Amina Ali : The Cake Wizard of Lahore

This story is part of my Pakistan travel diaries, describing my discoveries and encounters with inspiring individuals I met during my trip.

Amina Ali is a Renaissance woman. An artist and the CEO of Lahore Children’s Center, she’s also the mastermind behind Delish, a patisserie specializing in elegant, creative cakes. When I first met her, I was so impressed by her range of talents that I had difficulty conceiving how a single person could juggle so many responsibilities. Yet, after spending more time with Amina and exploring Lahore together, I grew to realize that she is very much the denizen of her city, energetic, vibrant and multifaceted.

I first came across Delish through the stories of friends who visited Lahore. “Amina’s cakes are works of art,” said an acquaintance who often travels to this ancient city in the heart of Pakistan’s Punjab province for the Literary Festival. “What’s more, the taste is heavenly,” she added. I grew intrigued when I learned that Amina started her business at the back of her house, teaching herself the art of pastry and cake decor. Whatever I knew about Lahore suggested that such an endeavor wouldn’t be for a fainthearted person.

“I first started making cakes when I was organizing children’s birthday parties,” says Amina, when we finally meet. She is herself a mother of three boys. “One of my degrees is in teaching, and I’ve always loved being around children and creating special events for them.” She adds that children can be the most demanding clients, which is why from the beginning she wanted to make cakes that delighted them. The flavor was her main goal.

Yet, another important driver for Amina is art. She studied  at the National College of Arts, one of the oldest art schools in South Asia and the one renowned for its training in classical techniques. The school seals the reputation of Lahore as the cultural heart of the subcontinent. Next door is the Lahore Museum renowned for its collection of Buddhist art, manuscripts, calligraphy as well as a large gallery devoted to miniature painting. As a place at a crossroads and a royal Mughal city, Lahore has always attracted travelers from many different lands. Miniature painting practiced at the Mughal court of the 16th and 18th century blends Persian, Chinese, European and Indian elements with striking results.

This art form was Amina’s specialization. Her paintings are rooted in the venerable tradition once practiced in numerous ateliers around Lahore, and yet they partake of modern techniques and themes. One of my favorite works from her portfolio showed a woman dressed in a rose sari, glancing over her shoulder at the blooming spring orchard. She’s alone, but she’s comfortable in her solitude.

Seeing Amina’s cakes, I knew that she had taken her artist training and applied it to edible art. Her cakes range from whimsical to opulent. Amina’s attention to detail and her ability to craft flowers out of sugar and pastry made me realize that patisserie has become her new creative medium, along side the charcoal, ink and watercolors. “Producing a miniature painting is an immense amount of work, and it taught me patience and perseverance,” she says.

The look of Amina’s cakes is only one part of their appeal. Their flavor is a far more important component. Yet, before inviting me to tasting her cakes, Amina wanted to show me the gourmet side of Lahore, in order for me to better understand both her inspirations and that of her city.

“Food is the favorite topic of conversation in Lahore,” she explains. “You can eat anytime and anywhere. You can have an amazing meal in the city in the small dives hidden in the markets as well as fine restaurants with rooftop views over the old city.” The best way for me to understand Lahore is to taste it.

The city’s fabled cuisine has as long of a tradition–and as impressive a reputation–as its fine arts. The local favorites include halwah puri, a breakfast set including crisp, deep-fried flatbreads served with spiced chickpea stew and sweet semolina custard perfumed with cardamom and almonds. Another famous breakfast item is nihari, a thick meat soup flavored with a range of spices, including black cardamom, coriander and cinnamon, and topped with green chilies and slivers of ginger. Paya, a soup of tender lamb trotters, is one more iconic dish to sample in Lahore.

For lunch, one could try the biryani, layered rice dishes, or karahi gosht, mutton or chicken stews cooked with tomatoes and fresh coriander. Or one could do as I did–find a Lahori laddu vendor and tuck into a plate of soft chickpea fritters topped with apricot chutney and fresh salad while sitting on the stairs of an old mosque and listening to the cooing of doves under its domes. Even if one thinks one can’t eat another bite, by the time the sun sets and evening falls on the city with its crumbling havelis, modern overpasses, Shah Jahan’s gardens and dusty alleyways, the scent of Lahore’s kebabs grilled over charcoal will surely awaken the most sluggish of appetites.

I found Lahore’s cuisine quite different from the rest of the subcontinent. The meat dishes were rather intricately balanced. In some dishes, spices would be left whole, rather than ground into fine powder, which made the flavor more explosive. I especially enjoyed the delicate hand with rosewater and cardamom in desserts, which allowed the fragrance of milk, butter and jaggery to stand out.

Amina’s patisserie, like her art, blends the traditional and the modern. She uses spices like cinnamon, clove and nutmeg that would be found in most Lahore kitchens, but she twists them to make fusion flavors–with orange blossom water, pine nuts, pumpkin or apples. When I was visiting Lahore, she was experimenting with an English fruitcake, trying to capture its decadent flavor in a moist, airy cake.

