Pakistan: The Confluence of Spice and Flavour – a cookery class with a difference

Earlier this year I headed of to Puglia in Southern Italy to spend a week at an Organic Masseria (walled/fortified farm), learning how to cook local food, taught by a local Italian lady with centuries of knowledge handed down through the family. This experience really opened up my eyes to how much can be learnt from ‘the locals’ so to speak, cooks who have learnt from their parents and grand parents, and growing up in their nation’s land.

It was with this in mind that I booked up to go on Sumayya Jamil’s Confluence Of Spice & Flavour course at the Central London Cookery School, hoping to gain some insider knowledge on food from Pakistan, which is not greatly understood in this country. Sumayya appeared on Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation TV series a while back, and is also a prolific food author. I came across this amazing cook on Twitter, where there is a thriving foodie and blogging community.

Before the cooking started, we were taken on a journey of spices, helping us to understand the impact of each on a dish. Pakistani cuisine is made of ‘layers’ of flavour, and having confidence in using the spices is critical to getting a dish right. Some spices are quite difficult to use, such as Fenugreek Seeds, which should be used to flavour oil, before removing completely and Black Cumin, who’s flavour gets stronger when you cook it, so be careful!

2013-11-23 13.22.01The 1st dish we prepared was Phirni, a pudding made of ground Rice, Cardamom, Saffron and Rosewater. Served cold it is beautifully fragrant and tasted absolutely delicious, and preparing it taught a fundamental skill that is needed in Pakistani cooking, food is about observation both texture and aroma. You cannot learn to cook properly just by reading a cookery book, you have to observe someone else doing and feel when a particular dish is ready by looking and smelling. In this case making sure the mixture was of the right consistency was critical to the success, along with making sure the flavour balance was spot on.

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We also prepared Moong Daal with Curry Leaves & Cumin, again absolutely delicious and another skill to learn, the art of ‘Tempering’ known as Tarka or Chaunk. This again is something you need to observe and smell to get right, in our case we used a tablespoon of Ghee, Cumin seeds, slivered Garlic and Curry leaves which were ladled over the Daal when ready and imparted some amazing flavours into the dish. Learning from Sumayya was a real pleasure, as we prepared each dish we learnt lots of useful tips that you only get from hands on teaching, you will have to book one of her courses to find out what!

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The Chickpea Chaat with Tamarind, Pomegranate and Chaat Masala is a MUST DO dish, a real cracker. It’s very easy to prepare consisting of Yoghurt, Onion, Garlic, Chilli, Coriander, Mint and of course Chickpeas. Its more of a construction exercise but getting the flavour balance right is quite tricky, it was hot, spicy, fragrant and really woke up the senses.

As there was only 3 of us on the course, due to it being close to Christmas, we were going to cook something not normally done due to time, a Sindhi Lamb Biryani. This dish is very specific to Pakistan, and each family has it own subtle variation of spices to make it their own, passed down from generation to generation.

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You can see the last stage of the cooking process before the double layer of foil and lid were firmly seated to steam the Rice layered on the surface. This is another dish that you need to observe, as it is only by seeing how the curry underneath is developing that you know when it’s cooked properly, laying the parboiled Rice on the top to finish cooking. The Lamb is marinated in a home-made Masala paste made of Coriander, Mint and Green Chilli combined with Yoghurt before the cooking process is started..

Before the lid is put on the rice is studded with Lemon Slice’s, Mint leaves, Sprinkled with Milk infused Saffron. This is another dish that needs careful spicing with Green Cardamom, Black Cardamom, Coriander Seeds, Black Cumin, Bay Leaf, Mace, Star Anise, Fennel and Anardana (Dried Pomegranate Powder).

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The Biryani is dressed with Fried Onions, Pomegranate Seeds, Sliced Green Chilli and was DIVINE, this is one fella I am going to be cooking myself at home in the not too distant future, OUTSTANDING.

The Tomato Sauce you can see In the picture with the Biryani is for the Hake topped with Kashmiri Chilli and Ajwain, another taste sensation. The punchy sauce can also be used with Prawns, or even Scrambled Egg’s. Ajwain is a really punchy spice so you have to be very careful not to add too much.

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The Fish, in this case Hake is marinated in a mixture of Kashmiri Chilli which is flavourful but not too hot, Lemon juice, Salt and Turmeric whilst the Tomato Sauce is made.

To complete the ‘epic’ cookery session an Aubergine Borani was prepared, layers of cooked Aubergine, Tomato, Onion and Yoghurt with delicate spicing.

