A culinary journey By Sumayya Usmani
THE flavours of Pakistan have driven me through my writing career and connect me to my homeland. The country’s cuisine shares a deep culinary history with its neighbour, India. This is true of most large countries, but what makes the Pakistani and Indian story unique is that forced migration created an artificial shift in flavours from one part of the country to another, creating a cuisine that is a hybrid of Muslim Indian immigrants, border cuisine and a provincial mash-up.
Pakistani cuisine is a bittersweet reminder of a large nation splitting 70 years ago. Last week, I got the opportunity to discuss its evolution, together with the queen of Indian cuisine. I first worked with Madhur Jaffrey about five years ago, on her Curry Nation TV show and book, and it was she who inspired me to write my first cookbook. Madhur told me then how she believes that Pakistanis know how to cook meat well.
Last month I recorded a BBC Radio Scotland festive special Kitchen Café Curry Club (it airs on December 28) with her and my co-presenter Ghillie Basan. I also shared a stage with her in the British Library for the London edition of the Lahore Literary Festival. With much trepidation and excitement, I went for the day to London, seeking comfort from the fact that, at least I knew her previously. And, this time around, we would discuss how, 70 years on, our two home nations share much more than we might think.
The talk was expertly chaired by Lizzie Collingham, who has researched deeply into the cuisine of our nations, and wrote the book Curry: A Tale Of Cooks And Conquerors. She merely needed to give us a few directional questions, and the conversation just flowed, with Madhur’s knowledge, relation of wonderful stories and antidotes.
The real story was simple. Politics changes the landscape of countries, religious beliefs alter recipes and the movement of people transports cuisine from their original source to another – mutating recipes, adapting flavours with regionality and seasonality, only to create a distinctly new cuisine, but one with a link, a memory and a relation to where it came from. We touched about the dreaded concept of authenticity. Madhur and I both share an aversion to the word. In the food writing world it gets used a lot, and sometimes though you wish to be authentic, you cannot be, as one person’s memory of a dish might differ from another.
Authenticity to my mind is in the memory of a flavour, the person making it, the location, the time it was made. So when a recipe is transported to another place, you may not be able to recreate it in its original form, maybe due to different produce or weather, but what you can do is adapt it using what you can, creating it with the reminiscence of its flavour or cooking style – that very recollection of it makes it authentic for you alone.
Madhur remarked that in Amritsar, India, they have a recipe for fried fish with chickpea flour called Amritsar fish; in Lahore, there’s a similar recipe called Lahori fish. That is how recipes travel. In Northern Pakistan the food is so far removed from India, Central Asian and Chinese influences lends itself to little or no spice in their food, dumplings and noodle soups are eaten, strong Irani and Afghani flavours are seen, but as you come closer to the bigger cities in the south, the recipes are similar to Indian, but boast their own local twists. In India, Madhur says, the vegetarian cuisine is still evolving, just as meat cooking has in Pakistan.
Modernism, and a need to take on Western ways, have left both cuisines with new and strange concoctions. Madhur recalled how porridge is now a trendy dish to grace the Indian breakfast table, leading to oddly spiced varieties which she feels just do not work. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone! We agreed that Indians and Pakistanis take and borrow flavours from others, and add spice and chilli to them somehow.
The wonderful thing is that Madhur and I have similar ideas about food. Cuisines are ever changing – no-one can take ownership of any recipe, what is authentic is personal experience and, though Pakistan and India share a common history, heritage and passion for food, our flavours are ever changing and have evolved differently, leading to two separate cuisines, with one common legacy – and this must be celebrated. Sumayya Usmani co-presents BBC Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Cafe. Her books, Summers Under The Tamarind Tree and Mountain Berries And Desert Spice are out now, published by Frances Lincoln Visit sumayyausmani.com Twitter @SumayyaUsmani