Food for Thought with Dr Mehlaqa

What does cooking mean to you?

At its core it is a form of therapy for me but it is also my creative expression, my cultural heritage and an activity that connects me with my loved ones. My time preparing a meal at the end of the day washes away the world’s stresses.

Is there one dish that really kicked off your love of food?

Biryani, which is a layered rice and meat dish cooked with herbs and spices. It’s usually a star dish at any party or festival.  It originated from the Mogul era and when made properly takes hours to cook because its an intricate balance of flavors.

My family descends from wheat growing landowners so we don’t really eat rice. None of the women in my family could cook it when I was growing up so I took it upon myself to make it my signature dish.

What is your earliest memory of cooking?

My earliest memory of cooking are helping out with cutting herbs and vegetables in my grandparents kitchen in Pakistan which was huge and set outside in the courtyard. The experience was communal amongst the women and men in the family, which wasn’t the case in our Irish kitchen where I grew up. So cherished and soak up every morsel of my trips to my grandparents in Pakistan. 

What drew you to nutrition?

 In some ways, I was always on a path to study nutrition even at university. I always wanted to know the whole picture when we studied different body systems individually.  I was also really interested in what caused illnesses because I had this intuition that the answer to how a patient should be treated was hidden there. Unfortunately, conventional medicine isn’t taught that way, although things are getting better on this front.  So there were frustrating gaps in my knowledge and I could only do so much self-learning. 

What was the breaking point to enrolling in the course was a challenging personal and professional year.  I was disenchanted with my clinical practice and I felt an important tool was missing to help my patients with their full health picture. I looked up some courses, spoke to other nutritionists and chose the most clinical course available. Within dentistry, I have chosen to specialise in Periodontics, which is the prevention and management of oral micrbiome in the gums. Poor gum health can lead to diabetes, heart disease and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Poor nutrition is major risk factor as your mouth is the gateway to your gut and body. 

What are your top 3 favourite recipes to cook?

  • Daals of any kind, which I grew up eating several times a week and still do.
  • Biryani (see above).
  • Aubergine Bartha

What spices are absolute kitchen staples?

Cumin and Cinnamon are my top two that go in most dishes. I also cook with turmeric and pomegranate seed powder depending on the dish. For sweet dishes cardamom and saffron.

What did food represent in your family dynamic?

My parents have two kitchens in their home and so did my grandparents. I don’t know if that paints the right picture at all?

We are a family that wakes up thinking about food and go to sleep talking about it. One of the first things we discuss on the phone is what we have eaten that day or what we are going to eat. Our trips are planned around restaurants. So food plays a big role in my family. It connects us to home as we are scattered all over the world. 

Are there any tips and tricks for having well spiced foods without cooking for hours on end?

I think with spice my motto is: use it to enhance but not to overpower dish. Also using the spices in their raw form in the oil or boiling water before cooking helps to infuse the flavors. For example I will throw the cumin seeds and cinnamon stick in the oil and let it sizzle a little before adding onion/garlic in.

This is a daal recipe that represents the current me. It is traditional but cooked in a contemporary manner which is prefect for 21st  Century living because it is quite hands off. Which is what I aim to do through my recipes. 

This can be cooked using either brown lentils, green mung, puy, black lentil or black eyed peas because they are more fibrous and are sold canned in most supermarkets. You may choose to cook them dried (method below).  Cooked from dried is a great option and you can freeze extra for cooking at a later date.

Ingredients:

  • Cooked lentils 300 grams / one can
  • 1 Tbs ginger and garlic crushed
  • 1 tsp tomato puree
  • 200 grams cherry tomatoes halved
  • 1 Tbs pomegranate molasses
  • 2 tsp crushed chilli (reduce as appropriate for milder)
  • 2 tsp crushed black pepper
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • Coriander leaved finely chopped.

Directions:

1. If cooking the lentils from dried I would recommend soaking overnight and washing thoroughly. Then cooking till soft with plenty of water, 1 tsp baking powder, a cinnamon stick and a bay leaf. To cook about 300 grams cook ¼ cup of lentils and this will take about 60 minutes over low heat or in a slow cooker.

2. Place all the ingredients in a pan. Cook over a medium/low for 45 minutes. The tomatoes should be soft melting into the daal.

3. Check the seasoning and adjust as needed.

4. Transfer to serving dish and garnish with coriander.

5. Serve with rice with some cucumber rita.

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