The way it was: Zeus, menthe and vinegar Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Up on Mount Olympus, the abode of the gods, there were no such trials. They had everything going for them, wining and dining endlessly and dancing to the lusty rhythms of Dionysus

People take the common mint for granted. Yet apart from its piquancy, it has a whole history and mythology behind it. Some bolt their food, others allow the soft palette to play its role and permeate their being with flavour. Menthe, the daughter of Zeus, was caught with someone undesirable. Pa condemned her to spend eternity in cool and damp places, which has been mint’s abode ever since.

Zeus, as we all know, lived on Mount Olympus, lording over other gods and keeping a keen eye on the functioning of his vast domain. Generally speaking, he was a just god who enjoyed his wine and not too often indulged in an incautious misdemeanour to the chagrin of his wife Hera. But he could at times be wilful and cruel. He thundered when angry and sent bolts of lightening at those who defied. He favoured and punished at will. Like a true lord in indolent moments he killed time by playing games at the expense of humans, particularly the ones who he thought in their pride or error of judgement had annoyed him. Each error had to be accounted for. The Furies saw to it that there was no forgiveness. Often good and great individuals were condemned to undergo a lifetime of suffering for an insignificant lapse, which Zeus believed, challenged his world.

Fortunately there was never a dearth of men ready to challenge him for pursuit of truth or benefits of their fellow humans. Prometheus stole fire from heavens and was eternally condemned to have his liver eaten by a bald eagle. Oedipus gouged out his eyes with his own bare fingers on discovering the truth about his past, which was best left in knowledge of the gods. A sensible man would have known his measure, but Oedipus believed that man was the measure of all things. Poor Hercules had to labour over one thing or the other all his life because of Hera, his stepmother.

Up on Mount Olympus, the abode of the gods, there were no such trials. They had everything going for them, wining and dining endlessly and dancing to the lusty rhythms of Dionysus. The point is that if ‘Aphrodite of the shifting eyes’ could go about poisoning innocent hearts with love, and Zeus himself could carry off a chaste unwilling woman feigning as a bull, Olympus didn’t fall if Menthe had a small argument with someone behind a bush. But Pa punished the daughter because he found her paramour undesirable. I wonder what happened to the undesirable intruder?

It is summer and people love to have Menthe, or as we call it mint. It is cool and intoxicating. If flakes of dried mint are put in ‘chati wali lassi’ it is supposed to take the wind out of it. Talking of summer refreshment, I have a friend who looks like a mix of Pir Pagara and Hemingway. He has a wife who besides speaking ‘farsi’ as fluently as she speaks English, because of her Persian antecedents, makes shakanjabeen from vinegar and mint. It is simply out of this world. But Pakeeza Jan does not use synthetic vinegar, only the real one made from grapes. I believe the best vinegar even today is supplied by Ditto’s from Quetta.

Talking of grapes, my friend insists the most delicious grapes from northern Kabul were called ‘aab josh’. I guess much of it must now be blasted out of existence in the war against the terrorists, who could well be hiding in the vineyards. Since my friend has incredible knowledge of obscure things, I have learnt not to dispute his statements — he is usually right.

Incidentally, his wife Pakeeza Jan was a great cook in her time. Once she served Majzub, her husband, and me a pair of delicious roast teals. But something went wrong with the dessert. Instead of just serving fresh strawberries, a rarity in those days, received from a friend in Kalabagh, she had made a special effort to prepare her very special glazed oranges. Either she had put too much sugar or put them on too much heat, the oranges got stuck to each other. I tried to cheer the khanum by pretending that everything was fine. However, soon to my dismay, I discovered that my spoon which had rested for only a few idle moments on a succulent slice of glazed orange, while I talked, had glued to the plate. When I tried lifting the succulent slice towards my mouth, the plate came with it. In spite of my best efforts to convince Pakeeza Jan that this happens to everyone all the time, she never cooked again. Instead, she took to teaching. What a loss.

Dinner now is prepared by a Punjabi-speaking cook and served punctually as in the boarding schools, not a minute later than 8.30. Most wives get restless at around 8.30 because gentle ladies are constantly blackmailed by their cooks and take their ageing husbands for granted who like to linger on with their refreshing vinegar and mint drinks. Plato put little score by cooks because he was involved with philosopher kings. Aristotle dined with King Phillip and didn’t care two hoots about his own cook.

But in all fairness, I must add that although Pakeeza Jan had given up cooking, she tried to ensure that food was prepared according to her Iranian recipes. As a result there were sporadic crises in the kitchen, resulting from her Anglo-Persian accent and the Punjabi cook’s selective comprehension.

My better-informed friend Majzub tells me that since Zeus’s times there are a variety of mints. There is peppermint, apple mint, lemon mint and, of course, the ultimate, our own regular mint. It is summer and I am told the ladies favour mint-flavoured under-things. Life is never without surprises!

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee