Patisserie de Pakistan
by Gregors Johnson
It was early for lunch but then again he had not eaten anything at all on the endless bus trip up through the Himalyan foothills. The way that bus driver was torturing second gear, he wondered if they would make it at all. Eventually, though, out of a lazy mist that had been thickening as they climbed, the low, busted-out concrete buildings of Murree slid into view.
The portly owner of the little storefront restaurant showed him to a red plastic chair. Martin took a seat and had a look around: Flies dueled in a heap over the tacky tablecloth. There were no other diners. An empty restaurant was not usually a good sign but admittedly this was an odd time to eat, somewhere on the outskirts of breakfast. Sunday morning brunch was not as popular in Pakistan as it was at home.
The owner approached, smiling, a noticeable gap between two teeth, and asked what he would like to eat. Martin glanced at the one-sheet menu and there was that small thing, that bubble of discontent, rising up through him, unsteady as their bus traversing those switchbacks. His stomach had turned on him of late, and he was uncertain around food, a mountain climber suddenly wary of a flat, gravel road. The owner shifted his weight from one foot to another, his feet falling out of his broken leather sandals, and asked again for his order, even making a few suggestions. He pointed out that the roasted lamb in the kebabs was “tasty and fresh” and that foreign guests raved about his palaw— long grain rice stirred with raisins and orange peel, topped with a dusting of ground pistachios.
“I’ll have some tea, thanks,” Martin said.
The owner glared at Martin as if he had a forked tongue.
On the sidewalk out front of the restaurant a Chitrali man wearing fatigues drifted past casually shouldering a Kalashnikov. No doubt these were tough times for a pastry chef from Kent to be calling Pakistan home, but he wasn’t going to let a few radical lunatics stand in the way of delivering pain au chocolat, eclaires and bichon au citron to the fine people of this country. Hadn’t they been through enough already?
It had all started with the Octavio Incident, born of the radicals’ desire to suppress Bacalhau. Their treatise ran that the cod was an unholy fish susceptible to parasites. They reasoned that once these worms had a hold of their host they could penetrate its heart, rendering the person a mean-spirited monster. By extension, then, anyone who digested the mongrel fish would have his own heart destroyed. They had cruelly disrupted the supply chain at its source in Norway, kidnapping Crown Prince Haaki as he took part in the season’s first Cod Open—the annual fertility festival that kicked off Cod Week. Their demand was simple: No more cod was to be exported to Pakistan or Afghanistan.
It was a swift and sudden blow that had a chilling effect on the entire fisheries industry. Soon, importers of other fish worried that their stock was not holy enough for the radicals. The importers of Sockeye salmon thought long and hard about the nature of their catch. Since it was anadromous—migrating from the sea up into fresh water to spawn—they concluded this might be seen as unnatural selection. They decided to focus their marketing on India. Eventually, it was not possible to find salmon anywhere in the country. Sardines fell next, followed in quick succession by pollock, snook and halibut. Before long there was exactly one restaurant in Pakistan serving fish.
Ginza Sushi had existed on the same strip of Peshawar Road, near the cricket grounds and across the street from Martin’s own place of employment, the Pearl Continental, since the partition. Farrukh Mazari’s father had opened the restaurant after studying the ancient art of fish carving in Tokyo under one of the country’s masters. He passed on his skill set to his son, then on his deathbed made Farrukh swear that he would never surrender the restaurant. As Farrukh’s suppliers dropped one by one, his menu went through a painful restructuring. At the end there was only tuna, and even that had to be smuggled through customs in the carcass of a lamb. After that the radicals did not have to do much more to ensure the demise of the restaurant. They used their growing online presence to post poor reviews, questioning the quality of the supplier and the moral fortitude of the chef.
“Roti, sir, fresh and hot. My complements,” the owner said, carefully setting the teacup next to a plate of still-steaming bread.
Roti. He rolled his eyes as the owner stepped away. Martin had become a minor expert on roti and bananas in the past two weeks. It was all he could keep down. He had eaten roti plain and with butter, with jam and with cream, cut into bits and sprinkled with cardamom.
Martin pushed the plate away and focused on his tea. He found it was tepid to the touch. He shook his head. There was nothing worse than tepid tea.
He folded his hands over the bump of his belly, which was like an old friend, ever dependable, as comforting as a plate of biscuits. Martin could feel where it had lost some of its prominence, though. At least this nasty bout of dysentery had forced him to drop a few stone.
The irony that the hill station of Murree was once a sanatorium was not lost on him. Martin contemplated the British Raj and how things must have been then. He could almost see the soldiers in their hiking boots and wool knee socks, their walking shorts and their pith helmets, banding about enjoying the views and the fresh air around the hill station. Martin had heard they hunted for black kite and shikra, birds of prey, but as often as not wound up with rock pigeons. They washed back the curried pigeon with brown bottles of beer that took four months to arrive by train from Staffordshire.
