As her debut cookbook is published, Ella Walker talks to Saliha Mahmood Ahmed about her passion for the Mughals and their decadent food legacy

AS A trainee doctor hoping to specialise in gastroenterology, you might have expected 2017 MasterChef winner Saliha Mahmood Ahmed's debut cookbook to run along the lines of healthy eating. Instead Khazana, which the 30-year-old considers a 'treasure trove' of dishes, combines her Pakistani heritage with the history of the extravagant Mughal Empire, and Mahmood Ahmed's own travels.

She started cooking around the age of 10 ("But you weren't allowed to do everything in the kitchen, you had to 'graduate' from various stages," she notes), before food technology at school pushed her on. At 15, she won a schools' chef of the year competition - and she's clearly a pro at cookery competitions, scooping last year's MasterChef gong. It was her husband Usman, however, who secretly put in an application on her behalf.

Spending family holidays exploring the Middle East and Indian sub-continent, experiencing cultures and dipping into cuisines along the way, was what really triggered her bug for feeding and eating though.

The Londoner is full of stories of trying goat's brain curry ("a bit spongy") and eating sweet potatoes - roasted in ash overnight, split open and topped with spices and lime juice - by the roadside. "My dad would book up these really long trips," she remembers. "All we knew was whether we were going to a hot country or a cold country. Even my mum didn't know where we were going."

Amazing adventure holidays ensued, with the family of five exploring the north of Pakistan, the Himalayan foothills, India, Sri Lanka and Kashmir. One trip saw them visit the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1632. "Seeing the opulence and grandeur, I began reading about it and discovered this huge contribution the Mughals had to food of the Indian sub-continent," Mahmood Ahmed recalls. The encounter had such a lasting influence that it's helped define the soul of Khazana, which draws on the abundance and splendour of the Mughals and their fusion of Persian and Indian influences.

Indo-Persian food, she explains, is "quite a fluid concept", but essentially sees Indian cookery and techniques bolstered by Persian flavourings - like nuts, herbs, saffron and light spices. "The spicing isn't green chilli and coconut milk, it's much more subtle: Nutmeg and mace and cardamom...

"The food's quite sexy," she adds, and invention is key. Khazana is really not concerned with the regionality of food, dismissing the idea of classic recipes set in stone, immune to adaptation. Instead, "it looks at how ingredients have spread from one region to another and influences across borders", as was the way of the Mughals. "Why not pick the best of everywhere, no?" Mahmood Ahmed asks.

Khazana by Saliha Mahmood Ahmed, photography by Kristin Perers (Hodder& Stoughton, £35)

Lamb shanks

(serves 4)

2tbsp olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

5 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

3 star anise

1tbsp fennel seeds

1tsp chilli flakes

2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, unpeeled

4 French-trimmed lamb shanks (about 200-250g each)

3 dried limes

120g dates

2tbsp pomegranate molasses

Handful of pomegranate seeds, to garnish

For the couscous

200g couscous

1 x 400g tin chickpeas, rinsed and drained

250ml hot beef stock

4tbsp olive oil

1 medium aubergine, cut into small cubes

Juice of ½ lemon

½ bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Salt, to taste

1. Heat the olive oil in a deep casserole dish and add the onion. Fry over a medium heat for about five minutes; when the onion starts turning golden, add the cloves, cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, chilli flakes and ginger. Cook the spices gently for a minute, being careful not to let them to burn.

2. Add the lamb shanks to the pan and brown them in the onions and spices, turning to brown all sides. Finally, add the dried limes and dates to the casserole dish with just enough warm water to cover the shanks (about 900ml). Increase the heat to bring the mixture to the boil, then cover with a lid and reduce the heat to medium-low. Allow the lamb to simmer for about two hours, or until it is tender to touch and practically falling off the bone.

3. Remove the casserole dish from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Gently remove the lamb shanks from the casserole dish with a slotted spoon and set aside. Strain the liquid in the casserole dish through a sieve, discarding the whole spices. Return the strained liquid to the casserole dish, add the pomegranate molasses and season to taste with salt. Place back over a medium heat to reduce the liquid to a sauce with

the consistency of double cream.

4. Meanwhile, put the couscous and drained chickpeas into a bowl. Bring the stock to a boil and season with salt, then pour over the couscous. Cover the bowl with cling film and allow to stand for 15 minutes.

5. While the couscous is standing, heat half the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat and add the aubergine cubes. Fry for about five minutes, or until they have caramelised and softened. Fluff the couscous grains using a fork and drizzle with the remaining olive oil and the lemon juice. Mix the fried aubergine into the couscous together with the parsley.

6. Return the lamb shanks to the sauce and heat through gently. Serve with the couscous, garnished with the remaining pomegranate seeds, if you like.

Sea bass

(Serves 4)

4 pieces of lavash bread

50g softened butter

Good pinch of saffron threads

1 garlic clove, finely grated

1 red chilli, finely chopped

4 x 120g skinless sea bass fillets, about 1cm thick

2 sliced spring onions, thinly sliced

4tsp finely chopped fresh coriander

Olive oil

Salt, to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan), gas mark 6.

2. Trim each piece of lavash bread to create four squares around 20 x 20cm.

3. Use a fork to mix the saffron, garlic and red chilli into the softened butter.

4. Season the sea bass fillets with salt and place each one onto a square of lavash bread. Spread the saffron-chilli butter over the sea bass fillets and sprinkle with a few spring onions and some coriander. Carefully bring each side of the lavash over the sea bass so that the fish is completely enclosed inside the flatbread.

5. Place the prepared fish parcels onto a baking tray and rub olive oil all over them. Bake for about 12 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through and the bread is golden. Open out the fish parcel to reveal the herb and saffron baked fish and crispy lavash bread. Serve immediately.