Rehana Imran*, a 50-something Lahore-based army wife, has had a very interesting history with recipes. Born in a family where cooks were abundant, she had never even needed to boil an egg. She liked food well enough, but only completely cooked and at the dining table.
In the 1990s when she was engaged to be married, an aunt offered her cooking lessons. But Rehana declined. “I’m getting married to a doctor in the army, Aunty. We will have a batman,” she responded confidently.
But Rehana’s husband’s very first posting after their winter marriage was in Skardu, without a batman, house help or even female neighbours in sight. On the first evening, she presented buttered toast to her husband, saying there’s nothing else to cook in the pantry. On the second day, her husband brought back a bag full of green vegetables.
Unable to confess to her husband that she had no idea what this was, much less how to cook it, she again offered him buttered toast along with the promise to cook the next day.
The next day, She trekked down from her hilltop house, to the closest PCO, and called the aunt who had offered her lessons. Together they gathered that her husband had brought karelay, and over the next hour, Rehana learnt how to make them edible. Every phone call was followed by a shopping trip for spices, onions, garlic, etc. But because of her remote location, many ingredients would be unavailable which would send her running back to the PCO. For an entire six months, Rehana would make a daily trek to the PCO, through snow and sledge, to learn a new recipe, or perfect an old one.
Now, that Rehana’s daughter is to be married in a year, she very sweetly offered the bride-to-be her newly-binded handwritten recipes from her days in Skardu. But her daughter refused. “She said, ‘Mama, It’s very sweet of you, but following food videos on YouTube is easier than reading your Urdu handwriting.’”
And there is truth in what the young girl said. Today all you need is a smart phone and steady internet connection and in seconds you can watch chefs conjure anything from Nali Nihari to Charsi Tikka.
Forty two-year-old Fauzia is a Lahore-based marketing manager with a “family of four that is always hungry and yet bored with common Pakistani dishes like chicken karahi and aalo gosht.” She says her cook can’t read but can follow a YouTube recipe video like a professional. “When my kids began complaining about boring meals, I began YouTubing and teaching the cook dishes like Chicken Stroganoff and Zinger Wraps,” says Fauzia. “But now he just looks at the images on YouTube himself and surprises me with ideas.”
Their favourite YouTuber is ‘Kitchen with Amna’ — a channel with over a million subscribers, which is a huge accomplishment in Pakistan. Amna’s videos are aesthetically unexciting but make cooking very simple. It makes sense that in a country where illiteracy is alive and kicking, easy-to-follow cooking videos would be popular.
But there are, of course, many others who don’t find the videos necessary. Anum and Maazin, a young Karachi-based couple obsessed with Ramen, felt confident enough to throw a 20-people Japanese dinner party after just practising once, from an online recipe. “We had to do without the seven spice powder because it was nowhere to be found and of course we replaced the pork with chicken, but other than that the online recipe was super easy to follow,” says Anum about their successful Ramen party.
Some cooks have very specific websites they trust. A Karachi-based housewife who swears by Chef Zakir’s chapli kebab recipes, says that most other websites make a mess of them by adding too much masala. Others, like me for instance, don’t even have a go-to website. I just open google and write the dish I desire, and if it asks for ingredients (like bay leaf, or mint, or even tomatoes) that I don’t have in my kitchen, I keep opening links till I find a recipe that suits me.
But there’s no denying that Indian food blogs and recipe websites would give the Pakistani ones a run for their money. Indian recipes are so widespread that writing ‘chicken biryani’ on Google, won’t do. Unless you type out ‘Chicken Biryani Pakistani’ there’s no chance that you’ll find Pakistani recipes on the first search page. Indian recipes are so pervasive in fact that on Buzzfeed’s “25 Pakistani Dishes You Must Immediately Learn” half the links unwittingly lead to Indian recipes.
The major difference across the border is the wider array of common spices. Uzair Younas, a 30-something consultant, who learnt to cook from the instructions written at the back of Shan Masala boxes, and then progressed to websites, such as khanapakana.com says that “Most Pakistani food is based on five spices: Lal mirch, haldi, zeera, coriander powder and garam masala. It’s difficult to make a mess of it.”
Add garlic, ginger and onions to this, and voila your masala base for almost any vegetable or meat dish is ready. But in Indian recipes online, for instance in Chicken or Veg Biryani, you often need cinnamon, raisins, bell peppers, coconut milk, or cashews. This is not to say that any of these items are foreign to our dishes, but perhaps it is true that Pakistanis use them less frequently.
However, there is an entire young crop of Pakistani food Instagrammers and food bloggers who teach their subscribers new dishes every day and have online cult followings in the thousands. Often, they venture towards healthier food: desi recipes with less oil and less starch. The most successful recipes are often designed onto little cards that are spread across Facebook and WhatsApp.
Read also: The fast changing kitchen-scape
Technology has changed the way kitchens are run. My grandmother would tell me tales about how she baked cakes for my mother in pots filled with sand over a hot stove. My mother, in turn, had to deal with ghastly gas ovens without timers or heat gauges. Today, I set my automatic oven to the exact temperature I want for a specific amount of time.
Between online recipes and instant pots that can now make biryani in under 30 minutes (tried, tested and approved!) things in the kitchen aren’t as much of a struggle as they seem to be in the past — provided of course that you know what to make, because “Aaj khanay main kya banaoo?” will likely forever be the most unrelenting Pakistani household question.
* Not her real name