Wednesday, 3 October 2012

eating pakistan

my annual trips to pakistan include an evolving list of things i want to eat. there are some constants. the first breakfast is always several cups of tapal tea with quarters of toasted roghni naan. the final dinner is always baba’s beef chilli dry with boiled rice. the space between is filled with homemade shami kebabs especially on toast with a slick of mitchell’s chilli garlic sauce and draped with adam’s cheese, afghani kebabs and mantu at kabul restaurant in jinnah, samosa chaat at mashallah chaat house in super market and kulfi from jamil. 

baba's beef chilli dry
on the plane returning to london a remembrance of things missed. chapli kebabs, chicken tikkas and halva puri for sunday brunch. munchies burgers now consigned to memory because my tummy has become foreign to them (a munchie's burger is the local street food rendition of the american classic. it is a sweet bun with a spare patty that is more lentil and less meat served with a vivid red ketchup and mint chutney). i haven’t had one of these in years and it is unlikely i will on my brief visits home. it is really not worth the risk of an upset stomach. 

but since i was there longer this time i was able to eat somewhat to my hearts content. in lahore mama drove me to gawal mandi, the place known as andhroney shehr (interior city) in local parlance. i spent some moments mourning the lahore of my childhood, its landscape dramatically altered by the assault of urbanisation and population. many of its historical buildings are in disrepair mostly through neglect but also because the city is bursting at its seams. the new lahore is one of large malls and ugly buildings. its large girthed trees have been chopped down to make way for broader roads and flyovers. our first stop is at a tea stall opposite the odeon where my grand parents drink cups of kashmiri tea, a pink brew heavy with milk, crowned with cream and a sprinkle of pistachio. mama and i are keen on rabri, bowls of cooling rice pudding replete with thickened milk. this cousin of kheer (rice pudding) is cooked to the point that the grains of rice swell to a pleasing plumpness. the milk reduction that binds them is thick like clotted cream and is the colour of the palest caramel. mama and i also split a pura - a little pocket of deep fried semolina batter encasing suji ka halva (semolina halva). it is hot, crisp, soft and sweet and is rewarding in a way that only deep fried and sweet things can be. 

kashmiri chai brewing in a large pan
firni kay jotay
baqar khani at haji mairaj
there are two summer fruits that reign supreme for me these being mangoes and watermelons. baba would halve a watermelon, score its flesh into squares and sprinkle it with salt. the salt would intensify the already sweet watermelon. we ate much of this on sweltering afternoons when the power would go out. when it came to mangoes, a single outstanding dhusehri was the highlight of an otherwise disappointing mango season. its skin is streaked parrot green. its flesh is sunflower yellow, über sweet and has a touch of texture. to make up for the lack of good mangoes baba and i had scoops of creamy sweet mango ice cream at rahat bakery. made of sweetened pulp churned with cream and set into soft scoops it is the perfect summer ice-cream flavour. 

at home a glut of plums demanded preserving so mama made plenty of plum jam. at one point the kitchen was populated by bottles of glossy burgundy jam of which the rosemary flavoured one was pine scented and sharp whilst the vanilla had a mellow perfume. a jar of the rosemary one travelled with me to london. i eat it in reserved quantities usually stirred through greek yoghurt. other culinary experiments included jewel coloured lemon and plum liqueurs that concluded my thirtieth birthday celebrations. 

mama's homemade liqueurs 
bread is an enduring love for me and the many different kinds of tandoori roti and naans are something i can never have enough of. i could eat pretty much any of these save the jaundiced soda naans that toughen the moment they cool. on the richer end of the spectrum are roghni naans made with yeasted white flour dough, brushed with ghee and anointed with sesame seeds. i had a softly sweet sheermal enriched with milk and saffron at andaaz in saidpur village, its sweetness more evident when eaten with a spicy and salty curry. the long afghani roti that tears in strips is perfect for wrapping around kebabs or soaking up kofte in a lentil studded gravy. pateeri roti made with a soured atta is good for everyday eating as is the laal attay ki mandari, a thick tandoori roti whose centre is pricked to release the air during cooking. the latter makes an exceptional weekend brunch when shallow fried and eaten with a sprinkle of salt. it was a childhood favourite that i revisited and is perhaps one of the few that still matches the memory of its taste. 

afghani naan from hatim tai tandoor
garlic naan at andaaz saidpur village
i am fortunate to live in london, a city so cosmopolitan that i have been able to find foods that emulate the tastes of home. this summer i discovered manoucher, an iranian bread by way of canada that tastes remarkably like roghni naan. i have become adept at making tarka dhal, chicken saalun and pulao. writing about food has brought new horizons filled with food lovers, recipes and supper clubs. asma khan’s darjeeling express brought forth puri’s so light and delicious they put the ones i grew up eating to shame. the same can be said about her imli ki chutney which i would have happily eaten with a spoon. elephant makes a very authentic chicken saalan and aloo samosa chaat and lahore kebab house has surprisingly good murgh cholay. but other favourites are not so easy to replicate or find - bhindi bound by a masala of onions and tomatoes, keralas with keema, kachnar buds cooked in yoghurt and karri (yoghurt thickened with gram flour with pakoras) on boiled rice or nirahi. 


  1. liek you, when I go back to singapore, I have a list of foods that I want to have a fill of. some are constants, some change, and yes thoigh I must say london is quite a cosmopolitan city, there are dishes I just can't get here, and find it hard to replicate at home. and of course, you can't beat mum's cooking, which I never can replicate perfectly maybe because it's the person cooking it that makes all the difference. lovely to hear about your food adventures back in pakistan xx

  2. Same when I'm going back to Austria. Not as exotic as Pakistan or Singapore of course, but there are so many things that you can't get here and are so crucial for all these lovely Austrian dishes. So my mum is on heavy duty whenever I;m back!
    Pakistani food looks so beautiful and delicious, unlike anything I have ever seen in London...

  3. Shu Han, I totally agree with what you say. A lot of it is about the love of the person who has cooked but. And some of it is because ingredients do not necessarily translate in the same way. But at least we have the luxury of somethings. My grand father tells me of his times in England in the fifties and sixties where you didn't have those options. To top it all one couldn't travel home with the kind of frequency that we are able to.

    And Ute, I don't think its about exoticism. I think it is about familiarity and comfort. Because food is such an integral part of our lives (from the perspective of both nourishment and memory) nothing ever quite tastes like home.

  4. I agree with what you say about the love of the person who cooked it. Visits back to Vancouver aren't entirely the same since I lost my mother...something feels missing. I love my Dad too but when I visit we go out to eat or we both cook but it's not the same as when I grew up. That reminds me's been much too long since I visited.

  5. Su-Lin, I can only imagine how that feels. But what I do know is that there are different food memories associated with different people and the attachment that one feels for them can never be fulfilled by others. I guess it is that uniqueness that makes them so special.

    M x