For Sumayya Usmani, the simple art of cooking holds the seeds to a deeper, more life-enriching experience. It is a way to become more aware of herself and the world around her, to delight in even the most basic daily activities of her life, and to walk down memory lane to the vegetable garden in her Nani’s house.
Trained as a lawyer, Usmani is a cookery writer, blogger and teacher. Her first book The Tamarind Tree: Recipes and Memories from Pakistan was listed by The Independent among the 11 best books on cooking in 2016, and dubbed as “spellbinding” and “an unprecedentedly authentic snapshot into the culinary culture of this largely overlooked country”. Her second book Mountain Berries and Desert Spice: Sweet Inspiration from the Hunza Valley to the Arabian Sea merges tastes from distant regions with delicious results.
Both books explore beyond the reaches of traditional cookbooks by offering contemplative recipes and recollections that heighten the sensory experience. In conversation with The News on Sunday, Usmani talks about why it became important for her to give a voice to Pakistani cuisine. Excerpts follow:
The News on Sunday (TNS): Trained to become a lawyer, how did you become a cookery writer instead?
Sumayya Usmani (SU): It was a long and slow journey, on the backburner for many years. I always had a passion for writing about our cuisine and memories related to it but the sensibility of being a lawyer always dissuaded me from pursuing my passion. Slowly and gradually I felt I had to follow my passion because there was no heart in what I was doing.
It was difficult in the beginning: I was living in London at that point. The paycheck, at the end of the month, was very attractive. It was a difficult choice but I believe that since you live only once, you must do what you love most otherwise life becomes a drudgery of routine.
The need to become a parent had already been fulfilled (I had a child by then) but there was a growing need, both emotional and professional, to feel sustained which I couldn’t achieve as a lawyer. So the journey became tough as I shifted careers, and there was only one way of going about it —- with both feet and a blindfold.
TNS: When it came to switching careers, what made you opt for cookery?
SU: I grew up in a house where I had an active role in the kitchen, right from the very childhood. We never really kept a khansama in our house: on my dadi’s (paternal grandmother) side, all my aunts cooked. My dadi continued to cook herself until quite late in life. Likewise, my nani (maternal grandmother) also cooked herself and never kept a servant. And my mother could not even stand anybody in the kitchen. She was a woman of Punjabi background married into a family from UP who grew up in Karachi. In other words, she was pretty mixed up in the flavours that she cooked.
I never actually watched anybody cook other than my family. That interactive ability kept me connected to food. My first go at cooking happened when I went to the UK and had to cook myself, creating the right aroma and the right flavour. The reason why I reached out to food is because I realised that the promise I had made to Pakistan, to its people and to its beauty was linked to its diverse flavours. The flavours of Pakistan were always predominant in my thoughts. I created a food blog My Tamarind Kitchen that I ran for a long time. It was my first blog, and I started it with the concept of linking food with memories.
The title of my first book is The Tamarind Tree because I have beautiful memories of days when the sun would be shining —- the balmy days in Karachi. I would come back from school, take lunch and go to sleep. Often enough, I would go to my nani’s house and sit under the tamarind tree. For the fact that imli was always the forbidden fruit —- “it will get to your throat”; “it’s sour” —- and because the tamarind tree is lofty with thin leaves light permeates through in a gentle way, it provided respite from the sun. Whenever I look back at that garden, I am transported to the forbidden fruit, and to the lovely feeling of sitting underneath it and reading a book.
TNS: You grew up in Karachi. How did you decide to leave for London?
SU: My life has been interesting. I spent the initial 7-8 years out of Karachi even though I was born there. My father used to be a captain in Merchant Navy in those days. He used to travel around the globe. So I had a travel-seed planted in me early on. We would often travel by sea.
My mother was the one who always cooked even when on the ship, this is the reason I had always been connected to cooking and to Pakistani food. When I moved back to Pakistan in 1981, I must be around 9 years of age. That’s when I truly experienced Pakistan. (It’s a good age to experience because you collect fresh memories). I continued to live here until I went to the university. After finishing university studies abroad, I joined my father as a lawyer who had begun to practice Law during his later years. When I got married in 2006, I moved to the UK where I stayed for 10 years until I relocated to Scotland two years ago.
