A culi­nary jour­ney By Su­mayya Us­mani

Sunday Herald Life - - FOOD & DRINK -

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

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