Land of plenty

Categories: News and previews

Sumayya Usmani gives us a preview of her demo, showcasing the rich diversity and heritage of Pakistani cuisine

Portrait: Louise Mather

The flavours of Pakistan are best described as a confluence of the whole of south Asia. It’s a relatively young country politically, but its cuisine has been in the making for generations. To understand its unique flavours, you need to appreciate Pakistan’s diverse geographical position, multi-ethnicity, and varied climate.

The north of the country is flanked by China, Tibet, the rugged Hindu Kush mountains, and the foothills of the Himalayas. The recipes vary from central Asian to Chinese-inspired and are fairly simple. To the west of Pakistan are Afghanistan and Iran, and both culinary traditions can be seen throughout the country. There is also an undeniable influence from northern India, Pakistan’s eastern neighbour.

In the south, the country meets the arid deserts of Tharparkar in Sindh, and the silver sand beaches of the Arabian Sea. It is here, by the sea in Karachi, the biggest city in the Sindh province, that I was born and bred—exposed to the flavours of a new nation with a deep culinary history.

The mixed geography of Pakistan means there’s a wealth of natural resources, from coconut trees and dates to rice, wheat and sugarcane. But perhaps the biggest impact on Pakistan’s cuisine is the myriad historical invasions, settlements and migrations.

Sophisticated cuisines
Before it was Pakistan, this region of the subcontinent was home to many overlapping civilisations and empires, from the Greeks and on to the Arab, Mughal and Sikh Empires. The ancient influences of these settlers, as well as that of the immigrants who arrived in the newly formed Pakistan from India and beyond, brought their own sophisticated cuisines with them. Each province of Pakistan therefore not only boasts its own geographical characteristics, but also disparate ethnic communities, religions, traditions and culinary styles.

The eastern province of Punjab, for example, has always had abundant farmland, and the food here is hearty, often spicy and aromatic, and distinctively infused with cardamom, saffron and cloves, with a link in flavour with Indian Punjab. Food and festivity are a way of life in Punjab’s capital Lahore, once the seat of the Mughal Empire, and street food is popular.

In the south-eastern province of Sindh, Arab imprints can be felt. It’s from here that Islam found its way into the subcontinent. Its coastline also saw it become a gateway to the spice trade in the 1600s, and the food in this region is characterised by brilliantly flavoured saltwater and freshwater seafood.

Balochistan in the southwest, meanwhile, is dramatically different: the land is arid and barren; the summers harsh and hot, the winters severe. In the simple, meat-heavy, often barbecued dishes, you might spot Afghan, Turkish and Mongol influences, and salt and pepper are usually the only seasonings used.

A complex country
Pakistan is a complex country, but our attitude towards food unifies us. Pakistanis love to eat and to feed others. Food always takes centre stage—be it an everyday meal, a celebration, or even a time of sorrow. While Pakistan is a nation of many faiths, its Muslim culture and cuisine has the greatest impact on the way we eat, including our habits, and custom of sharing with people irrespective of faith.

A typical Pakistani meal is pretty simple, and always uses seasonal produce. It includes bread, rice and a pickle, and comprises ingredients with properties that are either ‘thanda’ (cold) or ‘garam’ (hot). The balance of flavours is essential. Though our cuisine is meat-heavy, most meals will also include humble cooked lentils and vegetables. Special occasions such as an Eid feast or a wedding dinner are never complete without an array of barbecued meats and seafood, slow-cooked curries and rich aromatic biryanis, all adorned with saffron, pistachios, mint, rose or screwpine water.

Being a first-generation Pakistani born to Muslim Indian immigrants, my cooking techniques are influenced by both sides of my family, as well as the area I grew up in. It is also deeply based in the concept of cooking by ‘andaza’, or what I like to call the art of sensory and estimation cooking.

In my demo at Borough Market, I will highlight the flavours of the four corners of the country, cooking with the senses. I hope to introduce the distinct and unique flavours of the beautiful country that I will always call home.

Join Sumayya for tips, tastings and recipes Thursday 13th September in the Market Hall, 1-2:30pm