“Lahore doesn’t always make my work easy,” Amina says. The hot climate for several months of the year, the lack of availability of certain key ingredients, the constant need to adapt and evolve recipes make her patisserie an ongoing project. “I often have to create many components from scratch that in Europe would be purchased easily from a store.”

Nevertheless, such dedication pays off in mouthwatering creations and the ever growing clientele. When I was visiting Amina in December, she was setting up a new bigger kitchen to accommodate the constant stream of orders. “I started making cakes to please children, but then I realized what an important creative outlet it has become for me. And then it’s such a wonderful feeling to create something that makes other people happy. What can be more exhilarating?”

Photography of Amina and Amina’s cake by Delish. Photography of Lahore by Bois de Jasmin.

If you’re in Lahore, do stop by Gulberg Galleria to taste Amina’s cakes. Her spiced cakes are moist and fragrant, and I also enjoyed her bite-sized lemon tarts.

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38 Comments

  • Annie: What a beautiful and delicious post! I traveled vicariously with you. December 14, 2018 at 7:42am Reply

  • Ariadne: Absolutely wonderful post! I will never get to visit Lahore or Delish but through your writing, travels and sharing I get to learn about these elegantly diverse treasures of our world. December 14, 2018 at 9:19am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a pleasure to share. Amina is such a talented and multifaceted person, and her city is likewise vibrant and fascinating. December 14, 2018 at 4:48pm Reply

  • Britta Sneep: Inspired travel writing, V! Your strength is in realizing the small stitches that seem to hold the sensual world together, from Ukraine to California, to India, to Brussels, to Lahore. Absolutely adore your photos. Which perfumes and attars are you recommending to go with this adventure? December 14, 2018 at 9:44am Reply

    • Victoria: The main perfume of Lahore is without doubt a rose. The national flower of Pakistan is jasmine. Since I visited in the winter, jasmine wasn’t in season, but rose was everywhere. I’ll have a separate article on Lahore and scents later. But you can’t go wrong with a rose attar. December 14, 2018 at 4:50pm Reply

      • Fazal: you def. need to smell jasmine back home. Just like rose, it is very fragrant. Until you mentioned it, I did not realize that rose back home is really more fragrant than the roses I have smelled here. December 15, 2018 at 7:35pm Reply

        • Victoria: I can imagine how strong jasmine must smell. The climate makes for intensely fragrant plants in general, be it fruit, vegetables or flowers. December 16, 2018 at 4:44am Reply

          • Fazal: actually there is a perfume that reminded me of rose fragrance back home. Around 2012 or so, I smelled the current version (back then) of Perfumer’s Shop Tea Rose and it was such a realistic interpretation of the rose smell in Pakistan. Then I acquired vintage versions of Tea Rose and it smelled a bit different, in fact it did not remind me of rose. Unlike the modern formula of Tea Rose with transparent yellow color, the vintage was amber-colored liquid. December 16, 2018 at 5:23am Reply

            • Victoria: Tea Rose is a very good perfume, and it approximates a nature-like rose well. I also like it, but I haven’t smelled the most recent version. December 16, 2018 at 5:34am Reply

  • Filomena: What a beautiful talented woman! I really enjoyed reading this post. December 14, 2018 at 9:51am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad to hear this! December 14, 2018 at 4:51pm Reply

  • Matty: What fabulous cakes. December 14, 2018 at 10:50am Reply

    • Victoria: They really are! And Amina’s flavor combinations are great. December 14, 2018 at 4:51pm Reply

      • Ariadne: Yes! Rose and spice is what many of us covet in our perfumes. The idea of interpretting that in cakes just blows my mind!! December 14, 2018 at 7:38pm Reply

        • Victoria: Amina’s understanding of flavors is like that of a perfumer. December 16, 2018 at 4:08am Reply

  • Daisy: I am really enjoying your travel photos and posts about Lahore! Admittedly, I don’t know very much about Pakistan at all other than what appears in the news (and the coverage is almost always negative).

    I feel like I am being taken on a rich cultural adventure and now, I really, really, really want to go. What a fantastic city. Thank you so much for sharing! December 14, 2018 at 11:18am Reply

    • Victoria: Our media does a terrible job covering this region. Pakistan has many challenges, of course, but what struck me when I visited was how rich and complex was its cultural life. Art, poetry, music. I feel like I could write a whole series of articles on this topic alone and still barely scratch the surface.

