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!