As a trainee doctor at Watford General Hospital, hoping to specialise in gastroenterology, you might’ve expected 2017 MasterChef winner Saliha Mahmood Ahmed’s debut cookbook to run along the lines of healthy eating.

But not so much. 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 (“I can still do ruff-puff and shortcrust pastry by heart”).

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 - although Mahmood Ahmed reveals he said he was “sick of being an aubergine minion” during the recipe-testing stage of Khazana.

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, Kashmir and more: “Territories that other people don’t necessarily go to.”

It certainly wasn’t a case of enjoying the all-you-can-eat hotel buffet: “My family would even try to avoid breakfasts in the hotels, just so we could get a taste of what the locals were eating.”

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 with a laugh, 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, saying she hopes the book will “transport you to a different era”.

She talks about this bunch of dramatic emperors with awe. They were decadent in every way, from what they wore and ate, to their personal relationships. The way they lived, she says, is “beyond our imagination today. I mean, who goes and builds the Taj Mahal for a lost love?” Bottomless coffers also meant a kitchen budget that in today’s money would run into the millions. “Every meal would be a table laid full of different dishes, an array of things, more than one could possibly eat in a week.”

It wasn’t just about quantity though, quality was paramount. “They cultivated all of their vegetables, they reared all their meat, they ate fully organic produce. They’d acquire new territories and were never shy of trying the food,” notes Mahmood Ahmed. “They were foodie people, and their influence on the food of that region still remains today, whether people have picked up on it or not.

“I think back to the Mughal emperors being so open to trying different things and fusing their food,” she muses. “We’re 400 years on and actually, we should be using the same sorts of principles, and learning food lessons from history.”

Khazana by Saliha Mahmood Ahmed, photography by Kristin Perers, is published by Hodder& Stoughton, priced £35. Available now.