19/03/16

The Same Curry Twice

Shadab Zeest Hashmi

As someone who spends time in the kitchen only out of the necessity of feeding my family or the occasional alchemical possibility of feeding my writing, I am very intrigued by Abbas Raza’s Cookbook of Pakistani and North Indian cuisine which promises simple, elegant, fool-proof recipes that enable the user to make “the same curry twice,” as he puts it. While I’m hungrier for the teachable moments of chance occurrences in the kitchen, I have a newfound appreciation for easy-to-follow desi (Pakistani/North Indian) recipes that consistently yield an authentic taste. Why? Because this cookbook’s publication happens to coincide with my seventeen-year-old leaving home for college, and the need to hand him something easier to follow than his mother’s experimental impulse.

Raza’s idea for this book also came from wanting to transfer some of the most popular Pakistani/North Indian recipes to the younger generation: “ Some of my nieces and nephews are now at an age where they sometimes call me to ask how to cook simple Pakistani dishes (Pakistani cooking is the same as Northern Indian cooking, while the cuisine of South India is very different) and this gave me the idea of writing a cookbook specifically for South Asian students in the West who miss home-cooked food.”

I interviewed him recently.

Everyone has a fantasy kitchen. In mine, I am invisible, sentient, and capable of flight. I do none of the work but I’m deeply involved; hovering over food in all stages of preparation— from the washing of fruits, grating and roasting of nuts, to grinding seeds, working the butter and syrup, kneading, frying, garnishing. I absorb the feast of color, aroma, texture, taste, and the spectacular theatrics of chemistry, of food changing form— raw to paste to crispy or moist, served chilled or piping hot. I note the subtleties, enjoy the life energy of rituals and processes, and of course, write it down.

- Abbas Raza: Counting Desserts (3 Quarks Daily)

Shadab: Your book was written with homesick students in mind; you have to have been one yourself as a young Pakistani student in the US. What was the first thing your learnt to cook as a student?

Abbas: I can't remember. What I do remember is that my roommate in college could cook and I could not, so he made me this offer that I foolishly accepted: "I will cook for both of us if you wash all the dishes and pots afterwards and clean up." So, for some time, he got to do the fun part while I was stuck with the thankless, joyless, and universally loathed job of dishwashing. Such are the traumas that have shaped my worldview! But I caught on to the grave injustice of our arrangement eventually, and I probably learned to cook qeema (spicy ground beef) before anything else.

Shadab: What’s the childhood food that still haunts you? Have you replicated it successfully?

The childhood food the memory of which haunts me to this day (and not in a good way) is papaya, which is unanimously considered to be the most vile fruit in the world by experts (such as myself!). For some reason my mother thought it would be great for my health if I were to consume a plateful of it after lunch one time. I tried and retched my way through a few bites but then refused to eat more. She decided in that moment that she had had enough of my finicky eating and told me that I was not allowed to get up from the dining table until I finished that plate of putrid pulp. An hour later, I was still sitting alone at the dining table with the papaya untouched when she came in and told me, "Get out," and probably ate the papaya herself. I did not stick around to see.

Shadab: Your book has “delicious recipes for meats, seafood, vegetables, daals, different kinds of rice, soups, chutneys and other accompaniments, as well as desserts” according to an Amazon review. Among these easy-to-follow recipes, which one are you most proud of?

Abbas: The recipes in my cookbook are meant to allow complete beginners to cook fairly complex dishes well on the first try and I have tried to help them do this in a number of ways.

The weights and volumes of ingredients are always given very precisely, in American as well as metric units and I have tried to give simple and exact instructions without assuming that the person cooking will just use good judgment (which takes some time to develop).

I have also tried to make the recipes robust in the sense that minor deviations or "mistakes" will not result in disaster or, in other words, the recipes are chosen and designed to be quite forgiving of errors.

Having said that, if I must choose one recipe of which I am particularly proud, I will pick the Chicken Karahi because It has a fresh and unusual flavor, which people seem to like it a lot when I cook it, many have written to me saying how much they loved it, more than any other recipe in the book.

Shadab: Which chef do you consider a gastronomic genius?

Abbas:  In this age of celebrity chefs and a food culture which never tires of debating nonsensical questions like which pizzeria in Brooklyn makes the best pepperoni pie, I stand resolutely against the gourmandizing spirit. I have eaten at some of the best and fanciest restaurants in the world and can honestly say that I prefer tacos from a good food truck to most of the courses I have had there.

To me, pretentiousness about food is the enemy of gustatory pleasure. The best chefs are moms everywhere (and some dads), the owners of certain street-side food stalls (I am thinking with particular longing of Anna, the Mexican lady who sells empanadas from a cart near the 104th Street entrance of Riverside Park in Manhattan), and the unrecognized cooks in the kitchens of countless amazing little unknown neighborhood restaurants, which you just have to find for yourself.

Shadab: “Dessert is a necessity, not a luxury:” discuss.

Abbas: Since childhood, when offered dessert, my response has been: "May I just have another kabab instead?"

It is absolutely essential that Pakistanis and Indians overcome their mistrust of each other. For the ones from South Asia who live abroad, we share the experience of make friends with each other in a place like Europe. How can cuisine help to build cultural bridges?

Shadab: What is your favorite “comfort food” and what would you cook if you had to impress someone?

Abbas: My favorite comfort food is Khichri (rice cooked with lentils). To impress someone, I would cook Chicken Quorma, a wonderfully aromatic, rich, and complex dish which is often eaten at weddings and other special occasions. Even my mom could not cook a good quorma. I learned to cook it from the culinary genius Sara Hussain, wife of one of my oldest and closest friends, Hussain Jafar, in Karachi, and I give the recipe in my book with her permission.

Shadab: You’ve said: “It is absolutely essential that Pakistanis and Indians overcome their mistrust of each other. For the ones from South Asia who live abroad, we share the experience of make friends with each other in a place like Europe.” How can cuisine help to build cultural bridges?

Abbas: I suppose in the same way that our shared love of each other's music, movies, and other cultural productions can, by humanizing the other

Shadab: Finally, please share your favorite classical Urdu phrases/verses related to food.

Abbas: I can't think of any. Sorry! And thank you.

Shadab: Abbas, may I suggest the “Mango Masnawi” by Ghalib. You’ll appreciate it.

Ghalib (Urdu: غاؔلب‎; Hindi: ग़ालिब) born Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan (Urdu: مرزا اسد اللہ بیگ خان; Hindi: मिर्ज़ा असदुल्लाह् बेग़ ख़ान), on 27 December 1797 – died 15 February 1869), was the preeminent Indian Urdu and Persian-language poet during the last years of the Mughal Empire.

Note to Reader: You might find Mirza Ghalib’s obsession with mangoes as charming as I do. He wrote a masnavi (long poem in classical meter) praising mangoes; it is called Dar sifat-e ambaah (“On the Attributes of Mangoes”), and includes the following lines:

a mango is far sweeter than sugarcane...

perhaps from the great heights above

the gardeners of heaven’s orchards

have sent, by the order of God

wine filled in sealed glasses

Abbas Raza, is the Editor of 3quarksdaily.com and a fierce defender of the Urdu poet Ghalib, studied Philosophy at Columbia and now lives in the Italian Alps with his wife and cat.

His book, Pakistani and North Indian Cooking: A Complete Guide for Students and Beginners, is available now.

Credits

Name Role
Jaglish and Kamla Mittal Parrot on a Mango Tree