Experiencing Pakistani Food Culture
The robust fragrance of spices looms in the air, colorful dishes are being prepared meticulously, pots have been boiling for hours, and tea leaves are being steeped in heated water. It’s nearly dinner time and the sensation of joy is unescapable. Ultimately, several dishes are prepared and spread graciously onto the table.
Just as hunger reaches its absolute peak, it’s time to enjoy this fragrant and mouthwatering meal. The first bite foreshadows a heavenly experience and I am forever grateful for this moment. These are the divine experiences of my childhood, growing up in a Pakistani household in the United States and having a mom who is an astonishingly amazing cook.
My mother never prepared American cuisine for my brother or me. She feared the day we would lose our “cultural roots” and our taste for spicy foods. I assured her I would lose neither, as my identity as a Pakistani woman is strong and deep-seated.
Alas, she persisted, as mothers usually do. Nonetheless, I loved being in the kitchen with her while she prepared flavorful Pakistani feasts. I always waited patiently for my turn to stir, chop, and especially taste.
As long I can remember, before I even really knew the meaning of the word, I have always been a foodie. So, I guess you could say I lucked out growing up around such remarkable and unique culinary delights. Food is an enormous part of the rich Pakistani culture. There are no gatherings, big or small, that are complete without food; lots and lots of food.
Therefore, I want to share some of the dishes that I love, so you can understand Pakistani cuisine a little more. I encourage you to experience these dishes or others at home, using recipes, or in a restaurant; perhaps you’ll even grow to love them as I have.
I typically have the pleasure of indulging in home-cooked Pakistani food, but sometimes I go to a lovely, little area in Chicago called Devon Street. In my opinion, this charming street is the closest thing to Pakistan outside of Pakistan.
Two of my favorite restaurants on Devon Street are Khan BBQ and Karahi Corner. If you're ever in Chicago, be sure to stop by either restaurant for dinner after a few hours of shopping; you'll find great Pakistani jewelry and clothing shops on this street as well.
My absolute favorite Pakistani dish is Chicken Biryani. This filling meal is a marvelous mixture of rice, chicken, potatoes, aromatic spices, fresh herbs and, just to make it a little more special, yellow and orange food coloring. It takes several hours to prepare and has many steps, but the result is outstanding.
The rice, potatoes, and spiced chicken are prepared separately then layered together. The ingredients are sprinkled with fresh herbs and food coloring before mixing. This dish can also be made vegetarian or with shrimp, ground beef, or lamb. It is commonly served at big celebrations, such as weddings, but can also be made for a date night at home.
Another dish I really enjoy is Seekh Kabab, which is seasoned ground meat that is formed into a cylindrical shape on a skewer. It is then prepared on the grill and served fresh with a side of Naan, which is cooked in a tandoor and similar to pita bread. If you enjoy meat, Seekh Kabab is certainly delightful and something worth trying.
A Pakistani vegetarian dish that I enjoy is called "Bhindhi", which means "okra" in Urdu. It can be prepared in many ways, but I like it most with tomatoes and spices sautéed on a frying pan. This vegetable dish is delicious with Naan or fresh Chapatti, which is a sort of unleavened flat bread.
There is a drink that is very popular in Pakistan, which is called Rooh Afza. It is a non- alcoholic syrup that is made from rose and other ingredients. The syrup can be added to milk or water and makes for a divine summer drink. This beverage is very common to drink in Ramadan during iftar.
You will find that most Pakistanis love Rooh Afza. This special drink is definitely something you have to experience for yourself, because it tastes neither like a juice or a soda. It fits perfectly somewhere in between.
Sweets are also a huge part of the spread in Pakistan. There are always dessert options and Chai after dinner. Chai is a combination of black, fragrant spiced tea which is boiled with milk and sugar. Pakistanis will usually spend hours drinking chai and talking together after dinner. There are even late night chai spots in Karachi that are quite popular; Chaiwala is one of my favorites.
In regards to speciality sweets, one of the most famous desserts that is great with chai is called “Mithai”, which literally means "sweets". Mithai comes in many flavors and shapes, and it is a perfect mixture of milk and sugar. In Pakistani culture, it is customary to have lots of mithai at big celebrations, especially during weddings.
The dishes I have shared with you are just a few of the hundreds of delicious options you will find among Pakistani cuisine. You just have to experience them. Trust me, no matter your taste, you’ll love something about our food; and our wonderful culture.
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