Discovering the Flavors of Pakistani Cuisine

On early Sunday mornings during the hot summer months in Pakistan, my father drove our family to Old Lahore from the suburbs — my brother and I snuggled together, still sleepy, in the backseat of our Pajero with our mother, and daadi(paternal grandmother) in the front seat with dad. The roads were calm and traffic was light, the clatter of milkmen riding bicycles clearly audible on the roads as they made their way around the neighborhood delivering fresh, unpasteurized milk to residents. The shops and storefronts were all closed, making certain areas feel eerie and abandoned as we drove through, until we reached the centre of the city. Here, surrounded by several world heritage sites and monuments, the city was brimming with life — I can still remember all the sounds and smells that defined Lahore’s characteristic cosmopolitanism in my young mind.

The journey from the suburbs was like travelling back in time, seeing concrete houses turning into colonial buildings dating back to British India. Going deeper into the heart of the city, we saw remnants from the Mughal era such as the iconic Badshahi Mosque on our way to the Walled City of Lahore, the historic core of Pakistan’s cultural capital. There, we sat by the roadside eating fresh halva puri (sweet semolina and flatbread breakfast) and drinking ice cold lassis, amidst the vibrant hustle and bustle of the country’s second most populous city. As the sun came up and temperatures rose sharply, we would retreat back into our car, crank up the air-conditioning, put on Bollywood songs on the stereo, and continue to chow down our breakfast.

Halva puri breakfast

When I was 17, we moved to Canada. Everything was different, but all five members of our family retained an insatiable appetite for all things Pakistani. My mother indulged us, spending hours upon hours in the kitchen.

My mother was well known in our circle of family and friends for her culinary skills. In Pakistan, a country where many people leave kitchen duties to housekeepers and helpers, my mother took pride in cooking traditional and hard-to-make dishes and desserts that often left our guests wide-eyed, and asking for her recipes. Haleem (meat and lentil stew), nihari (slow-cooked spiced lamb stew), gajar ka halva (sweet carrot dessert), and lamb paya (gelatinous stew of lamb trotters) were some of her greatest delights to prepare and serve. Food was love, and that was something both my parents taught me through their shared joy and appreciation for our country’s cuisine.Through food, we stayed connected to our culture, our heritage, and what we later came to describe as memories of our “past lives.”

At 19, I moved away to a university less than 100 km from home in Mississauga, Ontario. Before I moved out, my mother taught me how to cook a few staple Pakistani meals, because no one was going to marry a good Pakistani girl like me if I didn’t know how to cook. I learned to make aloo gosht (lamb and potato stew), saag gosht (lamb with pureed spinach), qeema (stir-fried minced meat), and chicken salan (on-the-bone chicken gravy) the summer before I moved away.

But I never actually cooked any of those things since I was home every weekend and my mother packed a week’s worth of food to take with me each time I went back. For four years, whenever I needed my fix of a homemade Pakistani meal, I’d jump on the bus, call my mother to tell her I was coming over, have someone pick me up from the terminal, and be home in time to be greeted with fresh made parathas (flaky layered flatbread), chai, and whatever dish I had requested over the phone. I was in bliss. I was spoiled.

It was only after I moved to Ottawa, 500 kilometres away from Mississauga and my mother, that a void developed within me when I wasn’t able to access the comfort of home-cooked Pakistani food I had grown so accustomed to my entire life. I moved to Ottawa with my Indian partner, now husband, and it was then that I started to question and explore the nature of Pakistani cuisine and its place in the world.

Living with another foodie from a different country meant we would have frequent conversations about the foods of our childhoods — those dishes our mothers cooked that no one else seemed to get right, and the homemade meals we missed most. I came to see how meat-heavy Pakistani cuisine is — lamb, chicken and beef are ubiquitous in almost all courses, and vegetarian dishes are considered side plates to enhance the flavour of the meaty main. Since my husband grew up in a semi-vegetarian Hindu family, my desire to eat meat in every meal seemed bizarre.

