The cashier rang up the total. A hundred and forty three dollars! Hadn't I just spent seventy dollars the day before? How can we eat so much food? My two daughters are model-slim, and I'm at least a bit careful. The money, to say nothing of the time - preparation, cooking, eating, clean-up - that goes into food consumption is staggering. Maybe it's for this reason that so many of our memories revolve around food. The fateful day that I prepared a casserole for a young man I wanted desperately to impress, only to have it slip from my hands as I removed it from the oven. Bits of chicken, potatoes, peas and cornflake crumbs landed inelegantly at the feet of the object of my adoration, and I watched helplessly as my dreams sank among the patches of gravy. Or the wonderful meals I was treated to by a family in Paris who were the merest of acquaintances and yet who presented me with wonderful, nearly transparent baby oysters, with a cognac pate that I can relish to this day, with delicate rabbit stews simmered for slow hours in wine. One day I dropped in on them unexpectedly at supper time. They hastily cleared away their meal, not wanting me to see the single egg and the large piece of peasant bread that each plate held, testimony to the result of their gracious extravagances.
Memorable as these experiences are, the one meal that still evokes a myriad of complex memories is one that I shared with a friend in the
bazaar in Peshawar. It consisted almost entirely of lamb tikka. I've tasted lamb tikka many times since, and, unfailingly, with a sense of disappointment. The sensual pleasure of that long ago meal depended as much on the circumstances, the atmosphere, the company, and my own mood of adventure as on the food itself.
Peshawar is located at the entrance to the Khyber Pass, and in 1964, before the war in Afghanistan turned it into a glorified refugee camp, it was a busy, colorful, if admittedly backwater city. The area around Peshawar was, and is, populated by fiercely proud and fiercely independent tribesman. The tribal chieftains made and enforced their own laws, almost completely ignoring edicts emanating from Islamabad. There were virtually no women to be seen on the streets of Peshawar, nothing but tall, strong men with fierce moustaches, rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders, daggers tucked into their belts. Not another woman in sight, and yet I felt entirely safe - protected, even - the pride of these wonderful people enforced such hospitality. The bazaar, or souk, was, as in most Mideastern and Asian cities, large and baffling in its intricacy. My travelling companion and I had heard of a restaurant at the very heart of the souk that served the best food in the city. My friend, Princeton-educated and cautious by nature, was discouraging. He protested that the interior labyrinths of a souk were no place for us, especially not at ten in the evening. My enthusiasm and confidence won the day, and we boarded a motorized rickshaw for our giddy ride, the driver
depositing us at the door of a most UNimposing building - peeling plaster walls, a door wobbly on its hinges. And inside? Perhaps fifty tables, all taken up by the same tribesmen earlier described. They must have been thoroughly dumbfounded at the sight of a blond Westerner accompanied by a tall Bengali in western dress. But if they were, their faces showed no trace of it. You might have thought from their demeanour that such an intrusion was commonplace.
The host assessed the situation with equal sang-froid, and suggested that we might be more comfortable in the private room upstairs. So up the stairs we went. The private room was equipped with a long, glass table surrounded by an assortment of ill-matched chairs, and, in one corner, inexplicably, a kitchen sink, dripping slightly - plink, plonk -our dinner music. With a cursory wipe of the section of the table we were to occupy, the host bid us be seated, and brought us food. No, there was no menu, but such food! Plates of rice, deliciously seasoned and spiced, a hot curry, wonderful, crisp chapattis and pahn, and, of course, the lamb tikka. If ever a dish could be objectively described as ambrosia, that lamb tikka was it! At the time, I weighed about a hundred and five pounds, and my companion was slim and not given to gourmandising. And yet we ordered plate after plate after plate. The night was beautiful. I adored my companion. I adored Peshawar. I adored the bazaar and the strong, handsome, courteous men in the restaurant below.
The taste of certain dishes invariably prompts a flood of memories. Chicken casserole brings me back to our basement apartment two blocks from campus, and to the young man who got away. Rabbit stew evokes Paris, and the warm, wonderful hospitality that I've always received in that beautiful city. And lamb tikka? Recollections of a time as magical as the Arabian Nights!
(Scroll down for a picture of the Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar)
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