Pakistani cuisine: curried by history

| January 5, 2015 | 1 Comment
Two versions of traditional Pakistani lassi — one with mango, one with honey.

Two versions of traditional Pakistani lassi — one with mango, one with honey.

Technically speaking, Pakistan is a relatively young country. When India gained independence in 1947, after almost a century of British rule, it was partitioned in two and the sovereign state of Pakistan emerged, offering a homeland for Muslims of the subcontinent. However, the land area occupied by Pakistan can trace its roots back as far as 9,000 years, to some of the world’s earliest civilisations. Organised farming, for example, flourished near Quetta and in the Indus Valley, north of present day Karachi.
Pakistan’s neighbouring countries include Iran (on the west), Afghanistan (on the northwest), China (on the northeast) and India (on the southeast). To the south, it borders the Arabian Sea.
Pakistani cuisine, developed over centuries, is rich in tradition, featuring a variety of tasty dishes and incorporating elements adopted from its neighbours as well as from multiple invasions (including those by the Aryans, Scythians, Persians, Greeks, Bactrians, Kushans, Huns, Turks and Mongols). Pakistan’s own geographical diversity offers a wide range of different foods sourced from the rugged northwest mountain ranges and the lands blessed by Punjab’s five rivers, to the pastoral landscapes of Balochistan and Sindh provinces, and, of course, the Arabian Sea.
The first major and enduring influence on what we know as Pakistani cuisine came in the 8th Century with the spread of Islam to the region. Islam absolutely forbade the consumption of pork and alcohol, so taste preferences steered towards other foods and beverages.

Biryani is a combination of spiced rice, usually cooked with meat or chicken and often vegetables as well.

Biryani is a combination of spiced rice, usually cooked with meat or chicken and often vegetables as well.

The second significant influence emerged in the 16th Century, when the Mongol Empire began ruling the area and introduced a style of cooking called mughlai, typically characterised by the use of herbs and spices, almonds and raisins. Some mughlai recipes remain popular throughout the world. Who has not heard of — or better still, enjoyed — tandoori chicken (chicken marinated in yogurt with spices including turmeric that gives it the orange colour, and traditionally cooked at low temperature in special clay ovens called tandoors, which are also used to bake bread). Several desserts claim to be culinary remnants from the Mongols, among them is shahi tukra (made with sliced bread, milk, cream, sugar and saffron). Indeed, mughlai fruit drinks of freshly squeezed mangoes, pomegranates, apples and melons inspired what we today call sherbet.
Muslims make up 97 percent of the population. Instead of pork, they eat lamb, chicken, beef and fish, though those with lower incomes keep the amounts modest. Access to fish and seafood is, however, limited by geography, and with cattle historically deemed too valuable to be part of a regular diet, sheep and chickens are favoured for their meat and their by-products.

Spices, such as turmeric, paprika, cinnamon and black pepper, are at the heart of Pakistani cooking.

Spices, such as turmeric, paprika, cinnamon and black pepper, are at the heart of Pakistani cooking.