To satiate my taste buds, we ate out often at Indian restaurants around Ottawa, unable to find an authentic Pakistani one in the city. But after a few months of “faking it” with Indian food, I couldn’t take it anymore. This was NOT Pakistani food, and no matter what waiters said about similarities in taste between the two cuisines, I could tell the difference.

The tandoori chicken didn’t taste like tandoori chicken in Pakistan — here it was too orange, and to my eye, artificial. The curries were too thick — in Pakistani cuisine, curries could be further divided into salan (gravy-like) or shorba (soup-like), but no such options were available at Indian establishments. And most of my favourite Pakistani dishes, like nihari and paya, were nowhere to be found on these Indian menus.

I called my mother to ask her for recipes of Pakistani dishes I craved, but in her mind, she had already taught me how to cook all the Pakistani staples and didn’t need to instruct me any further. But my appetite for Pakistani food had grown beyond the five or six simple dishes I learned from her as a teenager, and her style of cooking was rather laissez-faire, whereas I needed the reassurance of a well-written and detailed recipe. Frustrated, I turned to the Internet for help.

Bihari kebabs, kachumber salad, and maash daal (recipes from ‘Summers Under The Tamarind Tree’)

It’s an interesting experience learning about your identity and roots through food. In my search for answers, I came across Foodaholic, a Pakistani food blog run by Maria Nasir from Lahore. Her recipes all had preludes detailing the history of each dish, its origins and evolution, and how to best pair the course with naan, roti, or raita. I was jubilant upon discovering her blog and spent hours everyday poring over each recipe, reading all about the history of Pakistani cuisine, its roots in Persian, Turkish, and Afghan cultures, and the diversity between the different regions and local foods of Pakistan.

I didn’t know, for example, that there was a Sindhi version of biryani (Sindh being one of the provinces of Pakistan). I had only ever eaten the biryani my mother cooked, which was rice, spices and chicken. But Sindhi biryani is spicier, incorporating potatoes and dried fruits, and has sour yogurt added a day or two after it’s cooked to enhance the flavour to a fiery tanginess, its piquancy leaving a first-timer like me in tears of joy.

As I discovered the unique characteristics of Pakistani cuisine through recipes on Maria’s blog, I was also learning about the distinct flavors of Indian food from my husband. Aside from many Indian meals being vegetarian, my husband revealed he never ate beef growing up, since cows are sacred in Hinduism and cow slaughter is banned in many parts of India — much like how my Muslim family never ate pig meat. But beef is a Muslim favourite!

“So didn’t you ever eat beef qeema? What about shami kebabs (minced meat and chickpea patty)? Or haleem?,” I asked him upon learning this about his past. He had never eaten any of these dishes that were cooked quite regularly in my house growing up. He was, instead, very fond of eggs cooked in any fashion. Being from Mumbai, he told me about Marathi cuisine and the foods of his childhood — pomfret fry (spicy fish in kokum), puran poli (sweet flatbread), vaal-achi usal (fried beans in coconut), shrikhand (sweet strained yogurt dish), malwani chicken (spicy chicken in coconut sauce), pav bhaji (vegetarian Mumbai fast food eaten with bread rolls) and many other dishes I couldn’t even pronounce at first try, let alone know what they were. He further educated me about the huge variations in cuisine within India, and how different, for example, South-Indian food is from North-Indian food. If that’s the case, I thought, then which cuisine do most “Indian” restaurants serve?

Over the next few years, I travelled further and further down the rabbit hole learning about foods from the subcontinent, as my spice cabinet grew to three times its size. I was astounded by the incredible variety in ingredients, flavors, spices, aromas, and textures that were found in the region’s cuisines. I discovered how expensive saffron is, and how little of it you need to infuse color into a dish. I learned to differentiate between the many kinds of daal (lentils) — moong, masoor, urid, toor, and chana to name a few. I started making my own garam masala mix at home and never bought it boxed from the store ever again. And I developed a genuine addiction to South-Indian food, particularly dosa, medu vada (crispy lentil fritter), and Madras coffee (filtered coffee from modern day Chennai).

