Friday, 10 January 2014

A foodie and a patriot

With a new restaurant in London’s Leicester Square and a glossy new cookbook, restaurateur Mahmood Akbar is championing & celebrating Pakistani Cuisine.

Salt'n Pepper Village Cookbook - with recipes of the best Pakistani dishes and a guide to contemporary Pakistani cuisine
The Salt' n Pepper Village Cookbook is available from all major bookshops and at Salt n Pepper restaurants
Mahmood Akbar is passionate about food. It is both his profession and his obsession. From an early age, watching his mother cook in the warmth of their Rawalpindi kitchen, Akbar was fascinated by the magical process whereby the same seeming mundane ingredients were turned into a variety of different delicious dishes. It appeared to him to be nothing less than art.

Tawa Crab from Salt'n Pepper Village Cookbook
Tawa Crab from the Salt n Pepper Village Cookbook
Mahmood Akbar of Salt'n Pepper Village
This early love of food grew with him. He recalls how he was always the one preparing sandwiches for shikaar with his friends, or the one ordering when they dined out. However, Akbar is no amateur. He studied hotel and restaurant management at the University of New Haven in Conneticut, United States. He managed restaurants in the US and was food and beverage manager for the Hilton Hotel in Lahore (now the Avari).

He now runs a chain of successful restaurants under the Salt'n Pepper umbrella. These include the Salt'n Pepper family restaurants, the Village restaurants, the Anarkali Lounge banquet hall, Suk-Chan spa and café and The Grill. Salt'n Pepper franchises will open soon in Bhawalpur and Multan. Most recently Akbar opened a Salt'n Pepper restaurant in Leicester Square, London.


Salt'n Pepper Restaurant in London serving contemporary Pakistani cuisine
Salt'n Pepper restaurant in Leicester Square, London serving contemporary Pakistani cuisine

The menu at the London restaurant is based on the menus at the restaurants in Pakistan. All the same recipes are used and none have been altered to suit foreign palates. The only addition is “Chicken Tikka Masala”, a peculiarly British favourite that is not popular on the sub-continent. Akbar was adamant about describing his restaurant as Pakistani even though most restaurants in England plump for Indian & Pakistani in order to draw in more customers.

Chicken Tikka at Salt'n Pepper Restaurant in London serving contemporary Pakistani cusinine
Chicken Tikka at the London Salt'n Pepper restaurant
“Pakistani cuisine has a unique identity that is quite separate from Indian cuisine. Whilst we have a shared heritage, Indian cuisine as a whole generally uses a far wider range of herbs and spices including hing, curry patay and a host of others. Pakistani recipes mainly use four main spices: Mirch, Dhaniya, Jeera and Haldi. With these four basics, we can make dishes as varied as Nihari and Karahi Chicken.”

Paya from Salt'n Pepper Village Cookbook - Pakistani recipes
Paya from the Salt'n Pepper Village Cookbook

Akbar laments the fact that Pakistani food has little or no identity of its own abroad. In the same way as the Greek, Spanish and Italian were once lumped together as “Mediterranean”, almost all desi food is termed “Indian”.

Salt'n Pepper Restaurant in London serving contemporary Pakistani cusinine
The smart minimalist interior of the Salt'n Pepper Pakistani restaurant, London

“Internationally, most Indian restaurants offer North Indian food, which is closest in character to Pakistani cuisine. However, as a large number of the cooks are South Indian or Bengali, what we see abroad are adulterated versions of these dishes. Dishes that are very similar to Pakistani dishes are altered with the addition of coconut milk or curry patay until they are unrecognizable back home.”

Prawn starter Salt'n Pepper Restaurant in London serving contemporary Pakistani cusinine
Appetising prawn starter from the London Salt'n Pepper restaurant
One of the reasons Akbar wrote the cookbook was to promote Pakistani cuisine and gain recoAkbar explains that his intention in writing this cookbook was not self-promotion or publicity for his restaurant chain.

