Pakistan has been in the news for the last few years, but always for the wrong reasons.
Terrorist bombings. Questions about the loyalty of the intelligence services. The embarrassment of being the hiding place of Osama bin Laden.
But how much do we know about this country of 190 million people -- it's the sixth-most-populous country in the world -- living in an area twice the size of California?
For many reasons, perhaps the best way to learn about a country is through its food. Food can teach you about a culture, a history, a geography. It can tell you about a people and how they live.
And there is no more delicious way to learn.
On a recent Saturday, Rehana and Naveed Ahmed held a gathering in their Perrysburg, Ohio, home to celebrate the cuisine of their native Pakistan. Several friends came, bringing their favorite dishes.
"In our culture, for women, food is such a social thing. Whenever there is a party, the first thing they say is, 'Can I bring something? What can I bring?' And it makes it easier for the hostess," said Umber Ansari, who brought a roasted chicken and a dessert of sweet, shredded carrots.
Pakistan stretches like a long finger from the Arabian Sea between India on the east and Afghanistan on the west, and it shares smaller borders with Iran and China. Its food bears a certain resemblance to the cuisine of most of those countries -- not so much of China -- and yet it is unique. It is sort of like Indian food, particularly Northern Indian food, but not quite. It is sort of like Afghan food, but not quite. It is sort of like Iranian food, but not quite.
It is Pakistani food, and the cooking even varies throughout the different regions of the country.
What makes the cuisine so distinctive are the herbs and spices that are predominant in it. Fresh coriander (usually called cilantro in this country) and mint are the most common herbs, while the frequently used spices include coriander seed, cumin, cayenne pepper and turmeric, said Farhana Habib, who brought a mulligatawny soup. While those flavors are all also used throughout the region, the difference lies in the proportions, she said.
All of the spices, and especially the reliance on fried onions, does have one drawback: an unmistakable fragrance, which can linger a long time in a kitchen.
"It's there for all time," said Habib. And that is why, as Amjad Hussain noted, some houses in Pakistan have a separate kitchen outside. Hussain is a columnist for the Toledo Blade.
It used to be much harder in this area to cook their home cuisine than it is now. A proliferation of Indian markets has helped to make it easy to find the spices they use, and halal meats -- which have been ritually slaughtered for Muslims to eat in accordance with the Quran -- are available at Middle Eastern markets.
The meal began with the mulligatawny soup, a reliable favorite. The basis for the soup is lentils, which is not a surprise; a legume, lentils are one of the most important ingredients in Pakistani cooking. According to Rehana Ahmed, they use 12 different types of lentils, each with its own taste and each with its own cooking time.
Habib makes her mulligatawny with chicken stock and shredded chicken, which, in a family tradition, she first stir-fries without oil. The primary spice is cumin, though it is given additional heat from cayenne pepper and a light acidic counterpoint from a squeeze of lemon juice. But the secret to her recipe, the ingredient that gives it a distinctive texture, is a surprise: It calls for a few tablespoons of quick oats.
One great introduction to Pakistani food, especially for people already familiar with Indian food, is palak gosht, a mixture of spinach and lamb that has been flavored with ginger and garlic paste, fenugreek leaves, tomatoes, cinnamon and cloves; you can make it as hot as you want with as much cayenne pepper as you desire.
Bhuna gosht, which Rehana Ahmed also served, is a lamb stew that uses many of the same ingredients as palak gosht. But because the spices are layered differently (and because there is no spinach), the resulting dish seems completely unrelated to it. This is a meaty stew rather than a spinach dish flavored with lamb.
A spiced whole cauliflower, or phool gobi, added a nutritious vegetable element to the meal, while a different set of flavors came from chapli kebab -- fried, flat patties of ground beef and spices. Naturally, rice was a major part of this meal or any meal from the region, and Rehana Ahmed served a yakhani pulao, which is less like rice and more like a whirlwind of flavors that happens to be attached to rice. Rehana Ahmed first makes a broth using various spices, and she then cooks the rice in the broth with several additional spices.
A meal that is so heavily spiced (and often searingly hot, although it doesn't need to be if you don't like it that way) calls out for a dessert that is cool and refreshing. Ansari's carrot dessert, gajar ka halwa, was intriguingly delicious. Shredded carrots were slightly dehydrated to intensify their flavor, then cooked in sugar, ghee (clarified butter), cardamom and a large amount of milk powder.
A second dessert prepared by Rehana Ahmed was just as welcome, a rice pudding called kheer. Made with half-and-half, heavy cream, condensed milk, cardamom and sushi rice, and topped with chopped pistachios, it was delicious in any country and any language.
1 cup split masoor lentils (orange split lentils)
3 cups chicken stock
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional
1/3 cup quick oats
1/2 cup shredded cooked chicken
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon cumin, crushed or powder
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 cup cooked rice, optional
Put lentils in a stockpot and pour in chicken stock and cayenne pepper, if using. Bring to a boil, then lower the temperature and simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are soft and disintegrated, and have changed color from orange to yellow. Add oats and cook another 10 minutes. If the lentils are not done and the soup appears too thick, add water, 1/3 cup at a time, until you reach the consistency you desire.
Stir in chicken, salt, cumin and lemon juice. To serve, put a tablespoon of cooked rice at the bottom of the bowl and pour soup over it.
Yield: 4 servings
-- Farhana Habib
BHUNA GOSHT (LAMB STEW)
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 pound lamb stew or beef stew
1 tablespoon garlic-ginger paste (see cook's note)
Salt to taste
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 medium onions, sliced
4-5 small hot red peppers, or to taste, sliced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or to taste
6 whole cloves
6 black peppercorns
1 large black cardamom
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon garam masala
2 tablespoons julienned ginger
4 tablespoons plain yogurt
4 tablespoons lemon juice
Cook's note: Garlic-ginger paste, along with the spices, can be found at Indian or Pakistani markets. Instead of the paste, you can mince 1-1/2 teaspoons each of garlic and ginger as finely as possible or mash it together using a mortar and pestle.
Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to grind the coriander and cumin seeds into a powder, and set aside. Put 3 cups of water in a large pot over medium-high heat, and add the meat, garlic-ginger paste and salt. Cook until the meat is tender. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large pan over medium heat, add the onions and saute until soft, 3-5 minutes. Add the reserved cumin and coriander, peppers, crushed red pepper, whole cloves, black peppercorns, black cardamom, cinnamon stick, garam masala, julienned ginger and yogurt. Saute for a few minutes. Add the cooked meat and the liquid it cooked in. Simmer 15-20 minutes until the oil separates and the most of the liquid has evaporated. Add lemon juice, and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
-- Rehana Ahmed
(Contact Daniel Neman at dneman(at)theblade.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)