In between the cooking and demonstrations we were invited to make our own Masala mix, using the knowledge we had learnt, mine was quite a surprise as it has ended up with a subtle aroma of fried Sausages! If you want to try it for yourself you will need to dry roast 3 Cloves, 1 Star Anise, 1/4 tsp Cardamon seeds, 1/2 tsp Black Peppercorns, 1 tsp Coriander seeds, 1/4 tsp Ajwain, 1/2 tsp Black Cumin. Once cooled down a bit, whizz in a spice or coffee grinder. Why not give it a go!

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All the ingredients and Spices we used in the cookery class are readily available in the UK, I personally use Steenbergs mail order, and also Ottolenghi’s as they are very ‘Clean’ and often fairtrade with a known source country rather than anonymous and insipid.

I can highly recommend Sumayya Jamil and her cookery class, I came away after 4 hours feeling that I had just travelled several thousands miles to another country and experienced some amazing textures, smells and flavours. The location in central London is easy to get too, and well equipped with Gas and Induction hobs, and all the necessary cooking implements, pots and pans.

I did not receive any discount or incentive for this review, this is me, writing my own personal experience and paid out of my own pocket.

We had lots of fun and learnt loads, it was very much worth the time and money and I can now add ‘Pakistani Cuisine’ to my Italian repertoire! You can find the Pukka Paki website HERE, go take a look I am glad I did.

แกงมัสมั่น – Kaeng Matsaman or Thai Massaman Curry ‘via Djerba’!

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted a blog, illness, and holiday eating up time like a ‘Hungry Monk’! Holiday took the family to the island of Djerba, nestling off the coast of Tunisia it was truly awesome. I’ve been to Tunisia 3 times, my 21st birthday (many years ago), a tour with the boss a few years back where we visited many historic sites from the roman occupation and a couple of Star Wars sets too, now was the time to take our son for a weeks all-inclusive winter sun. We were not let down, the weather was +30 degs every day and the food was truly awesome.

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Traditional food such as the Couscous Royale was on offer, you can see the spicy Merguez sausages and Chicken pieces sitting atop the Couscous, truly delicious. There were several different local dishes available each day for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner so if you wanted a truly Tunisian experience, you could immerse yourself completely.

Tunisia 4From previous trips to Tunisia, and to be honest Egypt and Morocco, the bread is always freshly baked daily with lots of variety on offer, again we were not disappointed with a large selection always available.

One of the many benefits of a climate that encourages plants to grow, is the array of salads available, especially the tomatoes. The hotel restaurant seemed to always have at least 3 massive coolers, full of different salads, vitamin heaven especially with winter coming.

Tunisia 2We were truly spoilt with food, many of the hot items were freshly prepared in front of you and there was enough variety for even the fussiest of eaters not to ever go hungry. At Breakfast, even the Head Chef was mucking in with his team, frying eggs and chatting with everyone, rather than hiding away in the background.

Tunisia 3Oh, I forgot to mention the Desserts! There were 3 of the above chilled tables absolutely covered with a variety of desserts as well as a freezer cabinet with Ice Cream, Fruit and……… The Desserts were seriously awesome, and changed for each service so there was always something different to finish off lunch and dinner.

Way back in August I had probably the best curry I have eaten, at Chaophraya in Manchester. Thai Massaman Curry is a complex heady beast, with a list of ingredients as long as your arm. I wanted the boss to experience this fantastic dish, and as a trip to Manchester is out of the question at the moment why not recreate it at home!

In doing the research for this particular delight there are a significant number of recipes on the Internet and in my cook books, my version is based on what was described on the menu at Chaophraya, and a combination of several other recipes and cooking processes including in no particular order Rick Stein (Far Eastern Odyssey)Pim Techamuanvivit (Massaman Nuea Beef Massaman Curry) and Bee Yinn Low (Beef Massaman Curry).

Spice Paste Ingredients

The first job is to prepare the spice paste and your going to need a few ingredients! Please note that other ingredients are also needed to finish the dish so please read the whole blog before starting anything 😉 The quantities are enough for 4-6 people (or two hungry ones)!

    • 10 Red Chillies
    • 1 Tbsp Coriander Seeds
    • 1/2 Tsp Cumin Seeds
    • 6 Cardamom Pods
    • 8 Cloves
    • 5cm Piece Cinnamon
    • 2 Pieces Mace
    • 7 Garlic Cloves
    • 8 Shallots
    • Thumbnail Piece Galangal Chopped
    • 4 c.m. Lemongrass chopped
    • 2 Star Anise
    • 2 kaffir Lime Leaves vein removed
    • 1 Tsp Fennel Seeds
    • 15 Black Peppercorns
    • 15 White Peppercorns
    • Tbsp Coriander Stalks chopped
    • 1 Tsp Shrimp Paste (roasted in a frying pan)
    • 1 Tsp Salt
    • 5 Tbsp Coconut Milk

We are fortunate to have an oriental grocery not far from us, so were able to get fresh Coriander, Lemongrass, Galangal and Thai Sweet Bail which is used later on in the recipe. Barts do both Galangal and Lemongrass and is available at most supermarkets if you can’t get fresh, along with Palm Sugar and Tamarind, although you will pay more compared to an oriental shop where prices are considerably cheaper.

