Thousands of miles and almost half of earth’s circumference away from the perennially hostile Indo-Pak border, there exists a Pakistani Restaurant where an Indian like me is welcomed with warm smiles, steaming plates of kebabs and biryanis and friendly conversations. This hole-in-the-wall establishment that goes by the name ‘Zayeqa’, was discovered by me the day I had my first hankering for succulent kebabs in Detroit. Having moved from Austin where an equally Lilliputian, Persian restaurant catered to my cravings, I was instantly on the lookout for something just as worthy, if not more, to fill the rather big shoes that I’d left behind. Lucky for me, Zayeqa fit the bill perfectly and I became one of its many frequent customers.
It all began one warm summer afternoon as I lay around salivating at the sight of hot shaamikebabs being fried by Kashaf’s ammiin the Hum TV series ‘Zindagi Gulzar Hai’ that I’d been binge watching all week long. A quick Google search gave me the names of the three most popular Pakistani restaurants in the area. On a whim I picked Zayeqa, perhaps because its name called to mind images of all those piquant treats that I had been longing for.
Mellifluous sentences in chaste Urdu poured out of my phone and into my ears as I heard Aunty Z for the first time. I was placing a take-away order for I wanted to sample their wares in the warm coziness of my own room so that if I had to, I could unselfconsciously screw my nose if it turned out to be a bad choice or conversely lick my fingers clean if I was pleased. Their signature ‘Chicken Bihari Kebab platter’ was my first order which immediately became a hot favourite. Tender strips of roasted chicken delicately enrobed in aromatic masalas and served with raw, sliced onions, a wedge of lime, mint chutney and naan fresh out of the tandoor – made for a meal that not just filled me up but also left an indelible mark on my satiated palate. Thus the deal between me and Zayeqa was sealed.
There was no looking back after that first experience. Each time the husband and I felt a carnivorous urge, we headed straight to Zayeqa. Along the way, some friends from work joined the fan club and these trips became more frequent. Soon enough, Uncle and Aunty Z started recognizing me as that tiny Indian girl with an elephant’s appetite, who brought them regular business. Uncle Z, a man close to Papa in age, wears a salt-and-pepper moustache and beard and possesses eyes that twinkle in merriment when he sees me. He brims with stories of his singular trip across the border to India. The unbridled excitement that filled him up as he set foot in Delhi, the adventures he had in Amritsar, the awestruck tourist he embodied in Mumbai, are precious vignettes he shares with us every time we visit.
Aunty Z is a calm, ever-smiling, matronly figure. Like every other Indian/Pakistani parent, she too oozes pride from every pore when she speaks about her son who is a dentist or her daughter, who is studying to become a doctor. Tell her that you feel akin to a stuffed turkey after a large meal and she will give you a quick once-over and declare, much to your satisfaction, that you are nothing but a bag of bones that needs to be nourished with good protein in the form of her famous chicken and mutton qormas. Uncle Z and Aunty Z share an endearing camaraderie that can only develop when two individuals have faced years of thick and thin together. She loves pulling his leg ever so often and he enjoys gently chiding her over frivolous things like too much sugar in a batch of mango lassi. Once you are done savoring the food as well as their comical repartee, they see you off with an affectionate ‘Allah Hafiz beta. Mummy-Papa aayein toh unhe saath leke aana. Hum vegetarian khaana bhi badhiya banaate hain.’
Zayeqa is no longer just another restaurant for me. Within its cramped 6-table premise and amidst its stacks of disposable crockery and cutlery, beats a large, loving heart that does not comprehend man made differences based on culture, class, race or nationality. It is here that I find food, people, smells and sounds that remind me of home. These people and their ways do not appear different than what I am accustomed to. That such blatant animosity breeds between our two nations despite our very many similarities is all the more flummoxing especially on a tummy that rumbles in satisfaction.