Masjid Wazir Khan, Walled City of Lahore

There are a surprising number of South-Indian restaurants in Ottawa, but not one place that serves real Pakistani food, even though a few claim they do. I’ve realized that most Indian/Pakistani restaurants serve North-Indian or Rajasthani cuisine, with many dishes masquerading as Pakistani. Living in Ottawa for five years now, whenever I crave Pakistani food, I have to cook it myself.

“I find overall Pakistani food is less spicy and the cooking methods simpler than most Indian cuisine,” Maria from Foodaholic told me. “Most of our everyday dishes consist of a simple onion, tomato, ginger, and garlic base curry with a few staple spices, like red chillies, turmeric, coriander and cumin.”

“The history of South Asia,” she continued, “especially the Indian subcontinent, is wrought with frequent invasions and trade explorations that left the deepest mark on the culinary culture of the region. There were Dutch, Portuguese, Arabs, Turks, Mughals and the British. Nearly all local cuisines were affected when they mingled with new ingredients, cooking methods, and food choices of what the visitors brought along. Under those influences, at a certain level a common cuisine developed with many similarities.”

Talking to Maria about our country’s cuisine, I was struck with the realization that I had never before considered exactly how our food came to be. For all its claims of being a nation of foodies, we Pakistanis don’t often take into account the intricate link between our food, national identity, and history, which stretches back to antiquity.

On the topic of Pakistan’s shared roots with India, Maria explained, “The reality is that India and Pakistan are both sprawling countries with very diverse geographical, climatic and cultural features. Neither of the two countries is a homogenous totality, therefore the difference in cuisines is less about which passport you carry and more about which city or region you come from.”

In 2016, Scottish-Pakistani food blogger and cookery teacher Sumayya Usmani published ‘Summers Under The Tamarind Tree: Recipes & Memories From Pakistan.’ A stunning, award-winning book, it was among the first modern Pakistani cookbooks available in the market accessible to both Eastern and Western audiences. Desperate to learn more, I pre-ordered a copy and waited anxiously for its delivery.

When it arrived, I couldn’t get over the fact that I was holding — for the first time in my life — a cookbook comprised of recipes for foods that captured the essence of my life and upbringing, along with the history and beauty of a country deeply misunderstood by the world. Pakistan is typically portrayed as a nation in unending social and political turmoil, but there is so much beauty to discover. With remarkable photography and heart-warming stories from Sumayya’s family and upbringing in Pakistan, the book quickly became my food bible.

On each page I rediscovered the haunting and aromatic flavors that colored every memory from my childhood. I rediscovered forgotten favourites such as sabudana kheer (tapioca pudding), pakoras (vegetarian snack fried in chickpea batter), and makkai ki roti (corn flatbread with homemade butter), the last of which I hadn’t eaten since I was five years old and was only made at my nani’s (maternal grandmother) house. I often sat down in the evenings with the book and read it to reminisce about the beautiful life and family I was blessed with growing up — full of love, laughter, and food.

It was like being given keys to unlock the deepest recesses of my mind — to go back into the past and recognize what a pivotal role the food of my nation has played in shaping who I am today.

Almost every recipe in ‘Summers Under The Tamarind Tree’ has a short introductory paragraph detailing which part of the country the dish is from and which cultures and empires most influenced it. Through those readings, I came to understand my own narrow view of Pakistani food. Almost all the dishes I grew up eating were from Punjab. Both my parents come from Punjab, and their parents are all from Punjab too. The city of Lahore is considered a culinary behemoth in the province, and my family was perfectly satisfied with the ample variety available to them there. They didn’t look any further to tantalize their taste buds.

But there was so much we had overlooked! From Sindhi barbecued fish and seafood biryani (rice dish with spices, squid, mussels and prawns), to hunter beef (cured and spiced meat) and white chicken korma (braised chicken cooked in yogurt), I was baffled to learn of my own ignorance about the diversity found within our cuisine, and our country. This became even more clear to me with the publication of Sumayya’s second Pakistani cookbook, ‘Mountain Berries & Desert Spice: Sweet Inspiration From The Hunza Valley To The Arabian Sea,’ which, as the title suggests, has a significant focus on foods (in particular sweets) from the northern, mountainous regions, and deserts in the south.

