Written by SUMAYYA USMANI
The celebration of food with family and friends is embedded in the concept of ‘dawwat’ (feast), an essential part of the culinary heritage of Pakistan. Sumayya Usmani presents her own seasonal spread.
No dining table at a Pakistani dawwat would be complete without an array of extravagant dishes and simple staples, to offer comfort and demonstrate the generous hospitality of a people who hold it deep within the fabric of their culture.
Pakistani cuisine is a confluence of the cooking methods of South Asia, distinct in taste with a fusion of local provincial flavours such as Sindhi, Balouchi and northern Punjabi combined with influences of Indian Muslim, Mughal, Persian and Afghan cooking. Pakistani food may be a new cuisine but it is in fact one steeped in history – a melting pot of ethnic and regional styles making it authentic.
Pakistani food’s unique cooking methods are based on ancient ones that have been adapted by the people living in this region over the centuries, using the local produce to create a distinct cooking style of their own. The concept of layering spice with seasonal produce, slow cooking beef or chicken in a stir frying method called ‘bhunai’, smoking meats and vegetables with ‘dhunai’, barbecuing extensively and infusing rice under ‘dum’ (steam), are all typical Pakistani methods of cooking. The one occasion when many or even all of these cooking methods are displayed is when hosting a Pakistani banquet, when home cooks will create their most treasured recipes for guests with pride and dexterity. Many traditional feasts will include laborious dishes one would not attempt on an everyday basis, such as Haleem, Nihari, Biryani and Paya (goat trotter curry) that can take up to 4 – 6 hours of preparation and cooking. Nowadays it is commonplace to only prepare three or four spectacular dishes for your guests, but this does not diminish the timeless passion for feeding loved ones.
Feeding others is the greatest pleasure to Pakistanis and a meal reminiscent of such celebratory memories would be my ritualistic family Sunday dinner. I remember preparation for a dawwat beginning days in advance, with the most difficult dish always being cooked first. Using only the finest produce, I’d assist my mother in her immaculate preparation, making sure on the eve of the dinner party that everything had been bought, ready to be assembled the next day. Waking up to my mother’s cooking on a balmy morning,the scent of rich spice, caramelized onions and grassy freshness of coriander would be reason enough to jump out of bed and start the day’s work. By the evening the house would be heaving with a cocktail of aromas, but distinctively the earthy scent of freshly cooked chappatis. They would be made in quick succession and puffed up like soft warm balloons to be demolished in one quick bite, their melt in the mouth texture releasing the steam held therein. It never ceased to amaze me how this comforting bread took over the senses as the feast approached.
Huge family size servings, stacks of chappati crying out to be torn by hand, fiery green chili salad teasingly daring to be tasted – all this is best experienced sitting together at a table. Guests would be invited to dine with an abundance of dishes on display at the dining table. As they are seated, with their plates laden with food, a dawwat begins in full swing. Sitting at the table with loved ones sharing home cooked food together is what a Pakistani banquet is all about.
Certain recipes that found their way on to my mother’s dinner party menu had a story behind them so were always special. Here I will share with you some family banquet recipes that I have learnt from my mother, grandmothers and friends along the way. To me, these demonstrate the distinct flavours of Pakistani cooking and the vibrancy of the produce. – a cross-cultural explosion.
A typical Pakistani dawwat would comprise of a menu that would include at least two rice dishes, a few vegetable side dishes and the main dish always being meat or poultry plus naan, chappatis and other enriched breads such as taftan and sheermal. We do not have much of an appetizer custom but small bites such as barbeque meats or kebabs do feature on a menu. Similarly, dessert never has much importance in everyday meals in Pakistan, the exception being at dinner parties where people much prefer western fare rather than the typical Pakistani rich sweets. An exception is shahi tukra, a Pakistani style bread pudding, always popular with everyone. This recipe is a simple version that is easy to create without the traditional heavy milk solids (khoya) required.
I have put together a Pakistani-style banquet menu that brings to life the true flavours of the country, featuring two of my favourite Pakistani cooking styles – including elegant Mughal-style techniques and rich curry-spiced Sindhi cooking. This menu is heady, fragrant, subtle yet spicy and also aromatic, a demonstration of the true flavour of Pakistan. The feast ends with a milk saffron rich dessert, which calms a spiced palate well and brings comfort after such a meal as this.
The best way to serve this menu would be to serve the reshmi kebabs with the tomato chutney at the same time as the biryani and raita followed on later with dessert. Other accompaniments to compliment this menu would be a rich daal, a spicy seasonal sabzi (vegetable stir fry) and a poultry based curry.
Celebrating the change of the seasons with an array of stunning aromatics, exotic ingredients and flavours shared with loved ones highlights Pakistani heritage. This menu will bring a little taste of Pakistan into your home and heart.