Thursday 3 September 2009

Easy Entertaining for Guests – Small Talk and Food

One of the things I learned from my grandmother is the importance of being sociable and inviting guests into your home and taking care of guests properly.

When my grandparents first came to Britain in the 1960’s, the Pakistani community here was fairly new and quite small. There were major issues around finding a decent place to stay, being able to afford the essentials of life, finding the food they ate, especially halal meat and finding work. When they first came here the sought out friends to help them find their feet. When they eventually began to settle they did the same for people who arrived in Britain later. They gained quite a reputation for being open and helpful, a place where you could drop by any time for tea and a chat, some advice and plenty of reminiscing. This was still the case when I was a child and I remember the great variety of people trailing in and out of our big house full of extended family (12 people in a four-bedroom house). We were never short of other children to play with and there was never a shortage of opportunities to make mischief with the adults all so distracted.

These are ideals that have stayed with me. When I moved out into our first little flat, I promised myself I would keep an open house and use my home in Allah (SWT)’s path as much as I could. In the intervening years we have had friends stay for weeks or months, we have extended family stay for months and we have undertaken study circles (unfortunately lapsed) and had people stay whilst they made dawah (taught about the faith). As our family has grown, we have been able to do this less and many of our good intentions have lapsed.

One person who came to stay for two years and was the most welcome of our guests, was my grandmother. She brought with her an endless stream of guests and friends, many sitting with her late into the night, lapping up her stories.

This experience taught me so much about taking care of guests. The most important to me is to make sure they are well fed. We are lucky in that we are surrounded by take-away’s, but I aim now to have food in the house, whether cartons of juice, and nuts and biscuits or spring-rolls and samosa’s frozen in bulk to be whipped out and served in no time. Often in the early days I had no clue and so would find myself caught short with guests and an empty kitchen. This meant I had to learn to be a bit more resourceful. I use to end up serving up chips with tea, chopping up a fruit salad or just throwing together a savoury chickpea salad out of tins in the back of a cupboard. A wonderful lady who used to rent a room from us some time ago, taught me something about the art of preparing food to serve. She saw me about to throw away the last few pieces in a box of Indian sweets that had gotten hard in the fridge. She took them, sliced them into small neat pieces and arranged them on a plate with some almonds and dates. It looked lovely and the plate was cleared. A few minutes extra on the presentation and some imagination and she put together something put of nothing.

The most important thing I learned though, was about putting guests at ease. There is only one golden rule for this and if you stick to it conversation become easy. The rule is that people tend to find themselves to be the most interesting thing in the world, so if you want to open a conversation and then keep it going, ask questions. I don’t advocate being nosy and asking personal questions like age, income and education (the first three things I always get asked in Pakistan and it infuriates me, along with “what is the number of your glasses?”!). But asking how a person is, how their family is or whether they had any difficulty finding your place are nice starters. After that if a person wants to talk about themselves, they just will as long as you are willing to genuinely listen.

I subscribe to my husband’s family’s belief that if you have space for three, then you have space for four people in your home and if you have space for four, you can make space for six, your heart just has to be big enough.

It’s a case of making sure the elderly have everything they need and want, the adults being good-natures and willing to compromise a little and the children being thrown together wherever – they are the ones who enjoy it the most, and I sincerely hope that my children have as many good memories of a chaotic, noise, full house as I do insh’Allah.

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