i come from a family that likes to cook as much as it likes to eat. my memory is populated by images of tastes, smells and textures. i still remember the first time i tried hummus. it was in our race course road house and i remember i ran a fork through the creamy slate-yellow coloured paste stored in what was previously a square tub of soft-scoop ice-cream. i took an instant liking to the slightly bitter and nutty taste and recall eating hummus with a spoon. i still eat it this way, the only difference being that i make the effort to dress it up with a little olive oil, a sprinkle of sumac and chopped parsley to give it some colour. mama showed me how to use the back of a tablespoon to help spread the hummus to the shape of the bowl, allowing a natural dip to hold the olive oil. she would also reserve some whole chick peas to add to the olive oil as a decoration.
one of the best things about growing up in my family was the diversity of tastes. my father’s side of the family takes much pride in their punjabi cuisine and there were often animated disputes about the names and etymology of certain dishes. for instance for baba it was dhoodh seviyan that was cooked on eid, a sweet dish that consisted of toasted vermicelli cooked in sweetened cardamom infused milk. my dadi would call it sheer khorma and baba would say, well that’s the indian version. the difference in the two was really the addition of shrivelled dried dates called chuara’s. since i didn’t care much for them i was quite happy to eat dhoodh seviyan. and secretly i wasn’t troubled by the nomenclature at all. my dadi was a really good cook but her efforts in the kitchen were almost always steeped in lots of ghee (clarified butter). she made exquisite kerela’s (bitter gourd) by gouging out their insides, filling them with dark brown well spiced keema (mince) or channa dhal, stitching the open side neatly and then steaming them in the keema or dhal masala till the skin of the gourd was tender and heavy with the flavours of the mince or channa. i was partial to her kachnar keema (beef mince cooked with kachnar buds). i have never seen these flower buds abroad but it apparently is an orchid tree. my husband says that punjabi’s do not know how to cook vegetables and i contest this with him for it was in my very punjabi household that i first learnt to love bhindi (okra), baingan (aubergine), kerela (bitter gourd), teenday (a kind of a pumpkin), sheljum (turnip), gobi (cabbage) and so much more. and they were cooked to perfection rather than being a massacred mush, which is what he says all pakistani vegetables are cooked like.
on mama’s side of the family the influences were four fold: kashmiri and lahori from her father and polish and english from her mother. i was perfectly at home eating shepherd’s pie, borscht, chicken roast and welsh rarebits although never pakistani versions of them. i didn’t like mixing food which may explain my despair when my other half sprinkles dark chilli flakes into a mild pilaf of broad-beans and dill or infuses sausage pasta made with sujuk with truffle infused olive oil. i call that a food crime and he calls that snobbery. there is a fine line between fusion and faux pas.
out of the four of us (mama, baba, sibling and i), i had the least affinity for cooking pakistani food. as much as i love eating it, i always felt hesitant cooking it. i am not a natural at it like my sibling is. he cooks intuitively whereas i have always struggled with the unexacting nature of pakistani cooking. there are very few pakistani cook books for amateurs. mama bought me one before i left for university and it is written for those who are familiar with cooking pakistani cuisine. i’ve tried indian punjabi cookbooks but their spice profile is markedly different from ours. pakistani cooking has some hallmarks; the notion of andaaza (estimation), the need to bhuno (explained in my post on keema simla mirch), the slow process of browning onions to colour a pulao or salan (curry), gently toasting whole spices like cumin and coriander seeds to elevate their profile. a combination of homesickness, curiosity and the food blogosphere has done away with my reticence of cooking pakistani. the outcome doesn’t always look like my mum’s but the more i cook, the more i understand the techniques and processes. it is in fact no different to learning to cook a risotto or roast a chicken especially now that i have a pakistani delia type instructor in my mum, dad, sibling and the spice spoon.
