It’s not quite what you’d expect a MasterChef winner to do next. After Saliha Mahmood Ahmed won the BBC’s cookery contest in 2017, she could easily have gathered her favourite recipes into a book and published it, with the show as the obvious selling point. “I could have put a picture of myself on the cover, and people would have probablysaid: ‘That’s the girl who was on MasterChef, she cooked nice things,’” she says.
Instead, Mahmood Ahmed took a deep dive into the culinary past. Born in Nottingham to Pakistani parents, she used to travel as a child with her family across South and Central Asia and the Middle East. On these trips, she developed a fascination not just with the food of those regions but also the history of the Mughal empire, which rose out of present-day Uzbekistan and dominated South Asia from the early-16th to the mid-19th century.
When the opportunity arose to write a cookbook, Mahmood Ahmed, who had been working as a junior doctor while competing in MasterChef, decided to combine her twin hobbies. The result is Khazana, a beautifully realised book that serves up Indo-Persian cuisine with bite-sized chunks of history on the side. The 31-year-old has done her research – the book opens with a quote from the 16th-century emperor Akbar about taking care over food. “But I’m not a historical purist,” she says. “I’m using Mughal concepts and ingredients, but I’m not copying verbatim. Some of those recipes have a kilo of pistachios in them …, and that’s never going to be appropriate today.”
I have loads and loads of ideas. I’ve just got to decide which direction I go in next
Instead, she updates old ideas by marrying them with her tastes and experience. “For example, the Mughals were not huge fans of salad,” she says, “but I love salads, so I’ve used their concepts to develop my own Mughal-style salads” – such as guava, peach, black salt and mint. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Unusual combinations, such as smoked chicken and basil kebabs with beetroot salad and buttermilk raita, prove irresistible – as does the broad mix of cuisines, neatly tied by the Mughal theme. “When I’ve given the book to people from Iran, they can relate to many of the recipes,” she says. “And when I give it to Pakistani people, they find the recipes both familiar and different, which they seem to like.”
Khazana has found favour with British readers too. “At a festival the other day, someone was looking at my book and another girl passed by and said, ‘Don’t think about it, just buy it: it’s great,’” Mahmood Ahmed recalls. “That was so rewarding for me.” To write the book, Mahmood Ahmed went part-time at work and now she has a “50/50 career” as a doctor and food personality. As a gastroenterologist, she deals with food-related ailments and digestive disorders and she would like to write “something unique in that domain, drawing from my understanding of gut health and eating food in ways that are more beneficial than simply dieting and cutting calories”.
And then, of course, there are other parts of her heritage to be explored, “whether that’s the Pakistani part, the Kashmiri part – or the huge Anglo-Indian influence in my life. I have loads of ideas.” She takes a breath. “I’ve just got to decide which direction I go in next.”
Khazana: A Treasure Trove of Modern Mughal Dishes (Hodder & Stoughton, £25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.