“The South Asian Equalizer”

By Lt Azam Gill, 2nd SSC

Azam Gill photo

Azam Gill

Editor’s Note: Lt Azam Gill is from a Punjab Regt. After leaving the Army very early, he has settled in France.

Samuel Colt, the founder of Colt’s Manufacturing Company, died in 1862. Eleven years after his death, the M1873 .45 single action Army SAA Mod P revolver ensured his posterity. It was known as the Peacemaker, and the Equalizer that won the West, even though history records an unequal contest. Had Samuel Colt been an Indian, he would have been called Samir Kalloo and his Equalizer a katori of mouth-watering, belch-inducing payas.

 Equalizer revolver of Samuel Colt

Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam, formerly The Mall Road, used to be the no-man’s land between Old and New Lahore. WAPDA House is literally in the shadow of the Assembly Chambers Building, Punjab’s preeminent democratic institution struggling to justify its name. Between the two buildings is the pavilion that used to house Malika ka Boot — Queen Victoria’s statue — a constant reminder of colonialism, now carted away. Just down the road used to be the Jadoo Ghar — the headquarters of the Free Masons.  In such august surroundings, it is hardly surprising that on the border between old and new, social democracy simmered in large deg (pots) of payas and kabli choleyan da pala’a to unite all classes.

Assembly Building and WAPDA House at Lahore

An office worker in one of the WAPDA House companies could take a plate to the office. Executives could send their peons to bring a plate. The public could sit on peeri (stool) or a couple of rough wooden benches around a rickety table. Others could balance the plates on their bicycle carriers, motorbike seats, eat in their cars in enamel plates and use tin spoons for the rice, or take a tiffin carrier home. The naans were served at ambient temperature from the same sort of wicker basket in which madaris kept their snakes for the bacha jamoorhas. In each case they all ate the same food in enamel plates with tin spoons for the rice. Unless it was naan.

The cheapest meal was simply a plate of kabli choleyan da pala’a. Add-ons were just paya shorba and then one or more payasPayas and naan was a popular combination, but just the shorba and naan would not be served. The pala’a was made from fine basmati rice, each grain dry, straight, individually apart. The cholas were soft to perfection with no after taste of caustic soda. The payas were sheep’s trotters, cooked to perfection, with flesh on the bone. Yet, one touch of a nawala and it separated the meat from the bone, ready for the gravy to be scooped up. And then a taste of heaven entered the mouth.

 Kabli choleyan da pala’a and Payas of Lahore

The chilies in the gravy were necessary to counteract the natural sweetness of trotters. There was always a small serving of kachoumar or kachoumar type crudities. And Lahoris being Lahoris, there was much spontaneous socializing generated by the sheer enjoyment of payas irrespective of class distinction.

Belches of satisfaction punctuated the cheerful conversation! The drums of social democracy beating a joyous, rapid fire rhythm.

A lesser known but exclusive gourmet establishment for payas, however, was neither Phajja in Heera Mandi, nor Wapda House. It was Kala Hotel in Yakki Gate, run by the famous Kala Pehlwan following his retirement from kushti.

Going to Yakki Gate was an adventure, as it had achieved notoriety due to the Nadir-Dadhu gang wars of the 1950’s, also known as the Yakki Gate riots. Although cooled down, things could still flare up, and outsiders were suspect. You needed to wear a long kurta, walk fearlessly, avoid eye contact and uphold ikhlaq.

Photo of Yakki Gate, Lahore

Kala Hotel had a long, narrow dining hall of bare, smooth cement. There were tables for four at each side, covered with tacked down plastic. The walls had pictures of the Holy Ka’aba, a few dargahs, and bulging-eyed, bare-chested and mustachioed wrestlers from Kala Pehelwan’s family holding decorated gurzes . Some of the pictures were draped with tinsel garlands. Punjabi music played to the kahrewa beat of dholak, mirdhang and k’tara /iktara. At the entrance to the dining hall, facing the street, were the huge degs and para’ats of chota gosht payassiri-payasgurda-kapoorasdil-kaleji-phiphra and superb desi kukar da chargha!

