It was the fall of 1981 and Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" was playing on my Sony Walkman as I walked through the main gate of the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University to start my freshman year of college. Hearing that song still reminds me of that day. Like most students starting college, I was excited and anxious at the same time. After a few stressful weeks settling in, I felt good about my classes and daily routine but I started to feel homesick. More than anything, I missed home-cooked food. I made desperate (and expensive) phone calls to my mother begging for queema and daal recipes, and even just wanting to know how to cook plain basmati rice, as you also might have done. Alas, while my mother was an excellent cook, she was no expert in imparting cooking instruction over the phone or even in writing. Trying to follow her imprecise directions to use fistfuls of this and pinches of that, I nearly killed myself, not to mention many of my new friends. I probably should have been arrested for some of the meals I made in Baltimore in the early 1980s.
After a few years of experimentation in cooking with knowledge gleaned from diverse sources —especially family and friends, as well as my mother when she came to visit and I could actually watch her cook—I became quite good at it (or at least so people tell me). It is a bit easier these days to just Google recipes or look around on YouTube but for someone who has never cooked before it can still be quite confusing and intimidating. So I’ve decided to collect all the information that you will need to start cooking Pakistani and North Indian food in one place, and I have carefully written down exact recipes that are easy to follow.
Who this book is for and what's in it
Now that some of my nieces and nephews are in the same position I was in many years ago, I have decided to distill my hard-earned culinary knowledge into a manual. So even if you've never made a cup of tea before now, this will be your comprehensive and precise guide to learning the basics of Pakistani and North Indian cooking. I will tell you everything you need to buy (on a student budget) from pots and pans, to spices and grains, and I will give you 30 precise, clear, and fool-proof recipes for meats, daals (lentils), vegetables, rices, chutneys, condiments, and even a soup or two. I have put great effort into making the cooking method for each recipe very exact, so I am confident that if you follow my directions carefully, you will cook every dish perfectly the very first time you try it. In other words, this book is for college students from Pakistan and India and, well, pretty much anyone else who wants to learn to cook our kind of food. Especially if you are a beginner, I suggest you read all the sections in this book before getting to the recipes.
My philosophy of cooking
A dish must not just taste good, it must taste right. That is the spirit in which I cook, and what I mean by that is this: if I try a certain traditional Vietnamese dish for the first time, I might think, "Wow, that tastes very good," or, "Yikes, I really do not like that!" But this is a superficial judgment because I have no sense of what that particular Vietnamese dish should taste like. On the other hand, if I eat a Chicken Karahi—a common subcontinental dish—in a restaurant or at someone's house, I will judge its authenticity and its "correctness" as a Chicken Karahi according to memories of scores of occasions on which I have had that dish before. And the version of it I am having had better live up to some sense I have developed through experience of real Chicken Karahi-ness, and not just taste good. The recipes in this book are for the homesick, and how “correct” the dish tastes is crucial to making you feel less so.
In other words, even as the recipe might vary the standard tradition of Chicken Karahi in some way, one must be able to recognize it immediately as Chicken Karahi. You know what I mean? Here's an example: one day my Italian wife cooked a Chicken Makkhani for dinner and even though she did not tell me what it was, as soon as I tasted the first bite, I felt immediately transported to a restaurant in New York (Indian Cafe at 107th and Broadway, if you must know, which has now sadly been shut down) near Columbia University where I used to have Chicken Makkhani frequently in my graduate-student days. My wife had succeeded in capturing the Platonic essence of Chicken Makkhani! That is what I have also tried to do in the recipes in this book. I hope that when you cook and eat them, you will be transported home for a bit. At least if you are from the subcontinent. In any case, happy eating!
About the photographs
After I wrote the first draft of this book, my wife made each and every one of the dishes by strictly following the recipes I had written down. This helped me immensely in checking that the recipes work properly, and I admit that a few times I had to make some final adjustments. And then I photographed the dishes that my wife had cooked that day, so all the photos here are actual pictures of the end-results of all the recipes in this book. The photos are stylized (garnishes added) in serving dishes and usually don't show the whole amount cooked, but are still representative of what you should end up with.
I have an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science from Johns Hopkins University, and a graduate degree in Philosophy from Columbia University. I am the founding editor of 3 Quarks Daily and I live in a very beautiful small city in the Italian Alps with my wife and cat. And I cook.
[Two photos above by Georg Hofer.]
Also, my wife and my friend Georg and I had great fun making this extremely silly book trailer video the same day the photos above were taken: