“My family often talks of how it was all just sand when they came to the UAE in the ’70s. So being a third-culture kid in Dubai is almost the norm for my generation. We try and find a sense of home in familiar flavors.. flavors that aren’t always bound by political boundaries..”

Roha and I have been chatting for months now.  An online friendship, purely shaped by our shared love of food and stories of South Asia. She settles for this conversation on a sunny Dubai morning in a bustling cafe. “My mother is Pakistani, from Karachi, and originally from Punjab, and my father is Indian, from Nagpur, India. While both are Muslims, my mother is Sunni, and my father is a Shia Bohri. It’s interesting how in the daily grind that ‘detail’ doesn’t show up, but when we sit down to a meal, that's when it comes to life. And I consider myself incredibly lucky to grow up in a home where cultures, customs, and the quirks that come with it, come together through food.”

Characteristic of most South Asian childhood food memories, Roha’s food memories sit firmly in her maternal grandmother’s, or nani's, home in Karachi. “We spent every summer in Karachi. The entire family would congregate in my nani's home, where together with my khaala, she would welcome us. We’d lay out our mattresses in the large drawing-room, and we’d all bunk together. We’d have paaya for breakfast, and deghchis of biryani would be made and polished off. I lived into the cliche of being a Pakistani who swore by her meat and biryani!”, Roha reminisces.

Summer days in Karachi for Roha meant spending the day shopping, followed by Sindhi Muslim chat at Tariq market and freshly squeezed sugarcane juice to fight through hot afternoons. Sometimes they’d have bun kebabs if they felt a bit adventurous. Chilled falooda was a must and was a treat before heading home to biryani and behari kebabs. “I know this sounds like a lot, and I do remember falling sick..but as I look back, if I were to describe my summers in Karachi, those three dishes would sum it up!”

When Roha turned seventeen, she took her first flight to India. She headed straight to Nagpur to visit her paternal grandparents’ home. Since her access to the subcontinent was only through the city of Karachi, she tentatively tip-toed into the “other half” of her family’s culinary heritage. “Nargis and Alka bai, the two cooks who worked the kitchens at my dadi’s, fed me things that blew my mind! I tasted poha (tempered flat rice) for the first time had sabzis cooked in simple yet truly delicious ways. They also introduced me to Bohri food - the famous khichda, the dals and kaju gosht (mutton cooked in cashews and milk), which I’d never had before!”

Shuttling between these two homes and cultures, Roha grew up in Dubai, where both Indian and Pakistani cultures melted into one. She describes her parents as “wholly patriotic”, indicating that they continue to be Indian and Pakistani in their own way. “My dada in India would joke with us when we would ask him if he wanted anything before we visited him. He’d always say with a laugh, “mujhe Pakistan vaapas de do! (give me back Pakistan)”

So how did you reconcile these two identities, I ask her. “I think it can be really simple when one brings the whole India-Pakistan conversation home; into everyday living. For us, this dual identity is a part of who we are. While it’s common for most Muslim families to have a biryani meal after Friday prayers, in my home it’s always been different. After our Friday prayers, we have a meal of fried macchhli (fried fish), kaali dal (black lentils), zeere-wale chawal (cumin-spiced rice), kachumber (salad), and papad. The combination comes off strange at first, but individually these dishes are hints of what my family considers home - both the ones we carry in our heart and the ones we’ve grown to love.”

Fried Machhli with Kaali Dal ︎Fried Machhli with Kaali Dal ︎

︎ Fried Machhli ︎

This dish needs fresh pomfret or kingfish. My mum often talks about how my nana (her father) would go to the fish market and get fresh fish after his morning prayers in Karachi. It’s a memory she holds on to very dearly.

For the green masala marinade
Now, this is something that probably won’t come right each time because both my sister and I have tried it. We suspect it’s something my Ammi isn’t telling us. It’s all “andaaze se”, she protests. Fair warning, it’s only great when she makes it!

  • Fresh fish
  • Ginger garlic paste
  • Coriander powder
  • Cumin powder
  • Green chilies
  • Fresh mind Mint
  • Salt

  • Make a paste of garlic, ginger, coriander powder, cumin powder, salt, green chilies, and mint leaves.
  • Marinate the fish and keep it for as long as you can.
  • Dust the marinated fish pieces in wheat. This helps it crisp up. Shallow fry and enjoy hot!

︎ Kaali Dal ︎

Of course, you can make yellow dal with this meal, but at home, we love the simple, slow-cooked kaali (black) dal. This dal is for my father who grew up eating a lot of dal back home in Nagpur!

  • Urad dal
  • Lots of garlic
  • Salt

  • Pressure cook the soaked dal with lots of garlic. It should be soupy when it’s done. Cooked till the form completely disintegrates and is creamy in texture. 
  • Once ready, my mum adds a simple tadka of well, more garlic in oil Check for salt, squeeze of lime, and its done.

Finally, this meal is incomplete without a salad. My mum claims to have balanced my dad’s love for all things rich and deep-fried with this humble salad of cucumber, tomatoes, onions, salt, pepper, and lime.

But of course, my Abu cannot do away with his love for papad. So only on his request, papad is made to complete this meal. It’s an everyday meal, a bit mismatched, but truly ours.

Remember to follow this up with a nap!