The Super Chef of Mohenjo-Daro’s Dak Banglow

by Shandana Waheed

Chef Moharram Ali and his nephew Asim in the Dak Bungalow Kitchen – Photograph by author

Nobody is more self-confident in that place than he. Nor the management of the site who is always wrestling with the continuing conservation challenges nor the visitors or researchers who frequent that ancient site that continues to be a wonder for the so-called modern world.

Among the first few people, you would meet in Mohenjo-Daro’s guest house, is this 59-year-old, slim, short man with sharp squinting eyes, the kindest smile, and magical hands. You would think that you are meeting him to have a conversation about your meal preferences, however, the nature of this conversation will quickly change to what you should prefer without you even noticing it. He will tell you what you should eat and try while you are in Sindh like an expert food blogger except, he will also be the one who will make all these things for you.

You couldn’t hope for better food suggestions than what Moharram Ali offers his guests from his kitchen that he has been running since 1983 serving local and foreign visitors, national and international dignitaries, and researchers, all who come to see the world heritage site of Mohenjo-Daro.

Perhaps what one expects to find there are mythical tales and folklore of the old world whose remains lie there. It’s usually the stories that stay with you even after you leave the place, but Moharram Ali makes sure that the taste and aroma of his food last longer in your memory than the memorabilia you will buy at the souvenir shops of Mohenjo-Daro.

Chef Moharram Ali’s Hot Plate of Biryani – Photograph by Mahnoor Fatima

Those are the kinds of things that Ali does not concern himself with. His kitchen is his kingdom in which he rules people’s stomachs and their hearts. “I don’t go to the site, that is for you people, my work is here in the kitchen to serve my department, take care of you all, and make you happy with my food”, he said to me when I went to talk to him for this blog.

Often standing just beside him in the kitchen, is his nephew Asim who is a sweetheart with an infectious smile and open heart to welcome and serve everyone who comes to stay in this Dak-Banglow. Asim is not only his nephew but also his apprentice who will succeed his uncle in the kitchen kingdom of Mohenjo-Daro’s Dak Banglow after Ali’s retirement next year.

Moharram Ali’s relationship with Mohenjo-Daro’s kitchen is familial and historically continuous, just like the historical continuities of this site itself. I do believe that dialogic relationships exist between people and the places that they inhabit. Ali’s uncle was John Marshall’s personal cook. John Hubert Marshall was an English archaeologist who was Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928 and he oversaw the early excavations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, two of the main cities that comprise the Indus Valley Civilization. After Ali’s uncle, his father was appointed as the cook at Mohenjo-Daro from whom Moharram Ali inherited this job. Now Moharram Ali is ready to pass it on to his nephew.  

Bheel ki Sabzi (curried Lotus Stems) – Photo by Author

Every morning at dawn after showering, Ali sits in the garden to welcome the sun, sipping Chai from his mug, and contemplating the menu for the day. We have enjoyed his delicious Sindhi Biryani, finger-licking fried fish, moreish bheel (lotus) ki Sabzi, and our staple food Daal Chawal. 

Everything he makes, he makes with pure love and puts a tarka (topping) of his divine benevolence on it. While this is his last year at Mohejo-Daro’s dak bungalow, I am sure his legacy will continue both in the form of fond memories that people have of his tenure there and in the form of Asim’s practice as his successor. 

All interviews and photographs were posted with the consent of the individuals involved.

Shandana Waheed is currently pursuing a Ph.D. with the department of Anthropology, Stanford University. She is also associated with the Stanford Archaeology Center.

M-Lab is a project of LIAVH. We are supported by SAVI and Pratt Institute and are IRB-approved. This season was supported by the American Institute of Pakistan Studies (AIPS); the Technical Consultative Committee, National Fund for Mohenjo-Daro (NFM), Culture, Tourism, Antiquities and Archives Department; The DG of Antiquities, Government of Sindh, and Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur, Pakistan.