Photo by the writer
Photo by the writer

Over the years, I must have acquired hundreds of recipe books. However, I can’t claim to have cooked each dish they contain. I just read many of them for pleasure, and savour the descriptions and illustrations, often in bed. My collection contains many superbly produced volumes, perhaps none more so than Three Cuisines: A Tribute to Gastronomy.

Compiled by Dr Javaid Asgher, and published in 2017, the book is only sold online, with its proceeds going to charity. The ‘three cuisines’ in the title refer to the culinary treasure house of recipes that thrive along the cities, towns and villages of the Grand Trunk Road. Featured in the book is the wonderful cuisine of Kashmir (and one I am least familiar with, alas) and Hyderabad Deccan, perhaps the most famous one of them all, with a vast and glorious history.

TJ, an old friend from Lahore, presented me a copy; I had been unaware of the book’s existence before. As I leafed through it, I became aware of how little I actually knew about desi cooking. I was totally ignorant of many of the dishes, leave alone their recipes. Although I have just finished a quick glance-through, I have identified several recipes I want to have a go at immediately. In fact, there are many that have not even entered my culinary lexicon yet. And the sheer variety of the dishes makes choosing a few more difficult, even for an amateur like me.

For example, there are half a dozen kinds of pulaos, and an equal number of biryanis. Have you ever eaten (or heard of) Seviyon ki Biryani? I hadn’t until now. Apart from exposing my ignorance, this shows the lengths the author has gone to to collect rare and authentic recipes. The book’s 335 pages must contain close to 400 recipes, most of them beautifully illustrated. This is clearly a labour of love.

Personally, apart from fiddling around occasionally in the kitchen to cook desi dishes for the kids, I enjoy cooking Italian food. Many dismiss this as merely pasta and pizza, but have no idea how wrong they are. With its simple, fresh ingredients and regional styles, Italian cooking is simple and delicious if properly prepared. Sadly, our Pakistani restaurants that claim to serve Italian dishes rarely make the grade.

As an example of its simplicity, let me give you Aglio E Olio (garlic and oil). For this, chop some garlic finely and fry it gently with good quality virgin olive oil; sprinkle finely chopped parsley and a little crushed chilli, add salt and pepper to taste, mix the sauce with freshly cooked spaghetti and voila! You have a platter of delicious Aglio E Olio.

By contrast, most desi dishes are complicated affairs, with many ingredients. In Three Cuisines, Guddu ka Do Pyaza, a dish containing around five kilos of marrow bones, apart from a kilo of mutton, requires 17 ingredients, with a preparation time of 30 minutes, and a cooking time of one-and-a-half hours. So clearly, many of Dr Asgher’s dishes aren’t for the working housewife.

This is not meant as a criticism of Three Cuisines. But the fact is that the complex South Asian cuisine that flourished until some 70 years ago, is gradually dying out, and is now limited to certain homes where traditions still prevail. In these days of fast food, takeaway services and restaurants that seem to pop up daily, who has the time to shop, cut, chop and cook? Nevertheless, it is the number and complexity of ingredients that give our dishes their depth of flavour.

There was a time when the daughters of the house learned special family recipes from their mothers and thus culinary traditions were passed along. Men, of course, seldom entered the kitchen. But now, many girls join professional careers little time to cook. And thus, we are losing our gastronomic heritage. But luckily, we have Dr Asgher to remind us of this loss and encourage us to revive it.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 5th, 2020