In a nutshell, the most basic of Pakistani diets consists of inexpensive and abundant amounts of staple ingredients such as milk, lentils, seasonal vegetables, rice, wheat and flour products. Higher-income families traditionally enjoy more meat, eggs and fruits. However, former High Commissioner Akbar Zeb, who retired in the autumn, explained “with growing access to refrigeration, consumption of meat by the general population is more widespread today.”
Common vegetables include potatoes, onions, cabbage, eggplant, okra, chickpeas and peas. Fresh fruit, from watermelon, mangoes, papaya, banana, apricots and apples to a fruit called chiku, which tastes like a date, but has a kiwi-like texture, appear in bountiful supply in summer and fall.
While these basic dietary staples may appear bland, at the core of Pakistani cuisine is an extensive array of spices, seeds and nuts. The list is long: black pepper, paprika, cardamom, coriander, saffron, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, aniseed, poppy seeds, pistachios and almonds. Those, as well as chutneys (made with fruit, spices and herbs), pickles, preserves and sauces (served with curries, seafood, vegetables and lentils), transform basic staple foods into original dishes featuring a unique spectrum of complex flavours.
Lentils (red, brown and green) feature prominently in the nation’s diet, particularly as dhal, a lentil stew. Haleem, a thick, hearty stew known as the king of curries, involves slow cooking lentils along with meat and spices for up to eight hours, and serving with fresh coriander, lemon and ginger. In fact, curries can be any dish (meat, chicken, fish, seafood, vegetables, lentils or a combination) cooked in oil with a few spices and herbs. For wet curries, cooks use a sauce made with yogurt, stock or coconut milk. For dry curries, they use a small quantity of liquid that eventually evaporates, leaving a spicy coating on the other ingredients. Although chicken karahi ranks as one of Pakistan’s famous dishes, every area of the country has its own curry, so Pakistani cuisine varies according to region, as does the use of spices. Yogurt and yogurt-based drinks, accompanying spicy dishes, offer a “cooling” counterbalance to those flavours. In general, the south favours more exotic and highly spiced dishes, while the north leans towards plain barbecued meats and less spice. Mr. Zeb summed it up nicely: “The hotter the climate, the hotter the food.”
Authentic traditional barbecuing involves using a charcoal grill with food cooked close to flames fuelled by wood, which imparts a wonderful smoky flavour. Pakistan’s favourite barbecued/grilled foods would be kebabs (skewers of chicken, beef, or small patties of those meats ground; however, some kebabs may be fried), shishleek (baby lamb chops), tikka (meat, poultry or fish) grilled on a spit, sajji (particularly lamb and chicken  barbecued in deep pits) and bunda pala (a specialty of Sindh province where fish is cleaned, stuffed with spices and herbs, then wrapped in cloth and buried three feet in the hot sand for four to five hours under the intense midday sun).
Other best-known dishes are pullao (rice-based), kofta (balls of minced meat, poultry, fish, vegetables or pulses) and  chicken and lamb korma (a spicy curry dish usually with onions and other vegetables). Street vendors delight customers with samosas (pastries filled with potatoes, chickpeas or other vegetables) and pakoras (chicken or vegetable fritters).
Pakistan is generally considered a bread culture, with bread eaten at virtually every meal. Nann, chapatis or roti are used instead of cutlery to scoop up curries and other foods with the right hand (a practice employed in Muslim cultures). Among the many other types of breads are parata (fried bread, at times stuffed with dhal or meat and vegetable mixtures) and puri (cooked in hot oil) and typically eaten with halva (a nut butter or flour butter-based confection that can also be made with carrot or pumpkin). Dishes not eaten with bread are normally served with rice as a side dish. Pakistani rice, ranked as the world’s best, is used in the exquisite and classic biryani, a stellar combination of spiced rice, with meat or chicken and often including vegetables as well.
Desserts are plentiful and prepared with generous quantities of ghee (the term once meant clarified butter, but is now “used in reference to any type of oil,” Mr. Zeb noted), sugar and nuts such as pistachios and almonds. They are often infused with rose water or other fragrant essences. Pakistanis particularly like kulfi (pistachio ice cream), jalebi (deep-fried orange pretzel-shaped pastries made with flour, sugar and yogurt) and kheer (rice pudding). They also enjoy all varieties of tea (especially, black and green) and stop for tea or chai many times a day. Pakistanis’ favourite way of preparing chai is to boil tea with milk, sugar and spice (usually cardamom). Pakistanis also delight in nimbu paani (a fresh lime drink), sugarcane juice and lassi, (a yogurt-based drink with additions of ice or water, milk and salt, but with other flavourful ingredients too, including such items as sugar, mint, cardamom, cumin, fruit, fruit juices, even ground garlic, fresh gingerroot or chilies).
As in many countries, food plays an important role in celebrations, including weddings, the birth of a child, Eid al-Fitr (at the end of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (a feast of sacrifice where a goat, lamb or cow is slaughtered in commemoration of Prophet Abraham’s willingness to serve God, with a portion of the meat distributed to the poor.)
Now, I invite you to toast Pakistan’s rich food history and culture with a couple of my tasty lassi creations!  Bon Appétit!
DIPLOMAT_1-2-2015_0075Mango Lassi
(Makes about 2½ cups or 625 mL)
1½ cups (375 mL)* fresh mango, cut into ¼ inch or 0.6 cm cubes
1 cup (250 mL) plain yogurt
¼ cup (60 mL) milk
2 tbsp (30 mL) liquid honey
½ tsp (3 mL) rose water
¼ tsp (1 mL) ground cardamom
¼ tsp (1 mL) ground/powdered ginger
Garnish with chopped almonds and sprigs of fresh mint
* This is about 310 g or 11 oz of mango flesh.

DIPLOMAT_1-2-2015_0076Refreshing Lassi
(Makes 1½ cups or 375 mL)
1 cup (250 mL) plain yogurt
¼ cup (60 mL) milk
2 tbsp (30 mL) liquid honey
1/3 tsp (2 mL) each of ground cardamom, ground coriander seeds and ground/powdered ginger
1 tsp (5 mL) rose water
Garnish with chopped pistachios and sprigs of fresh mint

1. Place all ingredients, except garnishes, in a blender and process until smooth.
2. To serve, pour into glasses over ice cubes and garnish with chopped nuts and fresh mint.

Flavour tip: To create a subtle blending of flavours, refrigerate the lassis overnight.

Margaret Dickenson wrote the award-
winning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining(

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (

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  1. Jennifer Hart says:

    Trying to reach the author from CLMBO to order copies of The Ambassador’s Table.
    Is there an email addresss we could use?

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