Monday, 5 September 2016

Food Roots Interview: Sumayya Usmani

Sumayya Usmani
Photo:  Joanna Yee
Back in springtime, I reviewed a book called Summers Under theTamarind Tree which focused on Pakistani food and the culinary memoirs of author Sumayya Usmani.

Swapping the world of law for writing, Sumayya’s career now focuses on promoting her love for food.  As well as being a being a freelance food writer/broadcaster she also hosts supper clubs and cookery classes (including at Sophie Grigson’s school). 

Appearing in: The Guardian, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Irish Times, Delicious, Good Food, Crumbs, Good Housekeeping, Vegetarian Living, Kitchen Goddess, The Foodie Bugle, Foodista, British Curry Club’s CHAAT! Magazine, BBC Asian Network and Asian publications HELLO! Pakistan and Express Tribune, she also has a column with Dalda Magazine, blogs regularly for Great British Chefs and is a member of the Guild of Food Writers.

Such is her reputation, in 2014, BBC Good Food named Pakistani cuisine one of the top to watch and flagged Sumayya Usmani as the UK’s go-to expert in this field.  She has been featured in The Spice Scribe’s ‘Foodie to Watch’  hotlist and has appeared on London Live and other broadcast outlets to discuss Pakistani cooking including Madhur Jaffrey’s Good Food Channel programme ‘Curry Nation’, with her recipes featuring in the book of the same name.  

Sumayya also produces the award-winning spice range Masala Monsoon available to purchase from her website. 

Having loved reading Summers Under The Tamarind Tree, I’m fascinated with Sumayya’s story and she kindly agreed to participate in my Food Roots interview to tell me a little more about being born and raised in Pakistan and her passion for exploring and promoting her rich food heritage.




Living in the UK, how important is it for you to keep your Pakistani roots alive?  How much of that is expressed through food?

My belief is that when you move abroad you embrace the culture you adopt, but that doesn’t mean you forget your heritage. Your roots are what make you an individual and offer a sense of belonging. For me the greatest expression of my culture has been through the flavours, aromas and food memories of growing up in Pakistan, so this is why more than any other manifestation of my culture, the flavour of Pakistan is what keeps my memories alive in a new home.

How nostalgic (if at all) does it make you feel eating Pakistani food at home?

Hugely – I can smell my childhood the minute spices hit the pan, I can taste my grandmother’s treats as I cook them and I can sense home as I see a dining table of dishes I grew up eating. Food takes you to a place of comfort, sweet memories and nothing connects you to nostalgia as much as the aroma of home cooking.

How important is food in Pakistani culture and do you celebrate calendared Pakistani/religious festivals with any particular kind of feasting?

The most important Pakistani festival is Eid (I love the one after Ramazan, there are two), and I always celebrate this no matter where I am. It is all about a day of thankfulness for what we receive, after a month of abstinence of food, one gets to value the role of meals and contemplate the lives of people with less than us. Eid is day of feasting – large spiced roast legs of mutton, rich fragrant goat biryani, decadent saffron bread puddings and sweet vermicelli dessert grace the occasion. We spend the day eating, feeding and centring the whole day around food, sharing with  family and friends.

What vegetarian dishes could you recommend when dining at a Pakistani feast and/or restaurant?

Though Pakistani food culture is heavily meat based, most people do eat a lot of local seasonal vegetables, as meat is expensive. Not all authentic recipes are found in restaurants here. Pakistan’s vegetarian recipes are simple and very much based of seasonal vegetables, in Punjab, sarson ka saag (mustard greens) is eaten, in Sindh, lotus root curry or karri (potato and chickpea flour turmeric stew), in the north they eat mishi – (black eyed peas and walnut dip), the list is endless.  So if you are lucky enough to eat at a Pakistani feast, depending on where your guests are from in the country, ask them to make you a local vegetarian recipe and be prepared to be surprised with something quite original!

What would be your 'must have' pantry items to replicate a Pakistani kitchen?

I would say certain that there are certain utensils that can’t do without:

* A tawa: flat pan for making flatbreads

* Tempering pan: small round deep pan with long handle for making tarkas/baghar

* Spice grinder and mortar and pestle

I love to have 2 boxes of spices, one with whole spices (I like to dry roast and freshly grind my spices) and another with dry ground spices I would not be able to buy whole.

A box of spices: star anise, coriander, cumin, black cardamom, dried red chilli and cinnamon are my favourites.

I also love amchoor (dried raw mango powder) and anardana (dried pomegranate seeds) and of course, tamarind, I love these are they add a little sourness to balance the basic sweetness of tomatoes and red onions.

Other store cupboard essentials for me are I walnuts, pistachios and the best quality long grain Pakistani basmati rice.



Notes & My Thanks

I would like to thank Sumayya Usmani for her time in participating in the interview.

Summers Under The Tamarind Tree: Recipes & Memories from Pakistan by Sumayya Usmani, photography by Joanna Yee, is published by FrancesLincoln (£20). 

“This book is a treasure. Charm, information and what Sumayya calls ‘the flavour of my Pakistani heritage’ permeates every single recipe.”
- Madhur Jaffrey
 “My favourite sort of cookbook: personal, beautiful and full of things I want to eat”
- Meera Sodha (Made in India)

 “It’s wonderful to discover the world of Pakistani food and adaza (sensory cooking) in this perfect cookbook”
- Olia Hercules (Mamushka)


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