Hands up, all those who have tasted a dish called achrach. If you have, you are in a tiny minority as none of my friends had even heard of it until they ate it at my mother’s table in Karachi. Sadly, she is no longer with us, but the recipe lives on in her cookbook called Pakao aur Khilao. And for those who are interested, the recipe follows later.
The book had its origins in my move to England a decade ago. Before leaving, I asked my mother to write down the recipes of some of my favourite dishes from her wide repertoire. This ultimately grew into a book, and now has pride of place in my large collection of cookbooks.
In the West, cooking programmes have become enormously popular, as have cookbooks. Indeed, they dominate non-fiction bestseller lists, with bookshops displaying scores of titles. But here’s an odd thing: despite the enormous popularity of cookery programmes and recipe books, fewer people actually cook meals from scratch than ever before. Pre-cooked meals and fast food are selling like the proverbial hot cakes.
So now it’s cooking programmes and cookbooks as entertainment, with their authors and presenters achieving rock star status. In Pakistan, too, TV cooking shows are increasingly popular. In fact, one friend told me his 10-year old son demanded lobster in a Karachi restaurant after having seen one being cooked on TV.
Over the years, my wife and I have built up a large collection of cookbooks, and they are scattered between my flat in Karachi, our holiday home in Sri Lanka and our house in Devizes. Often, I flip through one for ideas, even when I’m not looking for anything specific. A friend was horrified to learn that occasionally, I even read a cookbook in bed.
My favourite culinary author is Elizabeth David, now long dead. She was enormously influential in introducing Italian and French cuisines to post-war Britain when shortages made it difficult to eat well. With good reason, British cooking had a terrible reputation for its blandness. Now, of course, London is the foodie capital of the world, but Elizabeth David’s contribution to this transformation is often overlooked.
Nobody has done more to popularise South Asian cuisine in the UK than Madhur Jaffrey. Her books The Ultimate Curry Bible, An Invitation to Indian Cooking and A Taste of India are classics, and her TV programmes have made desi cooking accessible to a wide Western audience. Another indispensable cookbook is 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Punjabi. One of my favourite recipes from this collection is for elaichi gosht. This is a Sindhi dish cooked by upper-caste Hindus who avoid onions, ginger and garlic because they grow underground. I have cooked it often with great success.
Probably the most thumbed through volume in my collection is the Larousse Gastronomique, the great French encyclopaedia of cookery. This informative work contains entries for a vast number of dishes, techniques, ingredients and utensils. And while it tends to be more focused on French cooking, recent editions have tried to be more international. I came across a recipe for cooking the pads from bear paws in an old edition, and wrote about it in jest. In a furious letter, a reader accused me of ignoring the bear’s endangered status in Pakistan, and encouraging people to eat the animals.
One of my all-time favourites in the genre is Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential. While he is now a famous TV presenter and author, he began his professional life in tough New York kitchens. That’s where he got the material for his witty and sharply observed book about what really goes on behind the scenes in even well-known restaurants. This is compulsory reading for anybody thinking of investing in a restaurant.
And now back to the achrach: You start with half a kilo of minced meat and four onions; with one of these you make the usual base with ginger, garlic and spices before you brown the meat until it has released all its moisture. Add a couple of tablespoons of yoghurt and a glass of water, and cook for a few minutes. Finally, throw in a bunch of chopped mint, the remaining three onions, roughly sliced and — here’s the twist — an unripe mango, also sliced. Salt to taste. Cook until the onion is soft but not brown. The sour flavour of the mango balances the onions very nicely. Sadly, I’ll be missing the mango season, so no achrach for me this year.