ place, which was frequented by most taxi drivers in Abu Dhabi.

‘Student Biryani’ the internet says originated in Karachi, now whether we were eating at an original branch, or a copy remains a mystery! But the kebabs melted - better than any tasted before - and some not available back home. For haleem, this was the end of the road and the fish tikka came close to the Amritsari fish portions that are dished out at ‘Eat Well’, a tiny hole in the wall place in my hometown.

As a lover of ‘kali dal’ or dal makhani as the world knows it, I soon learnt that ‘dal mash’ came a close second. But that is where the vegetarian menu ended and as I soon learnt from a Pakistani friend, it was a dish too many!

Spicy fish tikka
Spicy fish tikka Image Credit: Shutterstock

From what I hear, mutton for breakfast is not uncommon and fried okra – an Indian delight, relatively unheard of. The same Pakistani friend happily did justice to the okra at a dinner at our place in the pre-Covid-19 days. For both sides of the border, there is much to learn and relish, even today.

But what probably took me by surprise was the naan bread. Our friends on the other side clearly go all out, in comparison, what we eat back home looks like something made for delicate stomachs! I have been using the Pakistani naan more as a base for pizzas, the kind we ate before thin crust misled us into believing that we could have our weight under control!

Tandoori chicken was a treat while I was growing up in small-town Punjab and until a few years ago I was convinced that nothing comes close to the masala marinade and the Punjabi flavour of that chicken. Many decades later, I found it at Student Biryani. Today, my children will let go of pasta for this. Butter chicken is perhaps the only thing that comes close for them. I have to say, I did right by them!

- Jyotsna Mohan
Haleem
Haleem Image Credit: Shutterstock

“It’s the chargha, it’s the chargha,” yelped my children in excitement the other day. If I ever had any doubts that my Punjabi genes are being dismissed, I can lay them to rest. Tandoori chicken was a treat while I was growing up in small-town Punjab and until a few years ago I was convinced that nothing comes close to the masala marinade and the Punjabi flavour of that chicken.

Many decades later, I found it at Student Biryani. Today, my children will let go of pasta for this. Butter chicken is perhaps the only thing that comes close for them. I have to say, I did right by them!

The last time we went to Student Biryani, it was closed [there are several branches in Dubai and other Emirates, which are open]. For good. We went again, just in case we had read the sign wrong. The shabby notice on the window was still there.

We are now searching for our new comfort food but perhaps it is a sign of the bigger calling, to visit the original country - Pakistan for the kebabs and more importantly for retracing some footsteps of those who walked the land 75 years ago.

We all have our journeys and hope lives eternal.

Lahore Chicken Karahi
Lahore Chicken Karahi Image Credit: Shutterstock

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