There’s something about eating in the open air, surrounded by natural beauty, that sharpens the appetite and makes even everyday food taste like a feast. So, picnics figure high up there on my list of memorable meals. Part of this association has to do with the people I was with, and also where we had our picnics.
My earliest memory of eating away from our home is when my parents and their friends organised outings to the beach. These were elaborate affairs where each family brought a dish and, while I don’t remember exactly what I ate, I do know I went to sleep with a very full stomach.
Cricket Test matches were other gastronomic highlights: my mother would pack a tiffin carrier with parathas, aloo ki bhujia, bhuna qeema and omelette. Washed down with cold drinks, we felt a bit drowsy after the lunch break, especially if the cricket got too slow and boring, as it often did in those days.
Enjoyment of having food outdoors is all about the place and the company
When I was based in Islamabad in the late ’80s, we often drove into the hills to explore the charming valleys and streams. My late cousin Kaleem Omar was a regular companion on these excursions and really enjoyed his food. Saleem, our cook at the time, would pack a roast chicken, French bread from the Afghan Bakery, some butter and cheese. Seldom has such simple fare tasted so good.
My cold roast chicken is a little more elaborate: I make small punctures in the skin and place a sliver of garlic and a sprig of rosemary in each. Then I squeeze a lemon over the bird and stuff the cavity with the lemon peel. Finally, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper. The chicken goes into a pre-heated oven until it is cooked. I normally take it out half-way to spoon some juices on the bird to prevent it from cooking too quickly and drying out. The chicken can now be allowed to cool to room temperature before placing it in the fridge for either a picnic, or for serving at lunch on a warm summer day.
One memorable picnic was organised by my friend and colleague, the late Benjamin Randle. He was then based in Quetta, and had a sajji expert accompany us to a valley around 50 miles away. While we explored the lovely lake and forested valley, two wood fires were prepared, and the meat placed on a large skewer in between. Slowly, the fires were moved closer and closer to the meat, increasing the heat. A pan collected the fat flowing from the lamb. By now, we were quite ravenous: there is something about the smell of roasting meat that makes the gastric juices flow.
Commoners make do with peanut butter and sliced ham sandwiches. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to the location and the company.
When lunch was finally served, we fell on the meat, shedding all pretence of politeness. The naan soaked up the fat and soon the meat was all gone. Sajji has no spices, and salt is the only ingredient used, so the meat has to be of very high quality. Our host was an excellent cook, and knew the best places for Lahori specialities. RIP Benji!
In England, picnics of the elite often consist of smoked salmon sandwiches, washed down with champagne. Commoners make do with peanut butter and sliced ham sandwiches, followed by beer. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to the location and the company: a lovely spot and close friends can transform a humdrum meal into a gastronomic experience.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 25th, 2018