Subcontinental Divide - 2021


Fruit Chaat and My Ultimate Demise

By Ahsen Jillani

At this juncture, which is no fork in the road kind of juncture, because there is now only one road, I wait for the news. I want the doctor to hold my hand, smile, and say the magic words, “You have the liver readings of an Egyptian mummy." Or maybe, “Your kidneys will fall out in three months." Something life affirming like that. I have made preparations by talking to my family about this inevitable departure – but who knows if they will acknowledge that while I'm in the afterlife or deep sleep or wherever in space all this happens while most of humanity roasts in the sun digging and planting in the stillness of brutal Time.

But one thing is certain after attending a thousand funerals and ten weddings: I do not want the four remaining friends and three family members laying it on thick as my ashes sit in a Dollar Store urn in the den. “He was a righteous man. God centric and a servant. Alcohol, tobacco, paan masala never touched his lips. His body was a temple, albeit a crumbling one, and no fast food like French fries or a Taco Bell triple chicken tostado ever touched his lips. He had a smile for everyone – every woman and animal at least – but those broken brown teeth were not due to 35 years of paan masala; they were brown because he was so humble that he ate dirt so others could eat his organic daal with the burnt onions sprinkled on top. He will be sorely missed." Guys guys guys, how about for once telling the truth. I mean, I will appreciate it from whatever dimension I'm drinking a beer in.

“Okay, he loved fruit chaat. There, I said it. We might miss him."

More than 45 years removed from the subcontinent now, with maybe 5-6 short visits thrown in along the way, my memory is beginning to fade. My parents are long gone, perhaps lounging in their own heavens and hells; and my mom is probably still telling my dad to grow a spine, or pull himself up by the cummerbund, like real men from her childhood in Panipat used to do. I miss all those romantic one-sided sweet nothings directed at my dad – about as much as I miss fruit chaat.

Spending my formative years in Southeast Asia, I gained an appreciation for food that would cause a grand mal seizure after two bites. Decades out in America, I tried to impress the ladies by not only ordering 5-star hot, but also 5-star hot “Thai Style." I had to be carried out of the restaurant and my hands were shaking so bad, my date had to drive me home. Today, in old age, that has become a fantasy with stomach issues, and fists full of medicines that give you constant heartburn and all those usual fun senior citizen symptoms.

But I have thought now – and we all know thinking can be frequently dangerous. I have thought about why we would be sitting in the sun on brutally hot summer evenings drinking blazing hot cups of tea (even the kids). Add the salted biscuits and the sweets and you would feel pretty weighed down and overheated – and oh, my, a spicy dinner was in only three hours, and it all started again. But this was not just Asia. Arriving in America, I had exposure to a complex food culture that extended into several other continents.

Most of us initially experience European food as pizza and pasta. But what we know as pizza and pasta have come full circle from America's vast PR prowess. Tourists now demand in Italy what they eat at Pizza Hut (and take a bunch of selfies in Rome for social media).

Now that I've researched this and learned to make pizza and pasta from scratch, there seem to be a million ways to make the stuff. These items were foods that the Greeks, the Spanish, the Middle Easterners made by throwing everything and the kitchen sink onto yesterday's bread and baking it. If cheese was available, you used it. Otherwise, just garlic and olive oil and a sliced tomato is also a pizza and pasta dish.

But what I experienced of northern European food was adapted to their weather. Cold weather required processed meats and dairy with dense proteins. A sausage and some liquor would do wonders on a snowy evening. Those meals also didn't necessitate running to the bathroom within the hour. And discovering South American food here seemed to put some puzzle pieces together for me. Tropical and sub-tropical people tend to eat spicy foods – and these are not limited to hot peppers, but also a variety of complex tastes like cumin, coriander, garlic, onion, paprika, and lots of pastes that would be like the chutneys used in the subcontinent.

So, countries like Argentina and Brazil are akin to Vietnam and Singapore in Asia. They generously use spices and herbs, but not the fire that the Mexicans and Thais tolerate in their foods. My craving for Desi street food has some basis in history and science. There are some “cooling" spices, which like hot tea in hot weather, may have multiple benefits. Sweating causes evaporation in open air and makes you feel cooler. That is not rocket science. But in tropical climates, the entire spicy, sweet and sour street food formula not only has antimicrobial benefits when you are consuming uncooked foods, it also delivers a potent mix of electrolytes to keep you hydrated in hot weather.

So, yeah, I recently bought chaat masala from the Indian grocer and put it in everything I consume, including coffee. I need chaat masala. And yes, I sit on my hot porch at 4pm every afternoon and eat a giant bowl of fruit sprinkled with the masala, and I sweat and wipe my face with a wet napkin, and eat some more, while also dreaming about the pani puri, the dahi bullay, the cholay puri, the pakoras and the samosas.

You know, things I used to love to eat. And … I was a great guy.

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Ahsen Jillani a former editor and publisher, is originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, and now lives in Mint Hill. He owns Must Media, a PR company focusing on both political and corporate clients.