Friday, 28 December 2012

Winter Foods in Pakistan Are Exotic

Winter Foods in Pakistan Are Exotic

By Lynne Evans

Winter time in Pakistan means different food items in the shops and for me this is very exciting. I have recently come across a vegetable called "chung" which, in its raw state, looks like a small cactus without the spines. It grows to about 6 inches and is a dark green colour with nodes along its skin where, if it were a cactus, spines would be. I have tried to discover its botanical name but without much success. It is a bitter plant, and tastes a little like karalla or the bitter melon, and is best cooked with meat, minced beef seems to be the best. It has to be rubbed in salt before it is cooked to take away some of the bitterness, although a neighbour took a piece or two and ate them raw, as he did when he found them on the mountains when he was a boy. They are used traditionally to purify the blood and as a general tonic.

The other new vegetable for me is the "mongray" which is the whole seed pod of the mooli or Daikon radish. They taste like Kachnar buds and are good when cooked with beef too.

Fenugreek leaves are in season now so we cook them with spinach and with meat, as they are full of iron and have antioxidant properties. It's marvelous when something that tastes so good is healthy too.

In the fruit line there are dried "amlook" or date-plums, which are supposed to be the lotus fruit which made Odysseus and his men forget their dreams of returning home to Ithaca in Greece after the Trojan Wars. They are very sweet and in the raw form look like small black persimmons.

Autumn meant that there were ber fruit or the Indian jujube, which has a unique taste and to me they smell a little like hops, and I can't quite manage to eat one. There were also persimmons which were much more palatable. Unfortunately this sweet variety cannot be exported because it is so thin-skinned, but it is much sweeter than the varieties I have sampled in Europe.

Shareefa is another delightful fruit, the custard apple, or at least a variety of custard apple. These got their name because they were so adored by the Mogul emperors and only they were allowed to eat them. These days, few ordinary Pakistanis eat them as they are still comparatively expensive and so are not normally bought for families.

The red carrots have also come into their own so we can eat carrot halva and a spicy, sweet carrot conserve which is wonderful with natural yoghurt.

The itinerant sellers in the bazaar have brought sandalwood prayer beads and frankincense to burn, so these have been interesting too. Clearly the frankincense is of a low grade, as it looks like an ordinary stone, but it crumbles and makes the house smell wonderful when it is burned.

I have been in Pakistan for over two years now, but there is always something new to experience and clearly the food we get in the West which is sold as Indian or Pakistani is not the same as that which is actually eaten on the subcontinent as the fresh fruit and vegetables cannot be easily transported. We miss out on jamun (which are a little like damsons) and those delicious persimmons.

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