Dhansak, a rich combination of meat, lentils and vegetables is a Parsi dish served with rice, papad and fresh kachumar salad | Photo from the book
Dhansak, a rich combination of meat, lentils and vegetables is a Parsi dish served with rice, papad and fresh kachumar salad | Photo from the book

Sayeeda Leghari is a well-known entrepreneur. She was determined, however, to introduce the world to Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage through an exploration of Pakistani food. This determination resulted in her debut publication Pakistan Heritage Cuisine: A Food Story. The book recently won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award in the category ‘Best Asian Cookbook in the World’ (founded in 1995, the Awards honour authors, publishers, food writers and all those who “cook with words” from more than 200 countries).

It is not surprising to see the accolades coming her way as she elegantly — and always with respect — weaves together the history of subcontinental food alongside the cultural differences between Pakistani and Indian cooking.

The focus of the book, however, is Pakistan. Leghari traces the diversity of the country’s food through its provinces, with each page spotlighting dishes tied to Pakistan’s very identity. The range of cuisine is impressive and ambitious, from dal fry to multiple kinds of biryani, from the kulcha of Lahore to Peshawari ice cream; and Leghari does us a service by clearing up the long-standing confusion surrounding this treat –– the confection really did originate in Karachi, in 1948. The three brothers who had created it sold it in a shop named after their birthplace and overtime, the name of the shop became synonymous with the ice cream itself.

An award-winning book traces the diversity of Pakistani cuisine across its provinces

A noteworthy inclusion is of what is traditionally considered ‘community cuisine’, such as nargisi koftay and Bohri thaal — two of my favourite dishes not only for their distinct flavour, but for the experience of making them that truly brings people together. Leghari also features a top-notch section on assorted kebabs, detailing their various methods of preparation as well as explaining how nuances in spice or seasoning can dramatically affect their final impression on the palate.

The first thing you notice about Pakistan Heritage Cuisine is how gorgeous the book is. An abundance of lavish, lush photographs — contributed by some highly renowned names such as Izdeyar Setna, Amna Zuberi, Kohi Marri and Mobeen Ansari — support Leghari’s writing. There are mouth-watering close-ups of rich, creamy rabri, a shock of colour from a handful of burnished, dried red chilies. There are warm, homey shots of people engaged in the pleasure of eating good food and finally, there are photos of the places that inspired the cuisine.

Although it did win an award with ‘cookbook’ in the title, this is not purely a collection of recipes. Pakistan Heritage Cuisine is where you find the story behind your favourite dish and how it connects and resonates with subcontinental traditions and culture. Leghari’s firsthand research involved travelling across Pakistan with a friend who had a talented nose for discovering the most authentic restaurants and she supports her own findings with commentaries from some of the stalwarts of Pakistan’s art and culture scene, such as the late dramatist Fatima Surayya Bajia and artist Marjorie Husain.

Leghari sets a steady, absorbing tone to her book from the outset. “The cuisine of a country is intricately woven into its fabric and shaped by the history and characteristics of the region and its people. A cuisine reflects the culture, traditions, faiths and food habits of the people who have contributed towards its growth,” reads the introduction. “The skill and imagination of local culinary experts came into play as they blended the newly arrived cuisines with their own local ones to create cuisines that reached magnificent heights during the Mughal period and continue to please discerning palates to this day,” it continues.

The selection of cuisine highlighted is clearly a labour of love for the author, but readers might feel that several dishes have been overlooked, as the range of Pakistani food is quite vast. On a positive note, however, all proceeds from Pakistan Heritage Cuisine will go to the Child Aid Association.

The reviewer is a social entrepreneur

Pakistan Heritage Cuisine: A Food Story
By Sayeeda Leghari
Markings, Lahore
Isbn: 978-9699251955
300pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 15th, 2018

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