“Many would call me a fool for sharing the exact recipes used in my restaurants when other establishments closely guard their recipes. However, I have never shied from sharing my recipes. I want more people to experiment with our cuisine.”

Spicy Fried Pomfret from Salt'n Pepper Village Cookbook - Pakistani recipes
Spicy Fried Pomfret from the Salt'n Pepper Village cookbook
The book provides recipes for many Pakistani favourites as well exact recipes for spice mixes like Garam Masala and Chaat Masala, recipes that Akbar has fine-tuned over the years. The recipe book also contains a useful glossary of Pakistani ingredients and cooking techniques. Akbar explains how everything is made from scratch at his restaurants and how he abhors how many restaurants, particularly abroad, used packet mixes or bottled sauces for their various dishes.

Dips Salt'n Pepper Restaurant in London serving contemporary Pakistani cusinine
Dips and Papad (poppadom) at the London restaurant
“Commercial masalas often use ascetic acid or MSG. Our food only includes fresh, premium, natural ingredients. We use no chemicals or additives and I refuse to use cheap, low quality ingredients in my restaurants. There is no reason why a domestic cook should not be able to do the same.”

Salt'n Pepper Village cookbook with best Pakistani recipes
The cookbook gives cooking and presentation tips as well as microwave and freezer guidelines

The cookbook itself is gorgeous. Akbar is a keen photographer and has done most of the photography himself. It is an area where many local cookbooks fail but the food in the Salt & Pepper cookbook glistens appetizingly. It is beautifully presented and appetizing. The recipes themselves are excellent. As a cook you can always tell whether recipes make sense or not. I remember once buying a book on curries in England and my mother scoffed at the methods, which admittedly were bizarre. Similarly, Nigella may be great to watch but her recipes don’t always work, unlike Jamie Oliver’s, which are always spot on.

Steam Roast Chicken from Salt'n Pepper Village Cookbook - Pakistani recipes
Steam Roast Chicken from the Salt'n Pepper Village cookbook
Akbar’s recipes not only make sense, the two I tried worked beautifully. His Hara Bhara Chicken Masala was a treat. His biryani is very different from my mother’s biryani but as we are originally from Mumbai, ours is more an Indian-style biryani anyway. The cookbook is full of recipes I’m itching to try including harissa, kunna and amrood ka halwa. It includes recipes for many traditional Pakistani dishes including nihari, beef pasanday, karahi ghosht and shahi tukray. For the first time ever I may try to cook nihari without resorting to a Shaan masala packet.

Amrood Ka Halwa from Salt'n Pepper Village Cookbook - Pakistani recipes
Amrood Ka Halwa from the Salt'n Pepper Village cookbook
The recipes have all been tested personally by Akbar as reducing commercial recipes to domestic proportions was no easy task. The book includes recipes from all over Pakistan. Heritage recipes are one of Akbar’s passions and he’s been known to sit for three days with famous dhabay-wallas to learn the tricks of one dish or another. He then experiments with these techniques, incorporating the good and discarding the bad.

Sarson Ka Saag from Salt'n Pepper Village Cookbook - Pakistani recipes
Sarson Ka Saag from the Salt'n Pepper Village cookbook
It is fascinating to hear him talk about the history and provenance of various recipes and I wish these had been included in the book. While the recipes are great, cookbooks abroad often include a little background about the recipes and a little personal explanation from Akbar for each recipe would have been wonderful. This is particularly true as one of Akbar’s dreams is to collect and document heritage recipes from all over Pakistan, of course giving credit to the authors of the recipes. He speaks of dishes such as a flat chicken that is cooked with a stone on top of it. Hopefully when Akbar shares those recipes he will also share the captivating history behind each one.

Meanwhile, this cookbook is a comprehensive guide to the best of Pakistani cuisine. With its exquisite photography and well-tested recipes, it’s a must for any serious cook.

First published in the regular Karachista column in the Express Tribune on 8th January 2014

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