the saturday dinner at thirty-two was murghi ka saalun (chicken curry), with chawal (steamed rice) and kachumur. i cooked it because i was missing my brother whose enduring love is ‘saalun chawal’ (curry with rice). in his toddler days when he was barely the height of our round black dining table, he would push his little self up on his toes whilst holding on to the edge of the table and say ‘mama put me salan chawwal’. he spoke an eclectic mix of urdu and english and clearly correcting his syntax and grammar at lunch time never worked. this was much to his bossy sister’s consternation and sometimes that of his mum’s who had, through her parent’s experienced language and enunciation correction. my immediate family, which is mama, baba and my sibling live in islamabad. i most often resort to cooking pakistani when i am homesick as the familiar smells of onions, garlic and ginger sauteed with whole spices like turmeric and cardamom help overcome it.
spicespoon’s recipe for murghi ka salan (chicken curry) is foolproof and has been passed down two generations from her nani to her mother and now to her. if you follow her concise instructions you will get a perfect result that looks exactly as she has pictured it. i am reproducing the recipe below, consistent with the way i made it and with a couple of my own notes.
|murghi ka saalun with dhania|
4 tbsp sunflower oil
a medium sized chicken, skinned and jointed
1 medium-sized onion, roughly chopped (this will be blitzed in the blender later, so don’t worry about cutting it perfectly)
2 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 thumb-size knob of ginger, sliced thin
5 large plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tsp salt (adjust to taste)
pinch haldi (turmeric powder)
1 1/2 tsp dhara mirch (red chili flakes)
1/2 + 1 1/2 cups water
2 cardamom pods
turn the heat to medium and place a heavy-bottomed pan, (i use a 4.7l le creuset cast iron oven casserole) on the stove. to really bring out the nutty golden colour of the onions, it is preferable to not use a non-stick pan.
add the oil and allow pan to heat up for 2 minutes.
add the onions and saute till they start to turn golden.
at this point, add the fresh garlic and ginger and continue to sauté.
the onions will start to darken more, don’t worry, this is what will give the curry its dark, intense colouring. the garlic and ginger will also begin to caramelise at this point.
this will take a total of 15 minutes.
add the tomatoes, salt, chili pepper and turmeric and turn the heat to medium or medium-high, start to “fry” (bhuno) this mixture. be careful, the tomato sauce may splatter, in that case, turn the heat down. it will take approximately 15-20 minutes.
by the end of it, you should see the sauce has reduced and looks jammy.
let the mixture cool a bit and transfer the chunky ingredients with a slotted spoon, to a blender.
blitz it all to a smooth paste, add some water to the blender if you want to get all the sauce off the walls of the blender.
transfer the mixture back to the pan.
add the chicken pieces and 1/2 cup of water and turn the heat to medium-high.
"fry" (bhuno) the chicken till you start to see the oil separating from the sauce. this is an indication that it is almost done. this will take approximately 15-20 minutes and rigorous stirring.
add the remainder of the water (1 1/2 cups) and cardamom pods, turn the heat to low, cover with a lid and let it simmer for 20 minutes. the oil should have floated freely to the top of the curry by the end of it.serve with a garnish of fresh chopped coriander/cilantro, (both leaves and sweet stems),kachumbar and chapati or basmati rice.
my notes on the recipe; i prefer to use a whole jointed chicken as i find that the fattier meat such as the thighs do well for the curry. in the original recipe the spice spoon uses chicken breast on the bone. i did however forgot to tell the butcher to skin the chicken. you can't cook chicken curry with the skin on so make sure you don't forget to tell the butcher to skin and joint the chicken. i had skin the jointed chicken myself and i tell you, it wasn't easy. also, make sure that the heavy bottomed pan is large enough to accommodate the chicken easily. this is essential to ensure that the chicken pieces brown equally when you fry them.
i personally believe that the curry tastes much better with fresh tomatoes. i haven't made this with canned tomatoes but i've made channa masala with canned tomatoes and i find that it gives the masala a tart sweetness. fresh tomatoes are mellow and don't over power the spices. you also want to avoid using vine tomatoes as their lighter flavours are better suited to salads than curries.
lastly, i'll re-emphasise the spice spoon's point to avoid using a non-stick pan to really bring out the colour of the frying onions.