These days the beer was out of the question, obviously, and he wondered if the radicals would have found something offensive even in those indigenous birds of prey. Animals that had been killed by beasts of prey were verboten, but what about the beast of prey itself? Where would it end? The radicals had already taken it upon themselves to decree that over 400 international foods were banned: from apple pie to spaghetti bolognese.
“Your tea is poor,” Martin said when the owner returned.
Martin kept his eyes fixed on him and dipped an unceremonious finger into his tea.
“Right away.” The owner reached for the teacup.
Martin touched his forearm. “It’s fine. I should be heading out, anyway. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Please. I insist.” The man’s dark face looked concerned, as if Martin’s very life might depend on him trying another cup of tea.
Martin looked up at him, into his darting eyes and bushy eyebrows. There was a noticeable cut through one of them that had long-since healed but was still denuded.
“Tell me,” Martin said, as if planning a coup. “Do you have any fresh apricots?”
“On the bus ride up here I couldn’t help but notice the orchards full of apricot trees.”
“Yes. Apricots. Very tasty.”
“So you have some?”
The look that came over the man’s face was one that Martin had grown accustomed to since he arrived. It was a look of hope tinged with fear. The man smiled and shrugged.
“It’s fine. Fine, really. How much for the tea and roti?”
“But the roti is my treat.”
“Yes, the tea, then. How much for the tea?”
“We have so much to offer. Let me show you.” He picked up the menu and pointed out the mutton kebabs, the tripe soup, the mantu stuffed with ground beef and pumpkin.
“Do you like chicken?”
“Well, I mean…who doesn’t like a nice chicken?”
“I roast them. They are tremendous, like the beautiful woman with brown skin and soft to the touch…”
As he listed several more specialties, Martin caught a glimpse of one of the owner’s children. The boy appeared at the door of the kitchen in a T-shirt a few sizes too big for him and walked to one of the tables in the far corner. He dug a large spoon into a bowl of what appeared to be gruel. If the radicals had their way, soon that would be the only dish available in all of Pakistan. In between bites he stole sheepish glances at Martin. On one of these Martin zinged him with a stern look. The boy turned away, embarrassed, but then rebounded, daring another peek as Martin broke into a wide smile. The boy smiled back, showing off his own large gap where a tooth must have recently departed.
Oblivious, the owner continued through the menu at an ever-increasing clip. Martin had to wonder how many of these dishes he was making up in a quest to hit on something agreeable. Martin cut him off in mid-spiel. “Tell me about your pastries,” Martin said.
“Yes, do you have any?”
There was that look again.
“The market I saw on the way from the bus station, would they have any fresh apricots?”
“I believe so.”
“I have a deal for you. If we can arrange for your son to go to the market and buy, say three-dozen apricots,” Martin slid several rupees and his card from the Pearl Continental from his wallet. “I would like to show you how to make a specialty of mine. No restaurant should be without a dessert menu.”
The owner took his card and hooked a thumb and forefinger around his melon-like chin. He snapped his fingers and within a few seconds the boy appeared at his side.
Martin handed him the money but raised a finger. “Remember, not too ripe.” “Not too ripe,” said the boy.
“Exactly,” said Martin.
“Exactly,” said the boy.
“Are you just repeating me?” asked Martin.
“Are you just repeating me?” said the boy.
It took the better part of the afternoon to gather the rest of the ingredients: the superfine sugar, the whipping cream, the vanilla and lemons. Amer, the boy, had brought back all the apricots he could carry. Most of them were perfect, plucked within days from the trees in the valley below. His father, Hassan, had done some nifty haggling with a neighbor to purloin an assortment of almonds and then used a rusted-out blender to give them a nice rough chop.
Martin spent several hours fighting with the tandoor to get the temperature right. The first tray turned out horribly burned, which sent Amer into a laughing fit.
When Martin finished, Hassan insisted that he stay for dinner. Martin had been so focused on baking that he had forgotten all about how uncooperative his belly had been in the past few weeks. Also, how empty it was. After an initial protest, he agreed to join them for a fine meal of roasted chicken and palaw. Then for dessert Martin brought out his tray of apricot tarts dusted with chopped almonds.
Sitting around the table at sunset, a naked candle burning, he felt a new kinship with the boy and his father. Amer’s mother had been sadly targeted by the radicals after she failed to utter the appropriate prayer before slaying a goat. Martin had to wonder if there were other pockets of resistance across the region, out in the darkness enveloping this splintered land. Wouldn’t it be amazing if at that very moment they were cooking the sequestered coq au vin in Lahore? Or simmering the treasonous cacciucco in Kabul? Or pulling a fresh tray of the downright seditious apfelstrudel from an oven in Hyderabad?
|Gregors Johnson is a writer and editor based in Chicago. For several years he taught English throughout Asia, living in South Korea and Thailand, and traveling extensively through China and Pakistan. His short fiction has appeared in Palooka, and he is an occasional contributor to CNN Travel and Matador.|