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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Everything You Need to Cook Pakistani Food at Home

Lille Allen/Eater

Just a few simple spices and tools will get you started

Pakistani cuisine is all about layering flavors. Over centuries, home cooks have used spices and techniques instinctively, each responding to generational gustatory coding honed and passed down by the matriarchs. Consider the biryani, in which translucent slices of lemon and fine slivers of sharp green chiles are layered with rice and meat curry and trapped steam is used to infuse brightness and heat through the deg, or large pot. It is much an art as a skill to draw the spice from the meat curry and cut it with the fragrance of citrus without one canceling out the other.

Learning how to do this, of course, takes both time and practice. So if you’re a Pakistani-cooking novice, “I’d recommend getting familiar with the food” first, says Sahar Siddiqi, the chef at Atlanta’s Chai Pani and a 2023 James Beard Award semifinalist. “Go out and find a Pakistani restaurant and order a bunch of food, even things you wouldn’t normally eat. This is the only way to feel comfortable with the flavor profiles.”

Because of the intuitiveness involved, Pakistani cooking can be intimidating for the uninitiated, but once you’re ready to ditch the takeout and start experimenting, a few simple spices and tools will go a long way in priming your kitchen for a wide range of dishes, from dal to karhai.

Essential spices for Pakistani cooking

In Pakistani cooking, spices are used to build layers and depth of flavor. And it isn’t always about the heat — there are spices that add warmth, those that brighten, and others, such as asafoetida, that bring the funk. When Siddiqi started her culinary journey at home, her staples included plenty of ground spices: turmeric, coriander, cumin, and red chile powder. “If you have those,” she says, “you can make a lot.” With the right spices stored in tightly sealed containers — or recycled pickle jars if you’ve lived with or near South Asian parents — you’ll find it just as easy to kickstart your Pakistani food experiment with a dal or a chicken karahi, the latter of which comes highly recommended as a starter dish by food writer Maryam Jillani. “It’s a straightforward recipe that does a great job of capturing bright Pakistani flavors and is pretty well represented across the country,” she says.

Jillani also recommends both turmeric and red chile powder. While it is tempting to reach for the Hungarian paprika hanging out in your spice cabinet, a ground red chile powder sourced from Pakistan, India, or Kashmir will go a long way in bringing essential flavor to your cooking. Go for a smidge if a pinch is scary, or boldly stir in a spoonful of the stuff.

Another essential weapon in the Pakistani culinary armory is garam masala, a ground mixture of spices such as peppercorn, cinnamon, cumin, and coriander that shows up in dishes such as haleem or chana masala. “I always recommend either finding a great garam masala that you love or making your own. Spicewalla has a fantastic one,” Siddiqi says. “It’s a staple in so many dishes and so many of the premade ones are trash.”

Some recipes, such as mutton yakhni pulao (made with lamb or goat meat) or kharay masala keema (loosely translated as minced meat with whole spices), call for the same spices in garam masala to be used intact; when Jillani is prepping to cook for friends on a holiday, she doesn’t take chances. “I always pack a ziplock that includes a mix of whole spices such as dried red chiles, cumin and coriander seeds, black cardamom, and cinnamon stick,” she says.

While it won’t live on your spice rack, you will find yourself reaching for crushed garlic and ginger frequently if you’re cooking Pakistani food. Both are readily available at most supermarkets but are better and fairly easy to make at home in large quantities.

“The store-bought ones have a bunch of citric acid as a preservative that alters the flavor and it’s just not as fresh. I usually make a cup’s worth at a time and it lasts about 10 days in the fridge,” says Siddiqi.

