How would you introduce yourself to our readers?
I write a food memoir-style blog, titled The Spice Spoon, which is inspired by my heritage and was recently selected as one of Top 50 Food Websites in the world by The Independent newspaper in the UK. In my blog, I relate each recipe to a memory – often from my childhood – of loved ones and of the places I have lived in. When I write a vignette, I want it to remind my readers of the place and time they tasted a dish their mother prepared for them as a child.
Through my stories, I also want people to see my part of the world- Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran through a different optic- with a more human face, rather than in a negative light, as is often depicted in the media.
Tell us a bit about your background.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, I am a Pakistani-Afghan with Iranian ancestry. I am the daughter of an expat, someone you would call a ‘World Bank brat’, who has lived in Pakistan, the USA, Nigeria, Kenya, the UK, and most recently, Rome, Italy where I worked for the United Nations. But after six years, staying true to my nomadic lifestyle, I moved to Toronto, Canada with my husband.
I had just moved to Toronto from Rome and while looking for a new job, I recreated the dishes which reminded me of my childhood, to feel rooted in a place in which I felt lost. I made plump rice puddings, fragrant with cardamom – the kind that my maternal grandmother used to make during hot summers in Lahore – we would have it cold with slices of vermillion-hued mango slices. I made spiced basmati pilafs with caramelised onion ribbons and cloves, reminiscent of Eid dinners we had at our family home in Lahore. It was during this time that I began to ask my mother and aunt for our family’s heritage recipes – so I could put pencil to paper and preserve them.
I adore my full-time job as an economist, but cookery, writing and photography are also a passion. I make time on Sundays to spend on my blog. Unfortunately, there are many weekends when I simply cannot work on it.
Throughout your lifetime you have had the opportunity to travel and live in many different countries, did that make you more open to trying out new kinds of food?
I was 18 years old when I had my first mussel in a white wine and garlicky broth. My best friend introduced me to it at a restaurant in Boston. I would have to say that it is the people in my life, including my father, who have inspired me to try new kinds of food, rather than the places I have lived in. Having said that, I am grateful to have lived in so many countries, which has enriched my culinary experiences.
I always had an interest in cookery. When I was nine years old, I created – quite disastrously – fruit cobblers. My family politely ate it all, which I suspect had a lot to do with the vanilla ice cream they smothered the cobbler with; and very little to do with the cobbler itself. Over the next few years I started to prepare Cantonese dishes from my mum’s cookery books and cook alongside my friends in school. But it was not until I went to university that I started to prepare Pakistani dishes.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
My grandmothers were fascinating cooks. My paternal grandmother whom we affectionately called Mader; mother in Dari, would prepare creamy, fluffy mayonnaise or perfectly round Victoria sponge cakes with her homemade apricot jam slathered in between the layer. My Nani Ami; maternal grandmother, made aromatic pilafs alongside spicy, tomato-based braised stews. These ladies have always been my inspiration.
Do you ever try to create fusion dishes by mixing different flavors from around the world?
As a family, because we moved around so much, we felt we wanted to preserve the originality of those particular dishes which reminded us of our heritage. I may not be a fan of ‘fusion cuisine’, but I do, however, believe that dishes evolve over time, incorporating ingredients and methodologies from different cultures. Being the daughter of a Pakistani-Afghan family, I have seen how the Afghan dishes prepared in our home have come to include some elements from the Pakistani kitchen. For example, Aush, an Afghan soup we make in my family, has a heady kick of Pakistani spices which is not typical Afghan, but has been incorporated into the recipe over time.
The Spice Spoon is the only existing food-related blog with a sole focus on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran and heritage cookery. This gives my blog its unique niche in the very large world of food blogging.
What is the most delicious food recipe you ever created?
My paternal grandmother had Persian roots, which I didn’t know much about whilst growing up. Recently, inspired by her Persian background, I started to delve into Iranian cookery. I prepared a tah chin, which is a rice and saffron chicken casserole; a true labour of love to create. Of course this is an age-old recipe, not one that I invented, but I have created my own version of the dish.
What is your all time favorite recipe/food?
My mum’s chicken karahi comes first. But there are so many others: I love a rare steak alongside a tangle of frites; a tumble of spaghetti with Sicilian sun-ripened tomatoes, doused with grassy olive oil from Umbria; and seared foie gras with roasted quince is a weakness. And who can forget that lovely street food dish, papri chaat, from my city of birth, Lahore – slivers of crackly, fried dough, crowned with potatoes and chickpeas, slathered with yoghurt, mint, chili and tamarind chutney?
There are many beautiful food blogs out there, so when you decide to create one, find a niche for your blog, take ideas and inspiration from fellow bloggers, but use your own, unique voice.
Lastly, what is your message to the readers of The Saturday Post?
Always keep a bar of dark chocolate, preferably Valrhona’s Guarana, in your bedside drawer. It is one of life’s little pleasures.
Recipe: Chicken Kebab Sliders with Mint Aïoli
You will need 8-10 slider rolls, Serves 8-10
*1 slice whole wheat bread, toasted
*1 pound minced chicken (my butcher uses chicken breast)
* ½ a small onion, sliced very thinly
*1 small thumb ginger, julienned
*2 cups coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, stems and leaves
*2-3 Thai bird chilies, sliced straight into the mixture with kitchen shears
*2 tsp salt
*Any neutral oil (grape seed, for e.g.) for shallow frying
*Large frying pan
*Toast sliced bread till crisp. Allow to cool, then pulverise in a blender or food processor till it transforms into crumbs. Place in large mixing bowl.
*Add minced chicken, onion, ginger, cilantro, chilies, egg, salt and mix to combine. Use a spatula or gloves as the chilies can burn your fingers.
*For a salt-taste test, place frying pan on medium-high heat and add 1 teaspoon oil
*Take ½ a teaspoon of the mixture and drop into the hot oil. Flip on other side till done. Taste for salt. Add more salt to chicken mixture if necessary.
*Apply oil to your hands (or use gloves) and form meat into 2-inch round flat patties, about ½ -inch thick. Set aside on parchment / wax paper.
*Heat ¼ inch of oil in a pan over medium heat. Working in batches, add patties to oil and fry for 60-90 seconds per side or until golden brown and cooked through, adding more oil as needed (you may need to change the oil as it darkens)
*Transfer to a newspaper or paper towels to absorb excess oil
*2 fresh egg yolks (or pasteurised yolks)
*1 teaspoon minced garlic
* ½ cup fresh mint
*1½ cups olive oil
*1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
*Sea salt to taste
*In a blender, blitz yolks, garlic and mint till well incorporated
*While the blender is running, add oil in very slowly, in a thin stream
*Add lemon juice
*Add sea salt to taste
You will need olive oil
Slice the slider rolls in half, and brush the insides with olive oil. Place under your broiler till golden. Sandwich chicken kebab between slider roll after you slather it withmint aïoli. Serve with an arugula and cherry tomato salad, dressed with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.