PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHIL PROVENCIO
Culture

Pakistan’s Markets Planted an Early Seed for This Chef’s Love of Food

In her memoir, the late Fatima Ali chronicles how a cancer diagnosis cut short her dreams—and pushed her to savor every moment to its fullest.

By Fatima Ali with Tarajia Morrell


Published on November 5, 2022

I grew up in Pakistan, playing cricket, basketball, oonch neech, and pithu gol garam with my brother, Mohammad.

When it was rainy season or too hot to be outside, we canvassed our grandparents’ basement for hints of a world that pre-dated our small brown hands and hungry minds. I idolized my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who I called Nano, a tenacious, fair-skinned beauty whose shalwar kameez always carried with it the powdery rose elegance of Chanel No. 5. From when I was six and we lived with her, I often joined her on her weekly excursions to the Itwaar Bazaar, the Sunday market that unfolded like a circus on a plowed plot of dirt in a skeletal, undeveloped neighborhood in Karachi. At my grandmother’s behest, we set out early, in order not to miss the best produce. While we guzzled water and used the toilet, Nano counted her cash and had Qadir, our family’s cook who had been with us since my mom’s youth, check the boot of the car to be sure it was empty and ready to be filled. Nano ruled the house, our small staff—a member of which delivered us to the market in our Honda Accord, bedazzled with its Italian Momo rainbow steering wheel cover—and our days, particularly in those in-between years when my mom was building her business. Nano was a second mother to me, and it was more than obvious that her prowess in the kitchen was connected to her confidence in the world.

Before we made our way through the rows of stalls—vegetables on one side, fruit on the other—the mazdoors would line up, chests puffed out, shoulders back to imply strength and stamina. In Urdu, a mazdoor is a young boy—probably homeless, possibly orphaned, certainly too poor to attend school—who works as a porter and makes money carrying groceries for wealthier patrons at the market. Past the mazdoors, the farmers sold their produce: lauqat, jaman, lychee, cheekoo, small sweet green sultana grapes; yams, gourds, arvi, and ruby red carrots. The pungent fragrance—a saccharine crushed guava underfoot, wilting greens, the rank damp shirts of farmers who awoke before dawn to haul their loads to town, potatoes with a film of dusty dried soil still clinging to them—made for an intoxicating perfume at once bodily and of the earth. I was supposed to dread these market runs, as all children and most adults did, but secretly I loved them. I followed my grandmother, sometimes pressed right up against her damp silk-draped frame—her sweet signature scent still discernible amid the odiferous hubbub—as she perused the bright stalls, surveying what she planned to purchase, sweat forming rivulets between her shoulder blades and at her temples, which, like all the other matrons, she dabbed with the corner of her dupatta. Who has the greenest beans? The snappiest okra? The onions have to be large but not too large, because those ones are the sweetest.

Produce was selected not just for its ripeness in the moment, but for its future perfection. Nano taught me to feel melons near their stems, that they should be heavier than they appear; to press pears gently; to smell mangos for sweetness to determine their readiness. Then came her masterful bargaining: first mild interest, then an ambivalent How much? No matter what price the vendor told her, it was always too much. Fifty rupees?! she scoffed with feigned horror. Your friend there just offered me the very same dates for forty rupees. I’ll buy them from him. Then she turned gravely on her heel with dismissive finality, but every time, the vendor rushed to her, leaving his stall to block her path, a wagging head and smiling eyes offering her a nicer price. Wait, Baaji Malik, I’ll match his price, but only for you, tell no one, and she’d give a barely perceptible nod to confirm her approval. At the market, my glamorous Nano was notorious and revered, and from her I learned how to shop—to select, to haggle—in that drenched tent, that humid carnival of perishables.

After the produce, trailed by a mazdoor who carried our haul in jute and plastic bags that Nano brought from home, we made our way to the meat market, where we chose our chickens from the specialized stalls that sold only chickens, and from its owner my grandmother once again tried to get the best possible deal. Nano signaled to the butcher which of the birds she wanted from the piled-up cages and he pulled each bird from its cage, rested its feathered neck on a wooden block held between his feet, and slit the chicken’s throat. The blood—thick, crimson and clotted as fresh cream—gushed out into a waiting bucket, and then he tossed the bird, still pulsing, into a large industrial blue bin, lined with feathers and crusted gore of chickens that had come before, where it gave its final thrusts. Hidden behind the tall blue walls of the large drum, the bird became a shadow phantom that rumbled the bin from within. Once it was still, the butcher pulled the chicken’s skin off in one fell swoop, like a mother undressing a sleeping child before bed, and gave us the still-warm poultry to take home and turn into a karahi with a rich tomato base and a fragrant finish of green chili peppers, cilantro, and ginger.

I loved the organized chaos of the market. I tried not to give much thought to where the mazdoors slept at night or what they ate for supper. I would figure out how to feed them someday, I told myself: When I am big, I’ll know how. And I was not sentimental about the birds and beasts who died to become our suppers. It was simply the order of things: brutal but digestible. There I felt exhilarated and at ease.

Back from the market at Nano’s house, Qadir met us at the car to help us unload and carry our plunder to the kitchen. Bags of rice were deposited into the pantry and stored on the cool terrazzo floor. The raw chickens, still warm with life, went into the old 1970s icebox or directly into the sink for Qadir to clean and make into that evening’s supper. Fruit was piled in wicker baskets, where it ripened and tempted us over the days to come, its scent evolving from bitter to honey-sweet. The parlor and entrance of the grand Tanzeem house were intended as the house’s center, but, as with any home, the kitchen was always its heart—the nexus of the most action, aroma, and appetite—and where I needed to be. Kitchens were where the love began. That much was already clear to my seven-year-old mind.

Excerpted from SAVOR copyright © 2022 by Fatima Ali with Tarajia Morrell. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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