We have all been there, often when we didn’t know better and even sometimes when we should have. They are the little mistakes, the innocuous kinds that don’t seem like a big deal at the time, but when it is time to eat they make themselves felt. I still occasionally make them too and then kick myself for something that tastes disappointing. When I started cooking I would taste the same mistake and not be able to figure out what went wrong. Now that I have a sense of the ins and outs I am looking forward to sharing my top 10 Tips in a Pakistani Cooking Guide.
These are just that though - my Top Ten Tips - they are not a comprehensive guide to all cooking, but the things that I wish someone had explained to me or the things I wished I paid more attention to. For some of you these will be pretty basic, but my hope is that if you are reading this then it will be helpful to some degree. So without ado here we go with my basics of Pakistani Cooking Guide.
Pakistani Cooking Guide Tip#1: When to chop, dice, and slice
For the longest time I sort of did a standard chop, little cubes, extra fine occasionally, but usually about ¾ of a cm. While that works with some dishes over time it is no longer the default. Now I usually either thinly slice an onion by trimming the tops, halving it lenghtwise and then making slim vertical slices. The slimmer the better because the key to most dishes is an onion base that melds well. The thicker your onion the more time (and oil) you will need for Masala Magic. I mince onions for sabzi dishes like Aaloo Gobi. Mincing means I trim and halve the onion then make horizontal cuts most of the way through and then slice and dice. Smaller pieces are best. Also you can obviously use a chopper folks, no judgment. Just don't make a paste because then it won't Bhunofy the same.
Pakistani Cooking Guide Tip #2: Deciphering the Onion Cooking Code
There are four stages to cooking onions. In the first you saute until they’re just softened/ translucent like I do in this white chicken curry. The second, and most popular one is where you cook them so the edges start turning a golden brown, this is what most dishes require. The third stage is when the onions are entirely golden brown and this gives a deeper flavour to curries. The fourth stage is where they are that darker caramelly colour, a stage usually required for korma-esque dishes. Any beyond this and it’s inedible
Pakistani Cooking Guide Tip #3: How to Bhunn aka Masala Magic
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but a salan needs oil. A biryani masala needs oil. Even most of our sabzis do too. I used to try and use less and spend far longer cooking the same dish and with sub par flavour results. ‘Bhunna”, that act of sauteeing a masala paste into cohesion requires oil. Not using enough means you take a lot more time to get less flavour. Now after cooking my curries I gently drain the excess oil out. Sabzis get removed from the pot with a slotted spoon for the same reason and Biryani Masalas get gently skimmed.
Now that we have established that you need oil what does the process look like? Usually you saute an onion to your desired colour, add a little ginger garlic paste, then the dry masalas. If your oil gets too hot then add a splash of water to draw the temperature down. None of these things taste great burnt.
Then it's time for the bhunna i.e getting your saute on. Except saute just sounds mild and bhunna isnt it. You will cook your masala on medium heat stirring frequently until two things happen. Your masala will start to come together, those disparate elements melding beautifully. When it is done the water in your masala will have dried out and the oil will rise to above the masala paste. There you have it folks - masala magic.
The process can be a little time consuming so once you feel comfortable I suggest some Masala batch cooking. My mother has always done this and I have a post explaining it right here.
Pakistani Cooking Guide Tip #4: How Much to Cook Chicken (Especially Boneless Chicken)
Chicken is tricky. If you are using bone in chicken then it is actually easier, because when it is tender it is done. Boneless chicken is something else and there are basically three stages of cooking. The first is when it is just cooked through, the kind of thing you would do for a stir fry, a dry karahi even. The chicken is moist, tasty (but perhaps not as good on the reheat). Then the chicken becomes rubbery, rather unpleasantly so. If you stop now it’s no good, you have to soldier on at a simmer until it softens back up again.
Pakistani Cooking Guide Tip #5: Cooking Qeema so that it tastes Good (no funky smell)
You know you watch cooking shows and they're all like brown the onion (in seemingly 2 minutes) and ka-pow there you go. Pakistani friends I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that is not going to work for Aaloo Qeema. You need to do two things. One: Open the bag/box/container it has come in and let it air out. Basically you're letting out some of that funky smell before cooking. Two: Bhun, bhun, bhun. A great qeema has all the flavours bhunnofied in, you are not going for cooked through, you are going for browned well. Add your flavour boosters as you go along, but do not skimp on the sauteeing. Want a great Aaloo Qeema recipe? This one is my go to. If you are a Chicken Qeema person then this Chicken Methi Qeema and this Chicken Karahi Qeema are my favourites.
