Pakistani cuisine is influenced by neighbouring Indian cuisine and Central Asia, as well as having historical influences from the Mughal Empire, ruled from the 1500s by a Muslim dynasty. There is great diversity across the varied cultural groups and regions of Pakistan, particularly along the east-west axis, with the eastern part of the country favouring strongly seasoned and spicy food, similar to their Indian neighbours, whereas the western part favours milder recipes that resemble their Central Asian neighbours. One thing seems to unite many Pakistanis however: the average citizen eats many times more meat than their neighbours. The Indus valley, which runs through Pakistan, was one of the early cradles of civilisation due to its climatic conditions and fertile earth. This region nurtured the rise of numerous ingredients critical to Pakistani food from as early as 3000 BC, including eggplant, turmeric, cardamom, black pepper, mustard, sesame and the domestication of cattle. As with some Central Asian countries, it is common for many families to eat cross-legged on the floor around a cloth called a dastarkhan, or a slightly raised platform called a takht. I think I might start championing this custom all over the globe – it would be great to save space by not having a big bulky dining table that’s rarely used, and to be able to invite innumerable guests for dinner, only requiring a large enough cloth to accommodate them all!
Haleem is a thick stew or soup that is enjoyed widely throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It is always made with meat (often lamb or beef), a grain such as wheat, barley or sometimes rice to thicken it, and some variety of lentils. The main constant in this recipe is the time taken to cook it, which can be hours over a low heat, reducing it to a thick, homogenous paste. I made mine with beef chunks, mixed lentils (yellow, black, brown, green) and barley, stewed along with garlic, ginger, saffron, fenugreek, coriander, cumin, chaat masala, turmeric, chilli and garam masala, and garnished it with fried onions, coriander and lime. The idea only occurred to me later, but I regret not cooking this in my slow cooker – I think it would have been just as good, and I wouldn’t have had to watch the stove all day! The origins of haleem can be traced back to a cookbook scribed in the 10th century, which listed recipes popular among the lords and leaders of Baghdad, and is thought to be the oldest surviving Arabic cook book. Apparently the version of haleem (then called harees/jareesh) from this cookbook is very similar to those cooked in Pakistan today, after being introduced some six centuries later and slightly modified to suit the local palates and ingredients. Haleem is enjoyed all year in Pakistan, but is most frequently made during Ramadan in particularly Muslim regions, when the faithful fast between dawn and dusk. After eating my haleem I can understand why – the warming mix of complex carbohydrates and proteins means that it would be very sustaining during the long hours of obligatory fasting during the day!
Chapli kebab, chana chaat and green salad
Chapli kebab originates from Peshawar in northwest Pakistan (and is therefore also sometimes called Peshwari kebab), but is now popular all over the country, as well as in India and Afghanistan. It can be served at barbecues, by street vendors, in lunch boxes, by restaurants or home cooks. The word chapli comes from a Pashto word meaning “flat”, which refers to the classic shape of the kebab which resembles a round hamburger patty. However, there are also some who argue it comes from another word meaning “sandal”, and that the kebabs are supposed to resemble the size and thickness of the front sole of a traditional shoe. I made my chapli kebabs by marinating beef mince (although lamb is also sometimes used), with garam masala, chilli powder, cayenne pepper, coriander, mint, onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, cumin, lemon and egg to bind. I then formed them into patties and shallow-fried them in a saucepan. Chana chaat is a classic street food made with cooked chickpeas, cubes of potato, onion and tomato, spices with chilli, cumin, chaat masala, lime/lemon juice, coriander and mint. Its name comes from words which can mean “a delicacy” “to lick/taste” and “to eat noisily”. A name to raise one’s expectations if ever there was one! Indeed both the kebabs and chana chaat were extremely aromatic and delicious, and, along with the green salad, provided a mix of colours, temperatures and textures that was very enjoyable.
Chicken jalfrezi is considered a Pakistani Chinese dish, mixing elements of South Asian and Chinese cooking. However, it also has origins in English interpretations of cooking on the Indian subcontinent: the story goes that a British Raj would make it by frying up leftovers with chilli and onion. Its name derives from words meaning “spicy food” and “suitable for a diet”, which already sounds good to me. Indeed, the tomato base, lean chicken and vegetables mean that it is a very light and low-calorie curry compared to other varieties laden with fats and cream. Chicken jalfrezi is also popular because it’s very fast to make, unlike many Pakistani curries which can take hours and hours to slowly stew. I made mine by marinating chicken pieces in cumin, ground coriander, garam masala and turmeric, then frying them with a sauce of onion, garlic, chilli, tomatoes, capsicums and fresh coriander. It was deliciously spicy and light – much more refreshing than many classic curries from the region. Just the thing to eat for a moderate lunch on a bed of fluffy white rice!
Nihari is often touted as the national dish of Pakistan, and is usually made with shank meat from beef, lamb, mutton or goat. The meat is stewed for several hours along with a strong symphony of spices, including pepper, turmeric, coriander seeds, ginger, fennel, cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf and nutmeg, with only a little plain flour to thicken the mixture. I found the flavour a very unusual mix of strongly spiced/aromatic notes, with a richness from the lamb fat, but it was also strangely thin, given that it isn’t thickened with cream, tomato or other vegetables, as with more familiar curries. The dish originated from the Muslim population of the Indian subcontinent, apparently first concocted centuries ago by a “hakeem”, a wise man or doctor of the time. The dish became particularly popular in Pakistan after independence and the subsequent mass migration of Muslims from northern India. In some Pakistani restaurants, an essential component of the daily nihari is that some leftovers from the previous day (called taar) be added to the pot, which reminds me somewhat of a sourdough starter. There are even very old establishments who boast centuries of unbroken taar! As with many spiced meaty broths around the world, nihari is made by fretful parents and spouses when their loved ones fall ill with common colds and fevers. In addition to being a fool-proof home remedy, nihari is also a popular breakfast/brunch dish. Cooks will put the dish on to simmer overnight, and then by the morning the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and completely infused with the cacophony of spices. In fact, the name nihari itself means “dawn”. I served my nihari with the bones, as is traditional, and although not pictured, with plenty of naan to sop up the liquid.