      Having had these kind of experiences, I want to share what I’ve seen and what has impressed me. Lahore has been amazing, more so because of creative, talented people like Amina. December 14, 2018 at 4:57pm Reply

  • Sandra: I don’t know if I would ever visit Lahore but this is an excellent way to explore through your writing…Thanks Victoria December 14, 2018 at 1:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! Lahore is Lahore, one of a kind. December 14, 2018 at 4:57pm Reply

  • jodee: What a wonderful way to use artistic talents. I’m sure Amina’s cakes are delicious and that miniature is strikingly beautiful. December 14, 2018 at 1:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love Amina’s work and also the way she builds connections among her different artistic pursuits. December 14, 2018 at 4:58pm Reply

  • Marsha Smith: Victoria, you never fail to enchant this arm chair traveler! December 14, 2018 at 3:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Marsha! 🙂 December 14, 2018 at 4:59pm Reply

  • Silvermoon: Victoria, thank you for this wonderful article. Although I have never been to Lahore, I could feel it through your writing. And my, was I impressed with Amina’s cakes and art!! December 15, 2018 at 6:25am Reply

    • Victoria: She’s a very unique person! Thank you, I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed reading the article. December 16, 2018 at 4:14am Reply

  • Notturno7: Thank you for the lovely article, Victoria!
    You travel to places most of us won’t get to visit but I feel inspired to keep going to faraway places and enjoy new adventures.
    Good luck to talented Amina. December 15, 2018 at 5:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: Bringing these stories is immensely rewarding! December 16, 2018 at 4:41am Reply

  • Fazal: Nihari, Halwa Puri, and Biryani, Yessssssssssssss.. Paya, nahhhhh 😀 My most favorite food from back home is Haleem but only when it is made well. Different people use such different recipes in making haleem that they seem like different dishes. But when Haleem is made well, nothing beats it in my book. December 15, 2018 at 7:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love haleem. I usually make mine in the Hyderabadi style, quite spicy and spiced, but I have so many recipes in my collection, I like to experiment. In fact, one of the most delicious I’ve tried was in Iran, made very simply, but the quality of wheat and meat was such that it needed few other ingredients. December 16, 2018 at 4:43am Reply

      • Fazal: yeah, somehow I believe the one you ate in Iran must have been the best version you have eaten. In fact, I do think the best haleem is not one with the most ingredients but the one that is prepared with lot of car, pulses turned into smooth paste and carefully-minced meat.

        You are a true global citizen. I am impressed! December 16, 2018 at 5:27am Reply

        • Fazal: lot of care**** December 16, 2018 at 5:29am Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, that’s true. It’s too easy to load it with spices and to blitz it in a food processor, but nothing matches the texture of hand-pounded haleem. December 16, 2018 at 5:42am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Thank you, Victoria, for bringing home countries, culture, art and especially people (living or dead) from the other side. Many of those regions are routinely met with disdain, ridicule and downright hate. It takes so very little in effort and time to declare a country as “the axis of evil”, vilifying beliefs and culture, and raising the spectre of imminent war. And, as nowhere in the world the masses are particularly educated about people, and their lives and cultures on the other side of the globe, it somehow seems okay to laugh about or bash those places, or casually accept war. Think of Yemen, with its unique architecture and cuisine.
    Therefore thanks, that your blog—a primer on sensory pursuits—is exactly that yet also so very much more! I truly think that you are doing a very important job, and focussing on such lovely, talented people as Amina Ali brings us all closer together instead of dividing us in a cold way! December 16, 2018 at 3:03am Reply

    • Victoria: Nothing is easier than to use labels and blanket generalizations to talk about others. Being in Pakistan with its incredibly rich history and culture makes me realize what a loss it is for us all that we don’t know enough about, that there are fewer resources to read about it, etc. I mean, this is the place that has the remnants of one of three oldest civilizations (the Indus Valley Civilization) and the one that had the widest reach. This is the place that Alexander the Great has crossed, where Emperor Ashoka wrote his great decrees, where many civilizations met and where new ideas blossomed. And today Pakistan, despite all of the current problems, continues to develop such a rich culture. Take something like music. Its musical heritage is so impressive that it crosses borders, even the heavily fortified once like between Pakistan and India. All in all, this journey has been an incredible, galvanizing experience for me. December 16, 2018 at 5:03am Reply

    • Silvermoon: OnWingsof Saffron, I agree (strongly) with both you and Victoria here. So many people focus on what divides us, instead of what we can share and appreciate about each other. So many disdain peace, even though outright conflict rarely can resolve our differences.

      And art and human creativity (all its many facets, including food) is probably an under appreciated path to discovering what brings us together, even as it celebrates our diversity. December 16, 2018 at 6:20am Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you, so very well-said! Art, food, languages can both build bridges and yet remind us what makes each culture unique. December 17, 2018 at 11:27am Reply

  • Figuier: What a fantastic post, & what an impressive lady Amina Ali is! Those cakes are gorgeous and the flavours sound heavenly. Thanks so much for the photos and the descriptions – the descriptions of savoury street foods in particular made my mouth water. Yum! December 18, 2018 at 2:52pm Reply

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