The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Noreen Wasti grew up with a love for both the Pakistani dishes of her heritage and her New England surroundings. After living in Dubai for nearly a decade and embracing her love of food, Noreen is now cooking food that honors her heritage in her own style. We joined her at home in Brooklyn to make a mango dessert for Eid (recipe here) inspired by the dish her coolest aunty brought to family gatherings when Noreen was a kid.
I like to think of my cooking style and approach to food as a big amalgamation of things that have happened in my life, my upbringing, and my parents’ lives. I come from a family that cooks a lot and entertains a lot. Cooking has always been a way for us to bond. Everything was centered on meals and dinner. My dad was really into food, and he forced me and my sister to try different foods at a young age. He exposed us to a lot of different cuisines.
I like to think of my cooking style and approach to food as a big amalgamation of things that have happened in my life, my upbringing, and my parents’ lives.
I grew up in a really small town in Rhode Island that was not diverse at all. I was never represented by my peers growing up. But I was also from a Pakistani family whose heritage was quite strong. We grew up eating Pakistani food and later on in life, I learned how to embrace it in a way that felt good to me.
We grew up eating Pakistani food and later on in life, I learned how to embrace it in a way that felt good to me.
While I was a teen I loved to bake and help my mom when she would have people over. They had a lot of dinner parties, and I loved setting up the table. As I got older I started cooking in my home and eventually cooking for a career as well.
I used to work in PR for luxury brands. I handled a lot of fashion and high-end-brand relations in Dubai, and I just got burnt out by that industry. I wasn’t feeling fulfilled, and I always used food as an escape from that. I started a food blog — rest in peace to my food blog from back in the day when people still read them. I used it as a diary for what I was cooking. I quit my job and left Dubai and was living at home with my parents for a year. During that year, I embraced cooking and started that blog. From there, I was posting everything on Instagram.
I wasn’t feeling fulfilled, and I always used food as an escape from that.
I eventually moved back to Dubai because my husband was based there. That’s where I realized I could connect this love of cooking with work. That was when Instagram was just starting to really get big, and I started having brands and companies contact me. We moved to New York in 2019, and now I work on content creation that is mostly food-related for brands that understand my style. It’s been an uphill climb, but it’s been good.
Because I cook so much for work, I really love “special cooking.” Having people over and sharing a big spread of dishes that I spent time cooking over the past couple of days makes me feel really happy. I have a different style and approach when I’m cooking for work. But cooking for myself at my home and for guests is a different experience. I feel much more relaxed; I’m inspired by seasonal produce and what looks good at the farmers’ market.
Having people over and sharing a big spread of dishes that I spent time cooking over the past couple of days makes me feel really happy.
I’ll always have a certain flair I put behind my dishes. It’s very inspired by my heritage as a Pakistani American, but I also lived in the Middle East for eight years, so that inspired my approach to cooking — it veers highly Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. I definitely love to cook heavily garnished: heavy on the herbs, heavy on the olive oil. I love really bold and colorful flavors. I love to take time on choosing a plate. I love edible flowers. I gravitate toward lush, colorful, and inviting. And then I love my own Pakistani spices.
I’ll always have a certain flair I put behind my dishes. It’s very inspired by my heritage as a Pakistani American.
As children of immigrants it can be confusing what your food heritage is. I love traditional Pakistani dishes, but I also love American food and New England food — all of these things I grew up with. I used to think if you don't go totally authentic then you’re not legit. But now I’m like, No, you need to make it your own and let your experiences shape your food. It’s okay if my mango dessert is not the most authentic dessert you would find in Pakistan, but I’m making it with my lens and perspective with my experiences. I’ve learned to make peace with the fact that not everything has to be what your parents knew it as. It can be what you know it as.
I’ve learned to make my peace with the fact that not everything has to be what your parents knew it as. It can be what you know it as.
I wanted to make an Eid dessert that felt personal to me. There’s a ton of Pakistani and Desi desserts. As a child I never loved a lot of them. I never reached for the mithai, but there was always this one cool aunty who would bring this big trifle dish of mango mousse. That was the only dessert I would run to eat. I honestly think it was canned mangoes and Cool Whip! It wasn’t anything crazy. I’m 100% sure it was something from a packet. But it was the dessert I reached for.
I wanted to make an Eid dessert that felt personal to me... there was always this one cool aunty who would bring this big trifle dish of mango mousse.
I wanted to recreate that cool-aunty mango mousse but in my own way. I make a lot of cakes, so I made a simple vanilla sponge cake today and added lime zest and cardamom, which are more eastern flavors. Then I made a mango purée from fresh mangoes, with a homemade whipped cream. I spread that over the cake with a bunch of edible flowers, crushed pistachios, and then the gold leaf seen on a lot of South Asian desserts. It was just a total representation of me making that kind of dessert that feels authentic to my style of cooking.
I wanted to recreate that cool-aunty mango mousse but in my own way.
I used the Little Hottie; I love the size because with New York City living you can’t store so many big pieces. I loved that I could bake the cake in there, let it cool, and do it all in there. A lot of people stay away from cakes and frostings because you have to remove the cake from the pan, but this you cannot mess up. You don’t have to worry about perfect frosting or anything.