Why do you buy cookbooks? In fact, in this heavily digitised age of recipe search engines and behemoth online food portals, one might ask why does anybody still invest in this decidedly quaint 20th century indulgence of a printed book full of recipes? Some say it is for the pretty pictures; others say that it is far more evocative sitting curled up with a cup of coffee, leafing through a physical book in search of recipe inspiration rather than clicking through a website. And yet others say that what attracts them to a recipe book is the personality of the writer and their ability to transport the reader to another world of tastes, colours and smells with their words and images – something that a recipe search engine fails spectacularly to do. If you fall into the latter category, then you need to put Summers Under the Tamarind Tree by Sumayya Usmani on your Christmas wishlist right now.
When somebody mentions Pakistan in conversation I am guessing most people will immediately think of the game of cricket and the country’s cricketing heroes like Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis; while others will think first of the country’s tense and complicated relationship with neighbouring India. One of the things that might not immediately spring to mind at the mention of Pakistan though is food – but Sumayya has created a book that will go a long way towards changing people’s lack of knowledge about Pakistan’s rich and varied culinary heritage. Born and raised in Pakistan before moving to the UK, Sumayya maintains strong ties to her native country and was frustrated at people’s lack of knowledge about the complex cuisine she loved and had grown up with. And the book she has created is part recipe book, part food memoir and part lovesong to the country of her birth and the people from whom she learnt her love of food.
The scene is set by introductory chapters containing a potted history of Pakistan and its people, as well as a chapter on the author’s childhood; the former illustrated with photos bursting with vibrancy and colour, and the latter with evocative black and white photos of young Sumayya and her parents. The tamarind tree in the title stood in her grandmothers garden. Pakistani cuisine bears a strong resemblance to that of northern India but as the country also shares a border with Iran and Afghanistan there are also strong Arabic influences in the food. Such a complex pedigree might scare off the novice cook who may think that the food will require ingredients and techniques that are beyond them. But to help set the nervous reader’s mind at ease, Sumayya has included a very informative chapter demystifying Pakistani cooking techniques such as various ways of tenderising meat, tempering using infused oil, making ghee, smoking and making homemade tamarind pulp and sauce. For those who fear having to purchase half the spice aisle to make exotic dishes, there is also a chapter on Pakistani spices and masala mixes and a reassuring explanation that nine readily available spices are all you need to create most of the spice blends that form the basis of Pakistani cooking.
Other chapters are divided according to ingredient or dish type including:
- Breaking bread and sharing rice -breads and rice dishes
- Meaty markets and weekdays bazaars – beef, lamb and mutton
- Birds from the Empress – chicken and other birds
- Sailing the seas – seafood and fish
- My grandmother’s garden – vegetables, fruit and salad
- Homegrown guavas – chutneys and pickles
- Under a motia-filled sky – celebration feasts
- The sweet taste of mango heaven – desserts
- Chani-pani – hot and cold drinks
Although some of the recipes have a pretty long ingredient list and are quite time-intensive to make, the techniques are never overly complicated and even moderately competent home cooks would be able to make them successfully. Nearly all of the 100 recipes in the book are illustrated with a colour image, styled and shot beautifully by Joanna Yee. These images together with the atmospheric lifestlye images and old family photographs at the beginning of the book, as well as Sumayya’s evocative and personal style of writing, make for a book that is part memoir, part travelogue and part recipe collection – and what more could you possibly want from a recipe book.
There are many standout dishes in the book that are just crying out to be tried – dishes such as the white radish, watermelon & black salt (mooli and tarbuz) salad; Baluchi-style roast chicken with fennel and mango powder; or peshwari falooda (pistachio ice-cream float). But the one that I decided to make was the Afghani lamb pulao. Pakistan is home to many Afghani immigrants and each is said to have their own recipe for lamb pulao. So for her book, Sumaya had created an amalgamation of several recipes that she has learnt over the years from Afghan friends. The resulting feast is fragrant, delicious and well worth the effort. The delicately spiced rice, tender lamb chunks and hints of sweetness from the carrot and raisins make for a hearty family feast infused with the flavours of Pakistan and the memories of Sumayya’s childhood. Summers Under the Tamarind Tree is available from Amazon for £13.60 (also available in Kindle version).
- 150ml vegetable oil
- 1 large red onion finely chopped
- 4 tsp grated ginger root
- 3 tsp crushed garlic
- 1 Tbs salt
- 400g lamb shoulder on the bone cut into 7.5cm pieces
- 1 litre water
- 300g basmati rice
- 70g caster sugar
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp freshly ground cardamom
- 20g carrots, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
- 70g sultanas or raisins
- Handful of blanched almonds
- To make the lamb stock, heat half the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5-7 minutes until golden brown,. Add the ginger, garlic and 1 Tbsp of salt and cook for 30 seconds until the raw garlic smell disappears.
- Add the lamb and cook for 10 minutes or until the meat is sealed and light brown. Pour in the measured water, then reduce to low and cook gently for 1 hour, skimming the surface occasionally to remove any scum, until the lamb is tender. Remove the lamb from the pan, set aside and keep warm. Reserve the stock. Meanwhile wash the rice, since and soak in a bowl of water for an hour, then par-boil in hot salted water for 3-4 minutes.
- Heat another saucepan over medium heat and add half the sugar. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally for 5-6 minutes, or until the sugar had caramelised. Add 250ml of the reserved stock, 1 teaspoon of the garam masala and ½ a teaspoon of ground cardamom. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat.
- Drain the par-boiled rice and put into an empty stock pan. pour over the caramelised sugar mixture, add 1 teaspoon of garam masala and a pinch of cardamom, and stir until the rice is evenly coated. Remove from the heat.
- To make the caramelised carrots, heat 1 tablespoon of of the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the carrots and remaining sugar and stir-fry for 5 minutes or until lightly caramelised. Add the sultanas and cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, add another pinch of cardamom and set aside.
- Heat the remaining oil in a frying pan until smoking hot. Pour the hot oil over the rice (enough to coat the rice evenly but not to soak it). Make holes all over the rice with the end of a wooden spoon to allow the rice to steam evenly, then scatter most of the carrot over over the top. Place the lamb around the rice. Cover the pan firmly with foil and then with a lid. Cook over medium heat for 8-10 minutes until the rice is fluffy and fragrant - if it is still undercooked, cover and cook for a further 2 minutes.
- To serve, carefully spoon the rice and lamb onto a serving platter and garnish with the remaining carrots and sultanas, and almonds (if using).
DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of this book to review but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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