Although the word dawat is meant to be festive, it also inspires a fear that many Pakistanis don’t want to admit. In Urdu and Hindi, dawat translates directly to “party”. In my mind, this is hosting in the most complicated way possible.
There are Pakistani hosts, mostly women, whose dawat is a science. They cook elaborate dinners for groups of 12 or more. Considering the number of dishes on the table, which can go from 6 to 10, one would think that they would be simple. They are not. Each recipe requires care and precision. The timing of the pulao or biryani must be exact so that each grain of rice remains whole and perfect; cutlets, whether silky meat patties like shami kebabs or fried potatoes like aloo tikki, should be consistent in shape, texture and taste. A four-ingredient chutney should have the right balance of flavors – not too spicy, not too sour.
I come from a family of staunchly laid-back women who don’t care too much about those details. But even though the dawat at my place was not as elaborate as at others, my mother always followed the basic Pakistani rules for hosting a dinner party. First, address the major meal categories. It is a mixed rice dish; a type of meat curry; something fried, like shami skewers; roti or naan; a type of vegetable or lentil; a chutney or relish; and, of course, dessert. After the number and category of dishes, make sure this spread is balanced in terms of texture, like serving something with sauce to complement a dry dish – if there’s a vegetarian pulao, you should ideally serve some korma, a richly spiced meat curry, to accompany it. Finally, always serve tea (black or green, depending on diners’ preference) to complement the meal. Within these limits, my mother developed an eclectic menu that allowed her guests the luxury of picking and choosing how their plate looked.
When I moved to the United States, I brought my parents’ instinct for accommodation with me. The only way I knew to make friends was to say, “Come to dinner!” Maybe that implied I was a confident cook – absolutely not. But what I lacked in finesse, I made up for in enthusiasm. Luckily, my friends were kind and forgiving. I never felt any pressure to follow the rules of accommodation (other than making people feel welcome and ensuring there was a sufficient supply of alcohol – no matter how good) .
After my husband and I moved overseas, first to Mexico and then to Southeast Asia, and found ourselves engaging in more cross-generational friendships, the stakes felt higher. I was suddenly faced with the question, What does an adult dinner look like? It was then that I was brought back to the traditional “rules” of welcoming a Pakistani dawat. My first attempts to host a dinner “Pakistani style” resulted in several mini blackouts. No matter what time we started preparing, something would go wrong: the rice would turn mushy; the chicken tasted rubbery; dessert fell apart. In the end, my husband suggested we get takeout next time. Even on the rare occasions when we executed the food to perfection, guests didn’t ask for seconds. Or maybe the conversation felt stunted and there was no post-dessert wait (my favorite part of the evening).
The stress of hosting made me take a step back and reevaluate. While there was certainly a wisdom tied to the traditional rules of dawat, what was missing was a sense of fluidity, a warmth that set the stage for a slow-paced meal amid good people and great conversation.
From there, I started working backwards. I brought the right mix of people to ensure group chemistry and served a menu that was casual enough to put everyone, myself included, at ease. I thought more carefully about group dynamics and food preferences. This allowed me to focus on creating a cohesive menu – thinking about how each dish complemented each other – rather than wondering if I was ticking off all the meal categories for each individual guest. I ditched the homemade dessert and started serving chopped fruit and a cheese plate. Drawing inspiration from my mother and culinary inspirations like Diana Henry and Samin Nosrat, I also tempered the richness of the menus, creating more space for varied textures and more vivid flavors. When I have vegetarians, I make banjan borani, an Afghani dish of fried eggplant served on a tomato onion base drizzled with sour yogurt, served with hazelnut saffron rice and potatoes. And if I catch myself overthinking the menu, I’ll take bubbles and some quiches, and invite people over for brunch instead.
Still, there are times when I will revert to the rules of Pakistani dawat – with some tweaks. There’s a rice dish, probably a prawn biryani dressed in heaps of cilantro with a refreshing cucumber raita; and roasted chicken thighs prepared in a tangy yogurt marinade or smoky grilled beef skewers. I will complete the meal with a green salad and vegetable curry, preferably bitter melon or okra. Instead of tea and dessert there will be plenty of red wine, chopped fruit and good cheese. Now there are many more nights of quiet meals accompanied by loud laughter (and light roasting), which I have come to realize are the only true markers of a great dawat.