The Taste of Pakistan with Fatima Khawaja

24 Oct 2013 09.59 am by Renny Wijeyamohan

“Pakistani food is extremely hearty,” says Fatima Khawaja of Bouchon Bakery, New York. And she’s not wrong about that. Toasty flat breads, piping hot rice, spicy stews and rich curries form the backdrop that makes up the cuisine from this part of the sub-continent. Here, “low-carb” and “lean” are terms that are well and truly off the menu.


“What you’re eating depends on whose dining table your sitting on, what their background is and most importantly, where in the country you are,” says Khawaja. “The cuisine is complied by regional dishes, historical influences from before the partition and after, and is heavily influenced by our sub-continent presence, in regards to local ingredients and regional flavours.”


The Abu Dhabi-born graduate of New York’s prestigious Culinary Institute of America has been living and working in the United States since she moved there from her home in Lahore, Pakistan in 2008. “My training is French, and very European in regards to my skills and techniques because of my time spent at the CIA. But the tricks of the trade and my love for spices, rice and ingredients like ginger come from my time in Pakistan…”


Common ingredients like red onions, ginger, garlic, coriander (aka cilantro), yoghurt and tomatoes form the basis of many Pakistani meals, but the way they get from farmer to consumer is very different to the West. In particular, markets – in vogue as the “authentic” alternative elsewhere – are the predominant method of sale in Pakistan. 


Here, spices like turmeric, coriander seed, red chili powder, cumin, fenugreek, and caraway seeds can be purchased alongside delicious fruits like custard apples, lychees, mangos and canteloupes. Roadside hawkers and vendors also circulate around towns and markets. “Milk can always be bought fresh as well, from goats or cows. The vendor will show up in the mornings or on a motorcycle with huge copper pots hanging off each side of his bike. These pots are loaded with milk, and can be portioned out by the choice of container you decide to bring out to him.”


Pickling has also historically been used in the region as a method to store produce long term. According to Khawaja, “Mangos, carrots, garlic, turnip and cauliflower are pickled heavily in vinegar and oil. These ‘achars’ – (the generic name given to anything that is pickled) are always found in jars in the market and are a staple of Pakistani dry storage.” In terms of taste, “They add tanginess and a complex layer of flavour to simple dishes like beef stew, lentils or stir fry called ‘karahi’.”she says.


Home growing

Pakistan is no stranger to food gardens and the home growing scene is widespread. Khawaja’s mother, now 60 still maintains a food garden. “She grows chillies, all sorts of herbs that you can’t find in the local markets, tomatoes, different types of lemons, as well as a wide range of greens like lettuce and rocket.” But the organic grow-your-own restaurant culture that has caught on in the United States and Australia amongst other countries, however, has not yet penetrated Pakistan. According to Khawaja, “cooks and food establishments rarely keep their own garden. This fad and culture is more recent to America, and has not really reached Pakistan just yet. I can’t think of any restaurants that grow their own produce even though we have quite a fruitful growing season.” Perhaps the ready availability of fresh produce from local markets means local restaurateurs are spoiled for choice.


Kitchen gardens a source for food security

Food gardening, or “kitchen gardening”, as it has become known in Pakistan has been identified as a method for reinforcing food security. With more than one third of the population living below the poverty line – kitchen gardens offer a real alternative against rising food prices. Organisations like the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, the Rural Development Organisation and the Punjab Agriculture Department are working with local families to offer agriculture training as well as resources to build and tend to home plots.


As Zubeida Mustafa, a Pakistani journalist, observes:


“Many enterprising women have risen to meet the challenge by encouraging the poor to acquire self-sufficiency in food by growing their own vegetables in their backyards. Parveen Rahman, director of Orangi Pilot Project’s Research and Training Institute, comments on her organization’s aborted attempt to launch a program encouraging a kitchen garden in every home in the low-income Orangi Township. ‘This was many years ago and we could not get the women to take an interest in horticulture. So we cultivated OPP’s own little plot of land and grew vegetables there which the staff would purchase.’ But now Parveen is hopeful that there will be more interest when she revives the kitchen garden program.


Another activist, Najma Sadeque, associated with Shirkatgah’s Green Economics Initiative, is already working on a plan to get women to grow vegetables at home. She is preparing a video to use for her training program."


From Khawaja’s perspective, these developments centred on people power are steps in the right direction. “I would love to see where it goes, and will undoubtedly support it.”


fatima khawaja  
pakistani cuisine  
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