Pakistan is not only a land of varied people – it is one of varied climate and terrain, and therefore produce. Icy soaring mountains and arid deserts meet fertile plains and deep valleys: dramatic and beautiful, this landscape is capable of supporting the cultivation of a broad natural larder from sweet berries to fiery spice.
Pakistan’s bounty is captivating, plentiful and exotic, and the way in which different people and communities cook both savoury and sweet food in the country is greatly dependent on the produce available to them across this changing and vast landscape. But there is one unifying adoration that reigns supreme across the country, and that is the people’s love for desserts, confection, fruit and nuts – no Pakistani table is ever without this celebration of sweetness.
The country’s northern areas are blessed with fruits such as pomegranates, mulberries and cherries, as well as nuts such as pistachios, walnuts and pine nuts, which all grow easily. In the rugged mountains and valleys of Chitral, Kalash, Gilgit and Hunza, hot milk is flavoured with local honey, and the breeze carries with it the sweet scent of apricots. In the warmer months, these are dried on the foothills, and the dried fruit is then served with fresh cheese to end a meal or greet a guest.
In the southern part of the country, sweets are more spiced and floral. In the dry majestic deserts of Balochistan, which borders Iran, spices such as saffron, cardamom and pepper are grown and used abundantly. Sweets are simple and made using local wheat and dates which have been dried for the harsh winters ahead. Here, saffron- and cardamom-infused milk, as well as rice puddings and buffalo milk sweetmeats, are popular.
A real melting pot of flavours can be found on the streets of my home town Karachi in the southern region of Sindh. Here, diverse sweets reflect the various communities, as well as influences from Mumbai, east Punjab and Hyderabad, and local Sindhi cuisine. Sindh’s summer fields are amber with ripe sugar cane, and its lush trees are heavy with pink guavas and honey mangoes, while winter brings the sweetest red carrots. Sweetmeat shops are packed with colourful handmade morsels sold by the kilo, made with raw sugar and spices.
Flavours differ in Lahore – a city in the east which is known as Pakistan’s food captial. Here, there is a celebration of the bounty of the fertile lands of Punjab, and sweets might take the form of vegetable halvas, milky rose-scented rice puddings and cardamom- and kewra-infused sweetmeats.
A journey through the sweet flavours of my homeland is diverse, much like its history and land. Sweets and desserts vary in grandeur depending on the occasion. Decadent desserts are a fundemental part of celebrations and festivities, but on a daily basis mithai are a staple. Mithai simply means sweetmeats, and they can be a humble afternoon tea treat or a special gift to a loved one. To a Pakistani, sharing and giving mithai comes easily. This can be a present to show appreciation, rejoice on a happy occasion, or merely an act of kindness to bring a smile to someone’s face.
Pakistani people have an adoration of ‘muh meetha karna’ (sweetening one’s mouth), a lyrical expression that defines the very essence of dessert culture, which is far more than simply concluding a main meal. It’s about savouring, sharing and celebrating happiness by indulging in sweetness with your loved ones. Whether it’s a dawwat (feast) or a friend coming over for chai, there’s always a platter of decadent dessert, perfumed mithai or halvas – this practice reflects the nation’s sweet tooth, sense of hospitality and love for sharing joy and sweetness with all.
This is an edited extract from Mountain Berries and Desert Spice by Sumayya Usmani (Murdoch Books, hb, $39.99). Food photography by Joanna Yee. Find more about Sumayya at her website.
COOK THE BOOK
I always found this sweet the most attractive in bakeries – rectangular toffee coloured sweets covered in sugar nibs. My recipe is a version using condensed milk and ground cashews.
Thick, creamy and subtle, this kheer made with grated sweet potato and rice flour is total comfort food. Cold Lahori winter trips would include a freshly made bowl of shakarkandi ki kheer made by my aunt. Traditionally it is eaten cold, but I prefer it hot.
My mother used to make these from a recipe given to her by a Persian lady who lived in Lahore. The chewy caramel with saffron gracing each bite is made even more distinctive by the crunch of nuts
This Turkish delight-like sweet was invented in my home town. As a child I would pass by mithai (sweetmeat) shops and look longingly at the many vibrant, colourful sweets on offer. There was one sweet that always caught my eye –magical, shiny halva.
Sweetmeats are a daily part of life in Pakistan, and ladoo, especially, are everywhere.
The heady mix of warming spices (turmeric, cardamom, black pepper, ginger and clove) is comfort in a glass and and a traditional home remedy for a cold or sore throat.
This dish is also made in Iran and India, however this recipe is inspired by the version made in Pakistan.