Because of my husband’s childhood ritual of “meatless” days, I have also gotten to explore the vegetarian side of Pakistani cooking, and there is a lot to discover and enjoy there too. Khagina (spicy scrambled eggs), dahi baras (lentil dumplings with yogurt and tamarind), hearty moong daal, squash parathas, and enough sweet treats to put The Cheesecake Factory to shame. Pakistani cuisine, like the country its from, is diverse, incorporating thousands of years of subcontinental history, culture, and geography in its mix. It continues to grow and evolve.

I asked Maria if the food in Pakistan today is different from when she was a child, and she explained, “Till the 70s, traditional Mughlai dishes and regional Pakistani cuisines ruled the festive tables at our place, like nargisi koftay (meatballs in spicy sauce), pulao (rice in seasoned broth), shami kebab, sarson ka saag (mustard greens and spices), palak gosht (meat with spinach), etc. Maybe the still young country was trying to establish its identity by staying close to its Muslim roots. Then I saw every woman including my mom go crazy learning Chinese dishes. Chinese restaurants mushroomed in all big cities, and Chinese food became the in thing. But of course we adapted it to our palate — so much so that Pakistani Chinese food has emerged as a genre in itself in the West.”

Maria walked me through the new experience of Pakistani food fusions with other world cuisines, such as qeema naan paired with Italian pizza to produce chicken tikka pizza with a seekh kebab (ground meat) stuffed crust, which is all the rage in Pakistan’s urban hubs. More recently, samosas have gotten a facelift, with combinations ranging from nutella and cheese to Bolognese stuffings.

We discussed if Maria saw a place for Pakistani cuisine on the world stage going forward, and why it has taken our food so long to be recognized for its own distinct culinary identity while Indian, and to a lesser extent Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan restaurants have blossomed around the globe.

“While it’s essential to save and pass on our traditional recipes,” she shared, “it’s equally important to present our food as a contemporary cuisine to the world. We have a rich past, beautiful ingredients, and passion to cook and eat good food. All we need now is a little fearlessness to step out of our comfort zone and explore.”

Kashmiri phirin (recipe from Mountain Berries & Desert Spice)

In 2017, I gifted my mother a copy of ‘Summer Under the Tamarind Tree’ as a way to share how I’ve come to appreciate Pakistani food with her. I could see she was a bit puzzled when I first presented it to her — maybe she felt I was suggesting she upgrade her skills. I said I wanted her to have the book so we could cook from it together when I visit her sometime. She just put it away in a kitchen cabinet.

But a few weeks later, she called me one afternoon sounding chirpy and excited and told me she had used the book to prepare Lahori charga (steamed and flash-fried chicken) the prior evening for a few friends and they all loved it. The next time I went over to see her, we both cooked Bihari kebabs (tenderized meat marinated in spices and yogurt) together from the book. Neither of us had made them before, and we ate them together on her apartment balcony with a pot of fresh brewed chai, talking about the dishes from her childhood that she enjoyed most growing up.

This summer I am travelling to the northern regions of Pakistan with my mother. The last time I was in Pakistan with her was over 15 years ago, when I was a teenager and blind to the beauty and splendor of our country and its people. On this trip, I hope to include my mother in the culinary journey of self-discovery I embarked upon years ago when I decided to search for an authentic aloo gosht recipe online, having grown tired of dishes imitating the real thing. I look forward to exploring cuisines with her of the two provinces we will be visiting: Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan.

But what I’m most excited for is going to the Old City in the morning after we arrive in Lahore, taking the same road to its historic core that my family travelled all those Sundays when I was a little girl, sitting by the roadside and sharing a plate of fresh, steaming halva puri breakfast with my mother.

Originally published in Off/Cuts (shut down)

Pakistani Canadian Freelance Writer