Kaleji and Gurda-Kapooras of Lahore

The meat was personally selected by the pehelwan every day, and the cooking was also supervised by him. It was said that all the cooks and waiters remained in a state of wuzoo ensured by the Pehelwan. When they smiled, you could see the stain of the da’atan with which they had cleaned their teeth. Their clothes looked fresh, and they smelled of soap. Discreet incense sticks were lit in the corners. Underneath every table was an empty kerosene oil or Dalda tin. Every table had a notice: PATRONS ARE REQUESTED TO THROW THEIR BONES IN THE TINS BELOW THE TABLE AND NOT ON THE FLOOR.

The naans weren’t hot, but always warm, the kachoumar fresh and crunchy, and the payas out of this world. For dessert there was always firni, or a sweet shop next door! Here too, payas worked their magic to institute social democracy, as the patrons did not represent any single class or community, religious or ethnic. The classless impact of payas could be felt to the hilt.

Yet, there was a wide gap between the street and the household. For cooking payas took at least twelve hours, if not more. In some homes they were cooked regularly, in others, a takeaway dish. There was a choice of being dependent or independent at the high price of twelve hours labour!

Then in 1964, Sheikh Abdul Razzak, a Sialkoti seth, founder of Majestic Company and pioneer of aluminium utensils, took pity on the households which neither had an army of servants and whose women folk went to school and college, and who distrusted bazaari food! The Majestic pressure cooker, by uniting the street and the home with a single, classless dish, took democratization a step further. Households could buy raw payas in the morning and pressure cook them for lunch in as much time as it took to prepare aloo goshttinda qeema or varaenwaen. If they wanted the traditional taste of slow cooking, they could always buy them.

Choice, after all, is a component of liberty.

Old and modern Pessure cookers

The democratizing effect of payas can be traced to the end of the 18th century. During the beginning of the Mughal empire’s decline, Urdu flourished and the aristocracy, after a night of mushairas and mujras, enjoyed paya / nihari in the early hours of the morning, and then slept off their hangovers! Payas, throwaway hoofs which the poor retrieved to nourish themselves had, by dint of talented hard work, become a gourmet delicacy that made it to the tables of the aristocracy. In their consumption, sensory pleasure superseded class.

In Lahore of the 1970’s karigars from Old Lahore moved to establishments in the suburbs, or opened their own, further narrowing the gap between social class and availability.

The final democratization came through press freedom.

Competing TV stations broadcast programs in which mediagenic chefs brought their skills into living rooms from which the kitchen was only short, dedicated step away. And there it rests, except that although the elephant has gone through the gate, its tail is stuck.

Democratization being an ongoing and imprecise process, like meteorology, the taste of payas slow cooked by a karigar or a dedicated home-maker remains unmatched as an Equalizer.

Related Pages:
Lahore Blog
Pakistan Army Blog (Retired Officers)

Editor’s Note: 
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  1. Maj (Retd) Pervez A Minhas (49 PMA) says:

    Hi Lt Azam,
    Behind the recent sober face from France I could see the 22 Punjabi Lt Gill of 1974. And recollect the incident on Firing Range.
    I am from 19 Baloch, then in 23 Div like 22 Punjab.

  2. Lt Col Masood Alam (retd) says:

    Dear Gill,
    It was very interesting to read your wonderful article. Although I have never stayed permanently in Lahore except for a few occasional visits but while reading your write up it was as if I am in Lahore and witnessing all what you have described so artistically. The pictures have made it more attractive. I request more contributions from your side. May God give more strength to your pen.

  3. Capt (R) Rana M sadiq, Bahawalpur says:

    Azam Bhai,
    I read your article with interest. I have twice been posted to Lahore back in 1975 and again with my unit 1977. No doubt the picture you have posed about paya, kabuli choley ka pulao and firnie is just so real that one feels actually present there. Besides this I enjoyed sweets of Amratsari at Bedan Road, naan and kabab, etc of Kababish near Liberty Chowk and of course fish at Muzang. I really enjoyed it. God bless you.

    • Azam Gill says:

      Thank you, sir: I was in Lahore during the pre Kababish days, but thoroughly enjoyed being a glutton at Amritsari Lunch Home in Beadon Road. I have fond memories of their maghaz and shahi tukra for desert!

  4. Brig (R) Yasub Dogar says:

    I was posted at Lahore from mid 1966 to early 1971, except for collective training which used to last for full 3 months in a year & courses, etc the remaining period was at Lahore.
    Kheer from northern end of Anarkali, quails from Beadon Road, fish from Mozang & gurda-kapooras of Abbot Road was the weekly menu. Movies followed by this gastronomic experiment was order of the day. Probably 1/2 kilo was the least that you had to digest. Chicken had not become the national bird as yet.

    • Azam Gill says:

      “Chicken had not become the national bird as yet.” – hear hear! Great to hear that this obsession takes a back seat with somebody else as well – not that I don’t like it, but …

  5. Rafique Ahmed Khan, Dubai says:

    Dear Azam Gill Saheb,
    I had worked in Military Farms Lahore in 1946. Your wonderful article took me back into my past. Such a complete picture could not have been made otherwise as you have made. While reading it one feels actually living in Lahore.

  6. Lt Col (R) Qadeer A Ch. says:

    Gill Jee,
    Wonderful!! I have enjoyed chholas palao and payas from your article but if someone still wants to go to Yakki Gate Lahore for the taste he can go.

  7. Dear Gill,
    Thanks for such a wonderful write up – truly masterful as usual. Reading through the article, memories of yore came flooding back of my school days (Azam Garrison School), college days (F.C. College) and later my first posting to Lahore where the food delicacies are as old as ‘the mountains’ – to borrow a phrase from ‘Country Roads’ or ‘Olivia Newton John’ – whichever way you may have it.

  8. Maj (R) Shabbir Ahmed, USA says:

    Well done Gill Jee,
    One enjoys reading it more if he had been there in those days. I got a chance to serve in Lahore for a few years & really enjoyed all this.

  9. Maj (R) Khalid Saeed Shah (2nd SSC) says:

    Simply awesome, sir.

  10. Major (R) Munir Ahmed (2nd SSC) says:

    Dear Gill,
    Thanks a lot for digging out the history of Lahori dishes. Being from walled city of Lahore, I have thoroughly enjoyed each & every word of your article. The ocean of vocabulary you have is tremendous. The art of narration and description is certainly at its best. A wonderful article to read after a long wait. Please keep amusing with such beautiful writes up.
    With warmest regards.

    • Azam Gill says:

      Thank you Munir Jee for your generous words. If the Almighty in His kindness sees fit to bring me back to Lahore, we’ll have a katori of something good followed by Ras malai!

  11. Brig (R) Aslam Khan, 30 Cav (33rd PMA) says:

    Azam Gill,
    It is an excellent, mouth watering write up. Enjoyed the well written article. Thanks and best wishes.

  12. Maj (R) Hasan Jawaid, USA (1st SSC) says:

    I was posted in Lahore for two years and enjoyed the mouth watering payas and murgh cholas quite frequently. Excellent write up, keep posting such memorable articles.

    • Azam Gill says:

      Thank you Maj Hasan,
      It’s a pleasure to learn that you enjoyed your stay in Lahore without inhibitions!

  13. Col (R) Qaisar Rashid says:

    You are a “wordsmith”. Your picture painting is so real I always felt I was part of the scenario.
    I remember we had always known or had Siri paya dish. In Gujrat there was one Bashir Khadaan wala. Khad was the Cheeks part of Siri. He never used to touch Khad with Chamach or spoon. He would use his hand to put it in the plate to serve you. I have never eaten more tender meat than that. Lastly these days siri paya are cooked in Khooya and are advertised also.

    • Azam Gill says:

      Qaisar Jee,
      Thank you for such a compliment. I envy you the experience of having had these khads. Although Gujrat was only a hop away from Chamb, I never took time out to explore it properly, being in transit to get to Lahore. Maybe one day … hope to avail of this privilege with you.

  14. Gill,
    A wonderful article. Lahoris will love your description of Payas.
    Keep sharing more articles.

    • Azam Gill says:

      Thank you Cheema Jee, for your compliment and the lovely pictures. I’ll send another piece in early November.

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