This is where I decided to use some different techniques, rather than just frying the Garlic, Chilli’s and Shallots, they were wrapped in tin foil and baked in a hot oven for 20 minutes (200 deg fan oven, 220 convection). Leave them to cool and then you can remove the skin on the Shallots and Garlic, remove the stalks from the Chilli’s, and using the back of a knife, by sliding from short end to long, you can ease out the seeds and membrane really easily and then roughly chop.

All the dry ‘hard’ spices are roasted in a frying pan, the other ‘wet’ ingredients such as the Galangal, Lemongrass and Coriander Stalk are chopped  roughly. The Kaffir Lime Leaves need their hard centre stalk removed.

You can see the dry spices ready for a pounding, the smells in the kitchen were fragrant and intoxicating to say the least! Once you have sorted out the dry spices, do the same with the wet spices, Nutmeg and Shrimp Paste and them combine and bash like crazy, this breaks up the fibres in the Lemongrass and Galangal, you can finish off in a food processor or spice blender (I did!).WP_20131116_015

Once your spices are blended you can cover and stick in the fridge whilst we start the next stage. For the Massaman Curry you will need the following further ingredients (for 2 hungry people) .

  • 500 Grams Lamb or Beef
  • 1 Can (400Ml) Coconut Milk
  • Thumbnail piece of Galangal grated
  • 8 whole Shallots
  • Good handful of Unsalted Peanuts or Cashew Nuts (My preference)
  • 5-6 Green Cardamom pods
  • 3 Black Cardamom pods
  • 2 c.m. Cinnamon Stick
  • 2 Tbsp Fish Sauce (Nam Pla) + extra to taste at end
  • 3-5 Tbsp Tamarind Water + extra to taste at end
  • 1 Tbsp Palm Sugar + extra to taste at end
  • Flavourless oil such as Ground Nut
  • 3-4 Waxy potatoes cut into chunks
  • Handful of green beens (optional)
  • Handful of Pea Aubergines (optional)
  • Thai Sweet Basil to finish (chiffonade, cut into very thin strips)

First, trim the meat of any excess fat and put into a bowl with the Coconut Milk, Grated Galangal and 2 Tbsp of fish sauce and set aside for at least 30 minutes, or preferable a couple of hours in the fridge.

Take a decent saucepan or dutch oven and place on a medium heat, put in a couple of tablespoons of oil and add half the spice mix, stirring as it cooks until the mixture and oil start to split. It will look something like this.


Then add about a 1/4 to 1/2 a cup of the Coconut milk from the marinating mix and cook through exactly the same, until the mixture splits, then add the meat and the rest of the Coconut milk, the Cinnamon, Cardamom, your chosen Nuts, Palm Sugar, 2 Tbsp Fish Sauce, Tamarind and bring up to a gentle simmer. The mixture needs to cook gently for a couple of hours, I stuck mine in the oven at 130 deg fan for the 1st hour, with the lid off, then gave it a stir, put the lid on, and back into the oven for the second hour, it looked like this. The smell was MMMmmmmmmmmmmm!


After the 2 hours have passed, add the Potatoes, Green Beans and Pea Aubergines (if used), and cook for a further 30 minutes until the vegetable are cooked through.

The taste should be spicy (not too hot, but very spicy), salty, sweet, with an ever so slightly sour aftertaste, in this order. You can adjust the balance by adding Tamarind for sour, Fish Sauce for salty and Palm Sugar for sweet

I finished mine off with a sprinkling of toasted Cashew Nuts, some chiffonade of fresh red Chilli and Sweet Thai Basil, another wowzer dish it tasted fantastic and looked like thisWP_20131116_021To go with the Massaman Curry I served some plain Rice, with chopped fresh Coriander to help temper the gutsy flavours of the dish.

A word of caution though, most of the recipes I looked at called for many more chillies than I used, so check the strength of yours first by slicing the tiniest piece and give it the taste test before committing as once they are in, you cannot take them out.

I hope you give this one a go, its worth the effort if you love food that has bags of flavour.

Till next time, alla ysalmak from Tunisia or laaeo phohp gan mai from Thailand.