Pakistani Cooking Guide Tip #6: Understanding Measurements
Your mother says a teaspoon, but she means that spoon you can use for soup or a "khanay ka chamcha". Your resident blogger says a tablespoon, but means roughly the same spoon. Context is always useful. Always. Not sure where the person is at? Ask. I always regret the clarifications I didn't ask for, not the ones I did.
Pakistani Cooking Guide Tip #7: Mirch Masala needs Salt.
See above? That thing about measuring? Most people will tell you they put one teaspoon of salt in their daal. Try putting just one level teaspoon of salt in your daal and tell me it doesn’t taste vaguely like dish water. Spices work in harmony and salt is what it ties it all together and makes your food sing. Being careful about your sodium intake? Add a little lemon juice at the end, it adds a similar zing, but without the sodium. Remember this though that food that is not well balanced will taste unpleasant. I always recommend adding salt at the beginning and then adjusting at the end. Some times the tartness of a tomato means you don't need more salt or the natural saltiness of a daal (like maash/urad) means you don't need a lot.
Pakistani Cooking Guide Tip #8: Learn to Understand Spices
Have you ever had your raw spices? You should. Turmeric, Coriander Powder, Chilli Powder, Cumin Powder - they all have a different role to play. Coriander powder is that earthy note that hits you mid tongue, rounding off a curry, but used in excess it will leave you with an almost chalky feeling. Turmeric gives a mellow warmth to your dish, but put too much and your bright yellow dish becomes a little antiseptic. Cumin powder is a great finishing note in most dishes, but added too soon it loses it’s heady vibrancy. If you can understand how masalas taste then you can also understand how and when to ‘fix’ a dish. In general though they mellow when cooked.
While we are on the subject let's not forget the ubiquitous ginger and garlic paste. When life gets busy, it gets busy and use whatever is easiest for you. When you have the time then make your own pastes and store them in a jar in your fridge or freeze into portions in ice cube trays for later.
Pakistani Cooking Guide Tip #9: Knowing what Temperature to Cook at
I used to think "If I cook at a high temperature ill get done faster". Wronnggggggggg. You’ll have onions that are raw in the middle and too dark on the outside, burn your masalas, and boil meat into stringiness when you should be tenderizing them at a simmer. Here are my preferred cooking temperatures for Pakistani food.
- Daal: Bring to a bowl on medium high, simmer on low
- Bhunn and Baghaar/Tadka: Medium high but never high because we aren't trying to char our food
- Curries: Once you add the meat and do a little saute action add just enough water to cover the meat, stir and bring to a boil then simmer. No aggressive rolling boils thanks.
- Sabzis: Most of my sabzi recipes cook covered and on low heat in their own steam and that is generally the safest course of action. With some - like a bhindi - you can cook some portion of it uncovered because you are trying to evaporate the moisture inside it.
Pakistani Cooking Guide Tip #10: Do Not Cook your Garnishes (unless you reallllly want to)
Imagine a really yummy Karahi Chicken. In essence there is the light, but bold masala that everyone tries to scoop up and tender chicken. Eat it as is and it is just ok. Layer on some fresh leafy cilantro, that last grind of black pepper, the aromatic green chillies and maybe some slivers of ginger and suddenly it has become positively irresistible. All those ingredients sing when they are freshest. Aggressively cooking them into your masala will change their effect. Now some times you need to and that is ok, for eg. cooked green chillies are milder than fresh. Just make a deliberate choice.
Bonus Tip: Cook with Love
Why do you cook Pakistani food? Is it because you love the flavours, is it because you grew up on it or is it because that's what the people you care most for enjoy. Whatever the answer recognize that at the core of it all is a deep reservoir of love in the recipes that have been passed down in different shapes and forms from generation to generation. If you read the above and remember the love you are going to be just fine. That I can promise.
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