My South Asian/Desi Cooking Journey

Growing up in Pakistan, I have always enjoyed South Asian/Desi dishes though I never had to cook them myself. Living in my parents’ house meant that there was house help available and a dedicated cook. Things changed when I moved to Canada. I still loved eating South Asian food but now had to cook myself to satisfy that craving. Sharing my journey of learning to cook South Asian/Desi food from the initial days of trial and error, first dinners and then the eventual comfort with the skill!



I got engaged (nikahfied actually) in the summer of 2008 in Pakistan and the date for the big wedding and Rukhsati was set for Dec of the same year. The wedding preparations started with full throttle. My husband lived in Canada so my wedding was a change not just of marital status but also moving to another country. Things were super busy in filling out immigration paper work, wrapping up my job in Islamabad, and saying goodbyes to my extremely settled life in Pakistan. My mother was however on another mission: she was convinced I needed to learn how to cook!

I assured her that i will survive because there were many south asian cooking books and videos available online. My husband unlike me, had left his parents’ house at the age of 18 to go to college and was a pretty decent cook himself. My mother didn’t listen to any of my arguments and assigned our cook to teach me the dishes I enjoyed at home with a scheduled class every evening. It was a source of amusement for the whole family to see me learn in the kitchen. Before this my only responsibility at big dinners had been to set the table and host. Learning how to cook the same dishes in the kitchen was a new experience. My 7-year-old nephew helped me write out the recipes in the cook book.

I must admit though that while there were many pictures taken and lots of fun in the kitchen, I was supported by many hands. Someone would help stir at the right time, or reduce the heat at a critical stage. It was only when I was finally standing in front of the pot by myself in my kitchen in Canada that I realized South Asian cooking wasn’t as easy as I had assumed. It was Day 10 in Canada and my husband had depleted the list of dishes he had mastered in his years of living abroad, namely: daal, chicken karhai and fried fish. We were sick of eating yet another fish burger and I had to take matters in my own hands.

I started cooking by taking instructions from my mother on the phone. My husband helped along and we managed to cook a half-decent Handi chicken. I was always my own worst critic because I love South Asian/Desi dishes and until they matched the taste I was used to at home I would not be satisfied. Soon I was calling my mother, mother-in-law, friends, nani, khala and phupos to get recipes that I enjoyed.

Buying ingredients was another challenge. I had to translate many names from Urdu to English to find them in Canada (or to google what they looked like, because I had no idea!) Imagine my joy when I saw an aisle full of Shan spice mixes at a local store. When I cooked with Shan, I experienced a mastery in my dishes I had never had before. Now I could enjoy Nihari at home just like it tasted when my phupo cooked it or Kerhai Gosht that was my father’s expertise.

(Disclaimer: I’m a brand ambassador for Shan. Read all about it here)

As is traditional for newly wed couples in desi families, we were invited to many dinners by family friends in Canada. I felt that it was now time to host a dawat (dinner) at our house and invite them all. My husband tried to convince me to host this dinner at a restaurant but I really wanted to have it at our new place. Invites were sent out, I planned a menu and the preparations started. I decided to stick with a simple menu: A super easy family recipe (gosht bhar), vegetable pulao (a dish I thought I had mastered), achar gosht (made my Shan spicemix), pasta salad, raita, baked chicken drumsticks and Chicken rolls.

We lived in a cozy one bedroom bungalow with a tiny kitchen. Our dining table was perfect for the two of us, but as we planned a dinner of eight adults we realized things would be tight. Since we were just starting out, I didn’t even have enough serving spoons and had to go out and buy new ones. We were also on a budget so I decided to get creative and re-purposed things around the house and used the cereal bowl for raita!

