Food & Drink People

The Spice Queens: Pakistani cuisine from the heart of Bradford

Bradford has long been the hub of Asian cuisine. In fact, it’s the only city to have been crowned Curry Capital of Britain six times in a row. As popular (and as insanely tasty) as its food is, it’s the families and generations working together to pass on these precious recipes that makes the city and its reputation for food incredibly special.

Arooj H Din, creator of the hand-crafted and art-filled cookbook, The Spice Queens says the book is a ball of inspiration and pays homage to the amazing women in her life who have shown their love through the art of cooking.

The cookbook, which is now in its second edition after a sell-out first, is pleasing on all sensory levels, with each recipe accompanied by beautiful photography from Arooj and sachets of specially chosen spices to get you started.

The Spice Queens

Interview: Jessica Howell
Graphics: Hannah McCreath

Where did your love of cooking originate?

My love of cooking truthfully came from my love of eating my mama’s food! I sadly lost both my sisters in the last decade. Therefore, it means even more to me; it reminds me of my childhood, of my sisters, of when we used to buy indigestion tablets for Eid celebrations – because we knew we would eat until it hurt! It is a pure form of kindness really, something that mama put in to feeding her wonderful, wild, adventure-filled children.

It was one of the main drives for constructing The Spice Queens book – I wanted a keepsake for me, so that I would always have some of that magic.

Being from Bradford (a city famous for its Asian cuisine), how do you use that history and local culture to influence your cooking?

Bradford is charming for specific flavours; I feel grateful that I am in an age where I can get home-cooked Pakistani food in so many places now. I love that tastes of cultures intermingle, that they sit side by side and celebrate each other. For me, good flavours are one of the true joys of life. It influences my cooking as I often mix in Mediterranean, Caribbean and Far Eastern flavours. 

My love for photography began in Bradford, picking up my film camera at 17. I still own that camera. There’s something timeless about film photography, I can see why it’s my specialism now. It’s fantastic to be able to be able to place my photographic skills into The Spice Queens. I really wanted a visually-led book, so that you can cook from the images alone if need be. I mean when someone says “brown the onions” how brown is brown?! Light? Caramel? Dark chocolate brown?

With your cookbook having family at its centre with many of the recipes being passed on from your mum, have you cultivated your own style over time, or do you keep very close to the original recipes?

Oh my, yes women, I think for centuries women have poured love in to how they cook, it is a way of saying how much you care. I feel that women from my mum’s generation really want to make sure their children, grandchildren and anyone who comes to visit leaves happy with a tummy full of happiness. It fulfils a purpose of need and love all combined into one, it’s beautiful and may we somehow keep it alive.

Arooj H Din

I am definitely a mix master in the kitchen. Right now, I am sat cooking spinach with mum, in the traditional way. Yesterday I made Quorn gnocchi in a spicy sauce (yes, I put my spices in almost everything). I will be off to visit a friend in Scotland this weekend and she is darn amazing in the kitchen, as many of my friends are. I think that is a third book right there. I must say this rings true: “Good food and friends are the true sunshine of life”.

What did you want to achieve from your second cookbook, which makes it different from the first?

How amazing it has been to be on my third and final addition of the book, this one is a little slicker and has no post-it notes in it! The spelling has been checked by my friends so a big improvement on that side (not my forte – cannot be good at everything right…).

You see this book is about good home cooked food. It gives you the foundations to create your own spices, these are what create your curries and take them to the next level of wonderfulness.

The book has evolved into something rather sensational. In 2019, myself and my childhood friend Nosheen launched our spice company Season Yorkshire. Here we have recreated our mums’ spice blends of garam masala and basaar, so that you can easily cook our mums’ food. I want the world to be full of these spices and people enjoying them.

I do have another book in the pipeline, it will more a gathering of herbal healing potions. My mama is a rich source of knowledge, she is a ayurvedic person through and through, a queen I must say of that also. Our house is full of her concoctions for headaches, tummy aches, indigestion and controlling blood pressure…the list goes on. I know it’s time to place these in a spellbook for me and maybe a few others.

I also was part of a collaboration that published an alternative photography book; we are looking forward to exhibiting the book and artwork later this year so watch this space!

For people just starting to experiment with Pakistani/Kashmiri recipes, what are your top tips on how to get started?

Get your spices right (this is your foundation of an awesome curry) and know your heat levels – not enough and you’re like “What blandness is this?!” Too much and your head might pop!

However, it all comes down to this. Get the sauce right. Get the base right, you magnificent spice eating humans.

The secret to a good curry – how you get the flavours of opulent eastern empires, the smells of freshly ground spices from market stalls carrying their delicious scents on a warm breeze, and the vivid colours of ancient cooking techniques – we call this part the ‘Bhuna’ process. This is where you caramelise your masala, or base (onions, garlic, green chillies, tomatoes, salt, basaar and garam masala). The more you cook out your masala, the richer the flavour and more vibrant the colour!

To do it like a pro, check out tips and scrumptious tricks @seasonyorkshire.

Finally, which recipe is your favourite?

You just can’t ask me that. But if I had one last meal. My mum’s cauliflower and potato (gobi aloo) with a paranta (buttery chappati) and her home-made mint sauce. 

I have a long way to go before mime tastes like hers; I swear she sneaks things in when I’m not looking.

I changed my surname to Din last year, that’s my mum’s name (truthfully, she raised me, my brother and my sisters single-handedly). My sisters and I would talk often of taking her name on, I think it was finally time. It is a homage to her and to what I want to take into my future. I want to celebrate her and me and the reflection of her love.

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