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Culinary Arts

Cooking Along the Silk Route With Shayma Saadat

Shayma Saadat is a Canadian chef based in Toronto. She is also an internationally published food writer whose  work focuses on food, culture and identity (Globe and Mail, BBC, New York Times, CBC, Toronto Star, among  others). Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Shayma is a Pakistani-Afghan with Persian ancestry, who grew up all over the  world as the daughter of an international development banker. Shayma was most recently seen cooking on CTV’s  Your Morning, and has been invited to host culinary workshops and talks for clients all over Toronto, (LCBO,  George Brown College, Loblaw’s, University of Toronto, Evergreen Brick Works, among others). Shayma’s  cooking style is based on the scents and spices of the countries of her heritage, which she refers to as Silk Route  Cuisine — she loves to combine these flavours with the local bounty of her home in Canada. 

Join Shayma Saadat at Tirgan 2019 cooking workshop as she shares her stories and culinary secrets behind the food of her Pakistani, Afghan and Persian heritage, which she refers to as Silk Route cuisine. Inspired by the scents and flavours of her mother and grandmothers’ kitchens, Shayma will create dishes using seasonally and locally sourced ingredients from her home in Ontario. “In cookery, there should be no borders,” Shayma says. Her philosophy is simple: to inspire all of you to leave the workshop feeling excited about cooking dishes using local ingredients and spices from the Silk Route. There will be pairings of peaches and saffron; candy-sweet tomatoes and sumagh; and more!

What are your ties to the Persian culture? 

My father tells me that my grandmother, Shameem Saadat, whom I called Mader, was the granddaughter of Syed Nadir Ali Shah, a Sufi saint from Khorasan, in Iran. He travelled from his home in Iran to present-day Pakistan, to spread the Sufi word, and fell in love with a hazel-eyed girl, married her, and ended up spending the rest of his life in Lahore. That hazel-eyed girl was Mader’s grandmother. Mader was one of the first women in Pakistan to obtain an MA in Economics in 1938—she went on to become a civil servant, a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a fabulous and curious cook. Though Mader was an avid cook, she was not one to enter the kitchen on a daily basis, plus, her expertise did not lie in Pakistani cuisine—she loved to make aioli in her precious Moulinex blender; bronzed apple pies on the granite counter in her Lahore kitchen; and lasagne with nutmeg-spiked bechamel.  I had always heard stories of Mader’s Persian ancestry, but it was only after I moved to Toronto that I became keenly interested in exploring more about where her family—my family—had come from. By the time I came to know more, Mader was long gone.  I started my journey a decade ago, exploring the culinary history and traditions of my grandmother’s Persian heritage. And to this day, the Persian food I cook is an homage to the grandmother I loved.

Why is Silk Route an important aspect of your cooking? What is the story behind your cookery philosophy?

I refer to the cuisine of the countries of my heritage—Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran—which have been made by the women in my family for generations, as Silk Route cuisine. The novelist Nadeem Aslam once said, “I was made in Pakistan, but assembled abroad.” – as the daughter of a World Bank-expatriate, I have led a nomadic life, periodically moving from one country to another. I was born in the beautiful city of ornate Mughal architecture, Lahore, Pakistan, to a Pakistani-Afghan father with Irani lineage, and a Pakistani mother. Inspired by my heritage, I have always drawn on a secret store of long-cherished family recipes to conjure up the aromas and tastes of my Pakistani heritage in my kitchen. My cookery philosophy has always been driven by a desire to show another side to a region that can often bear negative connotations in the media. Through food, I have been able to tell stories which have helped restore some of the pride, colour and romance to an often maligned region’s traditions of food and family.

Spice Spoon // Saffron Orange-Scented Bread Pudding

You seem to have a cosmopolitan vision of the past cultures with a modern approach in your cookery philosophy. what are the challenges and privileges of mixing tradition and modernity in today’s food culture? 

I respect the culinary traditions which are a part of my heritage; but I also want what I create in my kitchen to be a reflection of my life, here, today, in Toronto. Over the years, I have continued to push the boundaries of tradition, while creating modern dishes which are a throwback to the food I ate growing up. From my rosewater-scented almond cake, to the cardamom-roasted Ontario strawberries I make for my son and serve with a creamy vanilla bean ice cream, each dish tells a story about the home I have created in the diverse country that is Canada, as well as a story of inheritance and the connection to the home of my ancestors.

How you find a connection between Pakistani, Afghan or Persian food? are there the same elements/culture? 

Being the product of a Pakistani-Afghan household, our family’s dishes have come to evolve over time, incorporating ingredients and methodologies from both kitchens. For example aush, an Afghan soup which is my father’s family’s culinary opus magnus, has a heady kick of Pakistani spices which have been incorporated into the recipe over generations. There are a myriad of spices which are common to the Afghan, Pakistani and Persian kitchen, such as saffron, cardamom, rosewater, cumin and turmeric, which are a part of my repertoire—I love to infuse a classic peach bread pudding with saffron, or a roasted carrot soup with cumin and turmeric. In all three cultures, there is great respect for matrilineal knowledge—the recipes which have passed through the hands of our mothers, and our mothers’ mothers, as part of our Afghan, Pakistani and Persian culture. 

Photo Credit: Shayma Saadat

And, how you see Tirgan and what you have in mind for the Festival event?

I am honoured to be a part of Tirgan, as it showcases the beautiful diversity of Iran by celebrating the country’s arts. I hope to add to this diversity with my multicultural background, and I thank you for inviting this woman from Lahore, Pakistan, to be a part of your cultural festival and most importantly—your community. 
I have led an itinerant life, and through that I have learnt that food has no borders—a good meal, is a good meal, is a good meal. When people sit around a table and enjoy a meal they begin to ask questions beyond the food—the rituals that surround it, they often express interest in the culture. And so, stories are spun, over and over again – and tales are told and we connect as humans around a simple thing like good food. My father taught me that food allows us to tell stories—stories about a people, place and culture which is often misunderstood. Thank you for giving me the space to tell my stories.

Shukriya. I am thrilled to be a part of the Tirgan Festival.

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