 

I made the rookie mistake of cooking everything on the day of the dinner. Thanks to Shan, the Achar Gosht was perfect! The directions were so simple and the result super professional! I moved onto the gosht bhar next and that also turned out to be great. However when I made the vegetable pulao, my andaza (approximation) of water went totally wrong because I had never cooked for so many people. The pulao was a miserable looking mix of water, vegetables and rice. My husband told me that he could quickly go and buy some cooked rice from a South Asian restaurant near by and nobody needed to know. This however felt like one of those teaching moments in life and I told him I needed to try one more time for my own confidence. I attempted again and this time the pulao was beautiful and khilli hoe! The pride I felt has helped me many a times at my other failing moments.

The dinner turned out OK. I was exhausted by the time the guests arrived and learnt to always cook a few dishes the day before. Some dishes were a success like the Achar Gosht and Gosht Bhar and I got the ultimate hostess compliment when I was asked for the recipe. I was happy to share the role Shan played in making the Achar Gosht a hit! The guests were quick to admit that they relied on Shan too for guaranteed results.

Many years have passed since that first dinner at our house, but I still often think about my excitement and anxiety on the day. Life has changed. I’m a mother now, we have moved many houses (and cities) since and definitely have more serving spoons now. Cooking healthy dishes at home has become a priority for me. We still love hosting at our house and I feel I have learnt a lot over the years through trial and error. But I like thinking back to that night because it reminds me of the journey I have taken learning and enjoying south asian/desi cooking.

Since Shan has been a special friend and supporter along the way, I’m sharing a recipe of Shan Achari Gosht that I cooked for that first dinner at our house and continue to rely on for big dinners even now. Hope you enjoy it!

 

Would love to hear how you learnt how to cook South Asian/Desi food and what your journey was like!

6 thoughts on “My South Asian/Desi Cooking Journey

  1. Urdu Mom after going through all your article I enjoyed and all those days refreshed in my mind…very well written..My dear may God bless you more success in life…May your blog and family flourish more & more…God bless you all..

  2. Hello Tamania!
    Hope you and your kids are doing well.I really enjoy your posts and your stroy time too with my daughter who is five years old and named Zainab too.Going through the above post I couldn’t resist to write because it seemed as if you were telling my story when I got married.I also got married in 2008 and moved to Dubai.First dinner that I hosted at my cosy apartment wasn’t too lavish as I didn’t know much cooking I still have a picture of it.I made potato cutlets,chicken handi,pulao and mix vegetable.By reading your post I got back to my initial journey of married life..enjoyed thoroughly..keep up the great work you are doing…bless you!!

    1. How lovely hearing from you and that you have a little Zainab too! We will remember to give her a special shout out at Story Time InshaAllah!
      It’s amazing how we share similar stories being on other sides of the world! Gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. Your first dinner menu sounds great! Super impressive! Take care and stay in touch!!

  3. Oh my oh my! I remember being there, I recognized the table with cold drinks all set and that felt familiar!!

    And yes, it was impressive since it was your first hosted dinner. Looked so well set MaShaAllah 🙂

    My journey to this end has been almost the same, except this time, it was my very gentle and friendly mom-in-law who urged me to have a bit of experience in cooking before my husband and I moved to Canada.
    During that one year in Lahore, my Mother in Law and I used to watch Chef Zakir’s shows (as he had some very simple and basic recipes to grasp easily). I actually enjoyed watching n noting things down as I had never before, and with my Mum in law’s encouragement (and my husband’s as well), I learned to do some basics. By the time I landed in Canada (2008), I was confident that I won’t let us starve at least ??.
    After all those years and with all those tips and tricks and of course Shan Masalas, I feel I have come to a point where I’m confident of my skills ;-). Alhamdulillah.

    1. Awww how lovely of you to remember! Thank you 🙂 it was always a joy having you guys over! I still use the dishes you gave us as a wedding gift! It was so thoughtful of you and they always remind me of you!
      Loved reading your cooking story! Your MIL sounds so sweet and helpful! What a great idea preparing you for the great Canadian adventure 🙂 you’re an amazing cook! I still remember your home cooked meals! Ab mon mein paani aa Gaya hai!

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