If you run a restaurant anywhere in North India, one way to ensure that it does fabulously, is to have a Pakistani food festival occasionally. The presence, even on the regular menu, of Pindi Chhole, Lahori Ghosht or Chappli Kebab (the last named is known to be a signature of Peshawari cuisine) will only ensure steady sales. However, if all else fails, try getting a chef or two from across the border: crowds will beat a retreat to your door. When we want Indian sweets, we ask unabashedly for Karachi halwa; when we want the best quality of fenugreek leaves, we loudly inquire about Kasuri methi, and when we want to improve our complexions, we do not hesitate to buy Multani mitti.
Kasuri methi is the most misleading of all: Kasur is a small town 55 kms south-east of Lahore. It is where a particularly fine grade of fenugreek grows (the best in India grows in Nagaur, Rajasthan). When we ask for Kasuri methi, we are unknowingly asking for the Pakistani version!
Attend any food fair in North India, and the most crowded stall will be that of Shan, the spices people. After using their qorma masala, I know why. Where our home-grown brands advertise the use of garam masalas – cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, mace and peppercorns, Shan actually uses them. Their pungency will linger on your palate long after you’ve eaten. Even better than Shan is Laziza, another Pakistani brand. I have only tried their Biryani Masala but it is arguably the finest spice brand it has been my privilege to try: nobody has been able to believe that yours truly has cooked the biryani at home.
I will not go into detail about designers from Pakistan, so-called Pakistani suits hawked (at a hefty premium) across Delhi and Punjab and Pakistani artists – this column is about food after all. The point I wish to make is that in Pakistan, there is disappointingly little reference to India and Indian ingredients. When Delhi-based restaurateur Suddha Kukreja visited Pakistan last year, few and far between were the references to Indian influences in Pakistani cuisine. All Kukreja ever heard was that a dish of chhola puris were made in the North Indian style, but it was said self-consciously, as if to absolve themselves of the consequences. So why can’t they be more up-front about desi influences?
Even Sri Lanka, which has never been a part of India as Pakistan has, (Ram Setu notwithstanding) used to refer to onions as Bombay onions, perhaps because they were exported from Maharashtra. When I was last in Sri Lanka, nationalists were violently objecting to the nomenclature! “What is wrong with calling them red onions?” they wanted to know.
Why don’t we Indians behave in this petty fashion? Is it because we are more liberal than our neighbours? Or because we have a more evolved palate and evaluate flavours on the basis of their sheer taste and not their provenance? It is food for thought.
Footnote: Vegetarian food may be the glory of our cuisine; in Pakistan it is decidedly a second class citizen!