It all began when a family friend’s daughter, who had been residing in Lahore up until a few weeks earlier, turned to me and asked: “Which restaurants here have the best iftaar deals?”
“Iftaar deals?” I asked, not sure that I had heard correctly.
“Yes, you know the special buffets and menus offered at restaurants during Ramazan for iftaar and even sehri.”
I realised then that I had no choice but to gently remind the young girl of our reality: “Hanin, sweetheart, we’re not in Pakistan anymore.”
For Pakistanis living abroad there is perhaps no greater time for nostalgia than Ramazan and Eidul-Fitr which follows it. The reminiscences of how things were done back home and the longing for everything from sharbat to fruit chaat and dahi phulki are common topics of discussion. Inevitably everyone has a favourite memory: qeema samosas from a particular vendor, the delicious fish pakoras that were sent over every Friday by the next door neighbour, even the unidentifiable bland-tasting pink dessert which arrived every single year without fail on the eve of 27th Ramazan courtesy of another neighbour.
Since the start of this particular month of fasting I have been longing for the jalebi sold at a specific mithai shop near Karachi’s Teen Talwar roundabout. Warm, crispy and dripping with rosewater-flavoured sugar syrup, these deep-fried pretzel-shaped goodies simply melt in the mouth. Some have suggested substituting imarti for jalebi since red-orange coloured imarti is widely available in Toronto. But that is not possible: while the two might appear to be somewhat similar they are definitely not the same.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, A. admits that he has been dreaming of those chunky aloo samosas that are available all year round in Pakistan but taste especially good during the month of fasting. In fact, he requested a friend to take pictures of the said samosas and post them on Facebook so he could at least feast his eyes. He also asked for pictures of aam and falsaa “if they are still around.”
In Edmonton F. laments the absence of khajla and pheni for sehri. “Nothing, especially not cornflakes, can compensate.” His wife U. offers some comfort: “At least Rooh Afza is available here as it is in most cities with a sizeable desi population.”
M.A. who lives in Sheffield, UK, confirmed the availability of the popular red drink there: “Yes, Rooh Afza is here and here to stay!!” From close by London M.J. reports: “Everything is available here but it just tastes bland, even the homemade dahi baray are not the same. Sigh! Oh why the hell did you have to ask?”
Don’t get us wrong. When we think of Pakistan it’s not just in the context of food or the good time we have there while on vacation. Most of us are ever mindful of the less savoury aspects of our country of birth. We cringe at every piece of bad news reported on Pakistani television channels and grimace at every misstep taken by Pakistani politicians. And we are constantly concerned for the well being of family and friends who make up the most essential part of what we miss on these special occasions.
In fact, as I. in Boston points out, it’s not even so much the food we miss but rather “the mahaul which is not found anywhere else.” Special shows on television and radio, shorter hours at the office while shops remain open till late night, heavy traffic on the roads as everyone rushes to get home before sunset, and finally, family sitting down to eat together as muezzins throughout the city deliver the maghrib azaan to signal the end of the fast.
For J. in Ottawa and A. in Houston this lack of atmosphere is doubly apparent as Eid approaches. There is no chand raat; no going out en masse for chooriyaan and mehndi or last minute shopping for clothes and shoes. And unlike Pakistan, Eid day in North America, the UK, Europe and Australia etc., is not a public holiday on which everyone wears new clothes and visits their neighbours, friends and family. There’s no eidi either, or at least, as M.J. complains, none of the same generosity that exists in Pakistan when it comes to handing out small sums of money as gifts on Eid.
Most of us though will take the day off from work or school, don a traditional shalwar kameez, and attend Eid prayer at an Islamic centre, convention hall or sports arena. We will then get together with family and friends to partake of sheer khurma as well as other Eid fare. But while doing all these things we will tell each other, time and again, how much livelier and much more enjoyable the month of fasting and the festivities that mark its end are back home.