I was seated around the dinner table with Palestinian, Syrian, and Yemeni friends the night after the 2016 US presidential election, laughing and crying over a platter of exquisitely flavoured Yemeni pulao. It wasn’t the same as my grandmother’s Pakistani mutton stew, but it was nonetheless comforting.
Mutton pulao is a simple dish that featured on my grandmother’s table every Eid. While my family never slaughtered a goat as is customary in Muslim nations during Eid ul-Azha, we did eat mutton pulao with cilantro and mint chutney, curried spinach, eggplant infused yoghurt (“baingan ki borani”), and meat curry (“korma”).
Pulao may appear simple in appearance and flavour, but those who prepare it know that its complexity derives from a light touch refined over decades of skill. When I went to Washington, D.C. from Pakistan in 2010, I kept thinking about mutton pulao. It was the year that Mommy, my grandmother, died. She was my last living grandparent, and I felt like she was carrying the final vestige of history from a modern family that had little patience for tradition.
Mommy, too, was a modern woman in her day. She was, however, descended from a long line of storytellers. Her siblings and she (a total of nine) were all gifted orators. They built a knowledge of history that was rooted in human experience among their grandkids via decades of narrating their family’s experiences.
That included American history in my personal family. During the 1950s, my grandparents relocated to Hyde Park, Chicago, where my grandfather was pursuing his Ph.D. While his memories of Chicago were around how he was able to earn his Ph.D. in three years, Mommy’s memories of her time in the United States were tinged with resentment. “Remember, in America, you will always be a second-class citizen,” she would always repeat.
I never thought about why mom said that so many times until the night of the 2016 election. Perhaps it was because she casually mentioned that my father was born in a hospital where “white” babies were kept separate from African-American newborns. “How dare they believe we’re dirty,” you could scream at times.
Mommy may have been witnessing casual bigotry as she pushed my father through lush Hyde Park in a stroller while my grandfather’s head was buried in books. She noted the segregated neighbourhoods, overheard snarky remarks about Muslims, and grappled with orientalist explanations for why South Asians insisted on eating with their dirty hands.
Mommy’s stories appeared dated when I was a kid. Her paranoia was completely unfounded. I was naive and hopeful about the arc of American progress, as is typical of a white collar immigrant. The election results, and now the events in Charlottesville, have brought Mommy’s remarks back to mind. Perhaps I’m not welcome here.
On November 9, a Yemeni coworker noticed my distress and invited me over for dinner, where she prepared her country’s version of pulao: wonderfully prepared cumin-spiced rice with almonds. We reassured ourselves that we had seen worse, and that we would overcome, as Palestinians, Pakistanis, Syrians, and Yemenis laughed and sobbed in shock at the election results.
I couldn’t help but smile towards the end of the night. Maybe Clinton was right when he declared that nothing wrong with America couldn’t be fixed by what was right with America. That dinner represented everything that was good about America to me. And, of course, everything about the pulao was perfect.
- 3 lb mutton washed, trimmed and cut in small pieces
- 3 medium-sized red onions thinly sliced in half rings
- 2 black cardamoms
- 4 cloves
- 2- inch cinnamon stick
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 2 tablespoon crushed garlic
- 4 tablespoon of oil canola/sunflower/vegetable
- 4 cups basmati rice washed in several changes of water and preferably soaked overnight
- Salt to taste
- Add meat in a large pot of salted water with black cardamom, cloves, cinnamon stick, cumin seeds, 2 sliced red onions and 1 tablespoon of crushed garlic. Bring to boil, cover pot and simmer on low heat till mutton is tender, about 2 hours.
- Once the meat is tenderized, remove the meat with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- Strain the bone broth and set aside.
- In a large pot, heat oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the remaining sliced red onion, and fry about 15 minutes on medium-low heat.
- Once the onion is a deep even brown, add crushed garlic and fry for a few seconds.
- Add the mutton and fry for 10 minutes on medium heat.
- Add 8 cups of the mutton broth. If you are short, add water. Check for salt, and bring to a boil.
- Add rice, and let the water boil out, about 5-10 minutes.
- Once the water boils out, wrap lid with a clean kitchen towel and place it securely on the pot. Let rice steam on very low heat for 10 minutes.
- Place pulao on serving platter and fluff with a fork.