Run of the ‘milk’

August 29, 2021

Dr Ajaz Anwar writes of the changing traditions of “healthy food intakes”

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Shaabu. — Image: Supplied

Milk products are a favourite with Lahoris all year round. Every street corner has got an outlet that deals in these products. Similarly, when you venture into crowded bazaars, you are sure to find such a shop.

A large, iron cauldron in which milk is heated over low flame is always protruding out of the shop, to let the smoke escape or billow out. Due to long hours of heating, the milk thickens and turns yellowish, a thick layer of cream covering it. The leftover milk is used to make yogurt in large, flat earthen wares.

Back in the day, people would throng these shops early in the morning, to buy yogurt in porcelain bowls. The shopkeeper would churn lassi in a metal ware with a wooden rotor. Sweetened and iced, the nourishing beverage was served in large metal glasses. Those returning from their morning walk in the Lawrence Gardens would rehydrate themselves with this ‘crème de la crème.’

The oldies too, whilst sitting on the much seasoned and greased wooden benches, would talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and recommend this elixir for the survivors.

By 10 or 11 in the morning, horse-driven carts would bring milk from the suburbs in big, round brass containers that shone like gold. The iron cauldron, washed to a shining finish, was filled with milk to the brim and placed over fire.

Some milkmen liked to sprinkle finely ground water chestnuts (singharray) over the boiled milk, which would create a thicker layer of cream. This practice is no longer followed because the powder has become very expensive. Some milk is kept for yogurt to be fermented by the evening.

The roofs of all milk shops would blacken with soot. Inside, they would be cool because of water and ice. Outside, it would get quite slippery due to excessive sprinkling of water. A ‘freelance’ watchdog could be seen relaxing under the extended wooden platform. Balancing himself by holding a rope fixed to the wooden beam above, the milk seller would lean forward to hand the beverage to each customer.

During monsoons, the people would opt for hot milk or yogurt. Kheer, made with rice and milk and sprinkled over with bits of pistachio and an occasional almond, was served in terracotta plates from the Indus Valley days. It was sometimes decorated with silver foil. Downing it slowly, one always got the aromatic feel of cardamom (ilaichi).

In winters, jalebi was added to the already calorie-rich menu. It would be visible from afar because of its vermillion red, not necessarily the food colour.

After dinner, people would visit the shop for a bowlful of jalebi dipped in steaming hot milk and topped with cream. They would relish it, cautiously blowing into it. Sitting over the tharra, they would exchange all sorts of gossip. (The tharra culture has been described in detail by Younus Adeeb in his must-read book, Mera Shehr Lahore.)

Gajrela, made of carrots, slow cooked in lots of milk and some rice, is another winters delight that was available at the milk shops. The pudding, made of carrots, had more butter oil. However, it was available only with the sweetmeat shops, or the halwais.

Bengali ras gullay served in cold, sweetened syrup were also available with sweet meat shops. Kulfa, rabrri, barfi, and pairray are other items made with milk that are still loved by the Lahoris.

Lahoris love simple but nourishing foods. Cottage cheese has been introduced by some multinationals, but it hasn’t quite found favour with many.

Earlier, the children fetching yogurt in a bowl would stealthily lick the cream over it. Today, the yogurt is available in hygienic but environment-unfriendly (and also costly) packs. Milk too comes packaged. All this is changing the culture of healthy food intake.

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Kulfi, made with thickened milk (khoya), frozen and topped with crushed almonds and pistachio, was introduced by ice factories. Ice cream in various flavours, including vanilla, rose, and chocolate, was brought in the mohallas in hand-pulled two-wheelers to entice the children. Carry Home, a restaurant on Bedan Road, now run by former journalist Ziaul Haq, famously offered ice cream in three flavours from pre-Partition days.

Tangiers, a milk bar in Tollinton Market, was the first to introduce what we now know as milkshake. Youngsters from affluent families and students from the adjacent university would be seated in round wooden chairs and enjoy the drink, while the big macaw parrot in plaster cast would take a benign look from above the back wall.

Shaheen Azam, the daughter of Gen Azam Khan, however, once ordered the shake from across the road — that is, the Fine Arts Department of the University of the Punjab.

Malty Frosty, in Lakshmi Mansions, was a favourite meeting point for many.

With the introduction of vacuum flasks, or thermos, the vendors started roaming the streets, selling kulfis. The most famous was Tohfa-i-Imtiaz from Islamia Park. The Japanese, eagle-brand flasks were supplied by Anwaar Ahmad of Thermos House in Anarkali. Later, Pakistan made Stavac thermoses in Karachi which became a must-buy for all visitors from India. So did the stainless-steel vessels and cutlery made by Pakalam in Sialkot.

As more and more families could afford to buy refrigerators, thermos for ice went out of favour. The multi-national companies introduced expensive ice creams, sold in motorbike-driven carts announcing the products on blaring loudspeakers and causing immense noise pollution.

Local brands such as Chaman gave them tough competition. They continue to do so. Somehow, the milk shops are doing roaring business as far as their traditional recipes are concerned.

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The earliest dairy company in Lahore was founded in 1902. It was named Model Dairies. It was located at Bohr Wala Chowk, on a cross-street between Empress Road and Nicholson Road, next to Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan’s residence. It delivered pasteurized milk in cylindrical cans of aluminum hauled by sturdy, mule-driven carts. It mainly catered to the Railways, and the top-of-the-line restaurants and hotels.

Model Dairies was closed down due to market competition. Years later, the building too was pulled down and all six banyan trees were cut to make way for the Orange Train. (Of course, Nawabzada didn’t have to grieve the loss, because he was no longer in this world.)

In early 1960s, Lahore Milk Board (LMB) was formed. It sold pasteurised milk in polythene bags. Milk stalls were also set up in some localities. But the common people used to seeing the buffalos being milked in front of them thought it was some sort of a synthetic product. Hence, the LMB collapsed.

Soon, the multi-nationals introduced the product in tetra-pack, ensuring longer shelf life. It was too expensive for the lower middle class. Milkmen from suburbs ensured supply by delivering fresh milk at the doorstep. The Lahoris, thus, had uninterrupted supply of milk and its many value-added products.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Shaabu, a milk products seller)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at ajazartbrain.net.pk



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