As Spicy As It Gets
From tandoori murghi and mullah do-piaza to dum biryani and bunda pala, Pakistani cuisine is as diverse as the countries that have influenced it.
Fried red cayenne pepper, cumin and mustard seeds, crushed garlic cloves with freshly cut mint, onion slivers and coriander leaves - these are the aromas of most Pakistani kitchens.
The land through which the mighty Indus flows is melting pot that has seen the synthesis of a number of different races. These include the Aryans, Dravidians, Greeks, Scythians, Huns, Arabs, Mongols, Persians and the Afghans. Each has left an indelible mark on the country's cuisine.
The ethnic signature of each race is discernible in 100 different ways in modern Pakistani culture - not least in the country's varied cuisine. A large part of Pakistani cuisine has Afghan-Turkic-Iranian roots, a legacy of centuries of Muslim rule in South Asia.
These influences were tempered by the local culture that placed great emphasis on the use of spices in its food. It is interesting to note that this penchant for spices remains largely centralized in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. The cuisine of the immigrant community that moved from India to Pakistan after Partition is also famous for its heavy use of spices.
The regions of Western Pakistan that include Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province have retained their cuisine, which is similar to the neighboring countries with which these areas share borders.
So, in a wider sense, Pakistani cuisine is a blend of its western (Afghan-Iranian) and eastern (Indian) neighbors' cuisines. Of course, flavors have evolved with time and acquired their own unique characteristics. The content of spices can range from very spicy / hot to mild, although spicy / hot is more popular.
The advent of Islam in the region during the eighth century led to the fusion of the non-vegetarian fare of the Middle East and the rich gravies that were indigenous to India. The tradition of ending a meal with a dessert, for instance, has its origins in Arabia.
Meat is still a major part of the Pakistani diet; lamb, beef, chicken and seafood are the basics. However, Pakistani cuisine also has plenty of delicious vegetarian recipes because of the abundance of spices and herbs.
Wheat is a staple and is used to make bread (roti or chappati), which is an integral part of all meals. Rice is also very popular. Pakistan is an grarian society in transition and most of its needs are supplied from its own land. The best quality rice in the world, known as Basmati, is found in the land irrigated by the Indus.
The Mughul Influence
With the establishment of the opulent Mughul Empire (1526) came major changes in the local cuisine. One of the widely known survivors of court cookery is tandoori murghi (chicken), which takes its name from a special unglazed clay oven or tandoor that is heated with charcoal. The chicken pieces are first marinated for hours in aromatic spices and yogurt, then threaded onto skewers and roasted in the tandoor. It is the aroma of the clay and charcoal as well as the spices that makes this chicken dish so unique and tasty. Murgh musallam (stuffed chicken in a creamy sauce) is another classic royal dish. The spices are fried or dry-roasted, ground into a paste made rich with cashew nuts, almonds and raisins and stuffed into the chicken. This is gently simmered in milk and finally thickened with natural yoghurt.
Opinions vary on the meaning of the term gosht do-piaza. Taken literally it means two onions but the dish was named originally after a minister of Emperor Akbar named Mullah Do-Piaza. In the context of cooking techniques, this term is often interpreted to mean using twice the weight of onions to meat.
Pakistani cooking is geared for flexibility. It is not necessary to stick rigidly to a recipe. Chicken can be cooked in a variety of ways using any combination of herbs and spices. It can be cooked in a sauce or absolutely dry. It can be mild and buttery, gently piquant or fiercely hot - recipes can change to taste individual tastes.
One popular way of cooking meat is by the dum method in which the lid of the cooking pan is sealed with a paste of dough. Live charcoal is then put on the lid and the sealed pan placed over a flame. The heat then reaches the pan from above and below and recreates the effect of an oven with steam trapped inside and the result is tender cooked meat.
Pakistani cuisine has always had a regional character, with each of the four provinces offering special dishes. In the Punjab, Mughlai cuisine is a specialty. In Baluchistan cooks use the sajji method of barbecuing whole lambs and sticking bread in a deep pit.
Biryani originated in Persia. Birian means 'fried before cooking' in Persian but has now become a loosely held term for any rice dish across the country. The authentic method of cooking is by layering rice and chicken.
Bunda pala (fish) is a well-known delicacy of Sindh where the fish is cleaned and stuffed with a paste of spices and herbs. It is then wrapped in cloth and is buried three feet deep in hot sand under the sun where it bakes for four to five hours. Thandal made from milk and paste of fresh almonds is a popular Sindhi drink.
Cooking in the Northwest Frontier Province is a great deal plainer and involves heavy use of lamb as the climate is extreme with harsh winters. The famous Chapli Kebabs from this region are spiced with anardana and roasted dhaniya. This area is dubbed 'the land where the mountains meet' - both the ancient Silk and Spice routes run through it. The menu here features kebabs from the Khyber Pass and other dishes that emphasise the essential technique of karhai, more popularly know as 'balti' cooking.
The karhai, a cooking vessel which evolved from the wok, lends itself to one dish meals. It incorporates ingredients at hand, quickly stir-fried with aromatic spices, to produce an all-in-one meal served straight from the stove to the table.