I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my female sibling from Lahore. This is so because as a pair we make a deadly combination that spends weekends roving across the hills around Islamabad in search of ‘flora for our cooking pot’. My invitation to a meal is looked upon by many of my friends as an adventure, while some timidly ask me if the menu is likely to contain surprises. On my part, I rather enjoy the incredulity on my guests’ face when they are told that what they are eating is not what they think it is!
The Gular (Ficus Racemosa) or Cluster Fig is found almost everywhere in the subcontinent, but thrives best in the Himalayan foothills such as the Margallas. When a ripe Gular is split open, it releases a small cloud of miniscule winged insects that have miraculously bred inside it. It is said that the ripened fruit eaten along with its tiny residents sharpens eyesight.
For cooking purposes, Gulars are harvested when unripe and green. They are then mixed with spices and ground into a thick paste, patted into round patties and fried. A word of caution though - this bountiful gift of nature in its ripe state is also a favourite of wild monkeys and attempts to harvest the fruit warrant a look around to see if any of the furry small apes are in the vicinity.
Kachnar (Bauhinia Variegata) also known as the Orchid Tree is another gift from Mother Nature and is a hot favourite on my list. Flowers of the Kachnar come in two colours - white and pink. However, it is the buds of these trees that are harvested for cooking, mixed with minced meat or even without it.
Kachnar trees in the Margallas are a riot of colour in the flowering season and small village urchins can be found offering plastic bags of harvested buds to motorists at a reasonable price. There is one such tree in my house that offers a double bounty, as it is home to a family of humming birds and I often sit in my verandah on an overcast day watching flashes of luminescent blue dart in and out amidst its pink blooms.
Our old house in Lahore boasted a couple of tall Sohanjna trees and their cream coloured flowers, when cooked with yogurt made a mouth-watering vegetable dish. These flowers were followed by a long snake-like fruit that made an excellent recipe when fried.
One had to be careful when climbing this tree, as it was extremely brittle and the branches had a tendency to break at the slightest of weight. It was, perhaps, for this reason that our Sohanjna was usually festooned with beehives and amateurish attempts to get at their nectar, frequently proved painful for members of our domestic staff.
I first set eyes on the Kathal (Artocarpus Heterophyllus) or Jack Fruitin in a shady corner of the Lawrence Gardens in Lahore. Holding on to my grandfather’s hand, I gazed up at the large ovular and spiny fruit growing directly from the trunk. A few days later, we received a consignment of Kathals sent by my father from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Once the fruit was cut open, it revealed yellow flesh enveloping large brown seeds. I soon discovered that I was required to eat this flesh raw, which was a feat by itself considering that the contents had a very strong flavour. My dislike was, however, mitigated when a spicy Kathal curry was produced at the afternoon meal and turned out to be very good. It was often thereafter, that this curry appeared on our menu and became a hot favourite with the family.
So next time dear readers, if you are invited to my house for a meal, prepare yourself for a tasty mouthful with a difference. And it may also come to pass that as I continue my ramblings across the lovely Margallas, I may spot a figure resembling yourself, trying to scale a Gular tree in a bid to get at the fruit as your evening meal features special shami kebabs on the menu.
n The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.