At its simplest, Pakistani cooking today consists of staple foods which are cheap and abundant. Wheat and other flour products are the mainstay of the diet, one familiar form being CHAPATI, an unleavened bread akin to a Mexican tortilla. This is made with dough prepared from whole wheat flour.
Another basic food is LASSI, milk from which curds and butterfat have been removed. Vegetables, usually seasonal, lentils are commonly used. Families with larger incomes eat more meat, eggs and fruits. And the more affluent cook with GHEE, which is clarified butter, instead of with vegetable oil.
From the earliest times, the imaginative - and sometimes heavy - use of spices, herbs, seeds, and flavorings and seasonings have helped cooks transform rather ordinary staple foods into an exotic cuisine.
Consider some of the most common of these in wide use in Pakistan today: chilli powder, turmeric, garlic, paprika, black pepper, red pepper, cumin seed, bay leaf, coriander, cardamom, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, mace, nutmeg, poppyseeds, aniseed, almonds, pistachios, and yogurt.
Their use in a wide range of pickles, chutneys, preserves, and sauces, together with curries of all descriptions and special treatment for meats, sea, food, vegetables and lentils, gives Pakistani cooking much of its distinctive character.
Cultural influences, whether religious precepts, practices, and ceremonies or local traditions, or even esthetic preferences, have made their contribution toward the evolution of Pakistani cuisine.
The spread of Islam to what is now Pakistan, starting in the Eighth Century, has given a basic character to the food of the people. The Quranic injunctions against eating pork or drinking alcoholic beverages has channeled tastes and appetites in other directions. Lamb, beef, chicken and fish are basic foods, although their consumption by persons of low income is modest and often ceremonial.
Some of the Muslim feasts involve special dishes. Eid-ul-Adha, which commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim's readiness to obey God even tothe point of being willing to sacrifice his son, is observed by the sacrifice of a goat, a lamb, or a cow from which special dishes are made.
On Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of RAMZAN, the month of fasting in the Islamic Calender, the serving of a special dessert of vermicelli cooked in milk is a must. Almond and pistachios are added as decorations as is the silver foil. The latter is so thin that it will disintegrate unless it is immediately transferred from the protective layers of paper onto the dish.
Another major influence in the development of Pakistani cookery was the establishment of the Moghul Empire starting in 1526. The opulent tastes exhibited by such Emperors as Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb in art, architecture, music, dance, and jewelry was also extended to food.
A style of cookery called Moghlai' evolved at the Moghul court and even today it remains centered in Lahore. Some latter-day and widely known survivors of court cookery are, for example, chicken tandoori, a dish in which chicken is cooked at low temperatures in special ovens called TANDOORS, and murgh musallum' in which the whole chickens are roasted with special spices and ingredients. SHAHI TUKRA, a dessert of sliced bread, milk, cream, sugar and saffron, is another left-over from the days of the Moghuls.
Perhaps the ultimate Moghul cuisine was reached when the imperial chefs perfected the recipes for desserts made from ginger and garlic. Ginger and garlic puddings are still made in some homes for truly special occasions.
Fruit drinks, squeezed from pomegranates, apples, melons, and mangoes, and called SHARBAT, are an important part of the Moghlai cuisine and, indeed, the inspiration for American "sherberts."
Cookery in Pakistan has always had a regional character, with each of the four provinces offering special dishes. In the Punjab, for example, the Moghlai' cuisine using tandoor ovens and elaborate preparations is important. In Baluchistan, cooks use the SAJJI method of barbecuing whole lambs and stick bread in a deep pit.
BUNDA PALA (fish) is a well known delicacy of Sind. The fish is cleaned and stuffed with a paste made from a variety of spices and herbs, including red pepper, garlic, ginger, and dried pomegranate seeds. It is then wrapped in cloth and is buried three feet deep in hot sand under the sun. There it stays baking for four to five hours from late morning to early afternoon. THANDAL, made from milk and a paste of fresh almonds, is a popular drink. Cooking in the Northwest Frontier Province is a great deal plainer and involves the heavy use of lamb.
Ceremonial occasions such as weddings have inspired a number of fancy dishes. A traditional dish at marriage feasts, for example, is chicken curry with either PILAU or BIRYANI. FIRINI, made from cream of rice and milk, is an equally traditional wedding dessert. It is served in clay saucers topped by silver foil. At Zoroastrian (Parsi) weddings, which are not frequent because so few followers of this ancient Iranian religion live in Pakistan, a special fish dish is served. This is PATRANI MACHCHI, consisting of sole, plaice, or a local fish called pomfret, wrapped in banana leaves, steamed or fried, and then baked slowly for half an hour.