What to buy:

• Spicewalla coriander powder
• The Spice House turmeric powder
• Everest turmeric powder
• Aara extra-hot red chile powder
• MDH deggi mirch chile powder
• Tata Sampann chile powder masala
• Spicewalla garam masala

Basmati rice

Another uncompromisable pantry staple is basmati rice. The hallmark of most Pakistani rice dishes like pulao or aloo tehri is rice cooked to perfection with fluffy separate grains. Unlike the slightly sticky rice in Turkish or Japanese food, basmati has a light fluffy texture that makes for perfect mouthfeel and a gentle nutty flavor. Find a good basmati, as “it definitely impacts the quality” of food you’re making, says Jilliani.

What to buy:

Crown Premium basmati rice

Instant Pot

Both Siddiqi and Jillani agree the Instant Pot has become an essential part of the Pakistani home kitchen evolution. Despite opposition from purists, its ability to shorten cooking times for dishes such as the classic aloo gosht (a curry made with goat meat and potatoes) without compromising on flavor has made it a staple for millennials.

“I love the Instant Pot — this may be an unpopular opinion and I don’t care,” says Siddiqi. “It’s relatively mess-free, which I love. I don’t use it often, but when I do I never regret it. My favorite thing to make in it is dal gosht because it eliminates the need of using two pans and pre-cooking the mutton.”

“I felt like it was going to be more work than it was worth, but once you get the hang of it, it really isn’t,” says Jilliani. “I use it to make dal, mutton, and yogurt.”

What to buy:

Instant Pot Pro

Pots, pans, and other stovetop kitchen tools

But if you’re not an Instant Pot fan (or just don’t want another kitchen appliance), a heavy-duty stock pot or Dutch oven will do the trick.

Another workhorse in a Pakistani kitchen is that pot you can trust for your rice. A pan too narrow, a base too thick, or a material that heats unevenly could leave your rice mushy, overcooked, or stuck to the bottom. “Rice is not forgiving,” says Siddiqi, who recommends “a good rice pot with a lid — a slightly wide 4-quart saucepan with a glass lid is ideal for my household.”

What to buy:

• Calphalon 5-quart anodized nonstick Dutch oven
• KitchenAid 6-quart stainless steel induction stockpot
• KitchenAid 4.5-quart stainless steel deep saute pan
• All-Clad 4-quart anodized nonstick saute pan

Many Pakistani recipes using lentils call for finishing off the dish with tempered spices, or tarka (sometimes spelled tadka), a technique so beloved that over the years it sparked an entire category of tarka dals. The process of tempering or blooming spices requires slowly roasting whole spices, herbs, chiles, or garlic in hot oil. This releases and melds the flavors into the oil and caramelizes the ingredients, creating a smokey richness that you can swirl through the dish or pour on top as a garnish. Siddiqi recommends a small or medium nonstick skillet for this, a tool for her hypothetical go-bag in case she is ever stranded on a deserted island.

A good wooden spoon is also in Siddiqi’s go-bag, and while she built up her spoon collection over the years with her mom, you can start yours with a few smart purchases online.

What to buy:

• Tramontina 10-inch aluminum nonstick pan
• Ninja 8-inch C50020 Foodi NeverStick fry pan
• Le Cruset Revolution wood scraping spoon
• Jonathan’s Spoons Spootle wooden spoon

Food processor and measuring spoons

Since chopped onions and tomatoes and crushed garlic and ginger are featured heavily in Pakistani curries, lentils, beans, meat, and rice, both Jillani and Siddiqi suggest a small food processor or mixer if you are seriously considering a Pakistani cuisine adventure.

And of course, if you’re dipping into freshly crushed garlic or turmeric powder, do invest in a nice set of stainless steel measuring spoons to avoid any lingering fragrance or stains.

What to buy:

• KitchenAid 3.5-cup food chopper
• Cuisinart 14-cup vegetable chopper
• Oster 10-cup food processor
• Spring Chef heavy-duty stainless steel measuring spoons

Halima Mansoor is a breaking news editor who sees the kitchen as a revolutionary space. In addition to documenting food, she is on a mission to trace her food heritage, explore immigrant cuisine, and initiate more people into the Marmite club.

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