TNS: How did the blog My Tamarind Kitchen evolve?
SU: The blog basically evolved through picking up memories connected to food. Gradually I began to post regularly, and I cultivated a good readership. I felt I had a platform to speak about food. Then I started to pitch magazines in the UK writing about Pakistani food. Of course I met a lot of opposition and ignorance concerning why our food was different. I thought it was important to give it a voice because patriotically enough, I identify with it. It’s a cuisine that has developed over the last 70 years with a confluence of boundaries and migrations. It has the young energy of a newly-developed cuisine trying to find its own feet.
TNS: Did you write the books with the western reader in mind?
SU: The books I’ve written are obviously aimed at the Western audience. When I pitched them to UK publishers, they were very much for the British reader. I was trying to educate them about Pakistan and memories of Pakistan in a rather positive light. I also wrote the books from the memory of being a Pakistani who remembers seeing certain very staple things on her dining table. Every writer has a different thing to bring to the table. I write about what I know, and I didn’t know how the books would be received in Pakistan. The distributors, however, were very keen to bring them to the Pakistani market. The books have been reprinted 4-5 times, and sold out immediately within a few days. That’s a great sign. I’ve received a lot of kudos from readers in Pakistan.
The books have done very well in the UK. I had to promote the first book a lot because most of the publishing dealers in Britain don’t do marketing, and the PR side has to be handled by the author herself. Each year they conduct a survey in the UK declaring that in the UK, cookbooks do better than all the other books. Because they are visual as well as textual, they afford to the reader an all-encompassing experience.
These books are actually more than basic Pakistani cookbooks – they have memories in them. The books have done rather well in Pakistan because they are honest recollections. I am not saying I am an expert or a chef; I am just being honest about food everybody loves.
SU: The first book was not easy. When I started to write, I got hold of a literary agent who championed the book through different publishers. Each time I would go see a publisher, his ultimate repartee would be: “O! The same thing as Indian” or “How can we sell it as a Pakistani cookbook. Can’t we call it South Asian?” I would say I am going to stick to what I believe. There’s a strong behaviour of shying away from Pakistan when it comes to food because everybody likes to put it under the umbrella of Indian food. I don’t have a problem with that looking at the grander scheme of things. (After all we were one country). But Pakistani cuisine has a flavour of its own, and I was keen to explore that.
TNS: Where would you draw a line between the Indian style of cooking and the Pakistani way about it?
SU: I don’t think there’s a division between the two. There are a lot of interlinked things, but it’s very difficult to pull them apart, such as the Indian technique of Muslim/Mughal origin from Awadh, Deccan and Sindh. They are intrinsically linked to the subcontinent, and to the history that we share. To divide the two would be facetious and shortsighted. I think one has to learn to celebrate the Indian aspects of cooking that we have imbibed and the Hindu aspects that we’ve absorbed.
We have a predominantly Muslim style of cooking, nevertheless, that is inherent in our lifestyles. What was Indian Muslim and has now become Pakistani Muslim (because we congregated in what has now become Pakistan).
A lot of people who were intermarried with Muslim families coming from India —- the indigenous peoples of Pakistan fusing into the influx of refugees —- caused an evolution of flavours of local people and migrant tastes. Even the border food from Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia assimilated into the fabric of life in Pakistan. If you go to India, northern Indian cuisine is so different from the southern Indian cuisine. It’s just about the fact that regionally each area has its own distinction.
TNS: Tell us about your association with Madhur Jaffrey – the doyenne of South Asian cooking in the West.
SU: I’ve been absolutely lucky and blessed to work with her three times. I first worked with her about six years ago when she did the book called Curry Nation. I contributed three recipes to it, and one crazy day, I cooked eight recipes for her. I was extremely nervous but she was very gracious and complimentary. I was also on the cookery show Curry Nation with her on BBC Good Food. The channel did the show for the entire book. Again, she was very appreciative, and we remained friends after that. I asked her once that I really wanted to write a book on Pakistani food. She said, “Yes, you must because you have the passion. Pakistanis know how to cook meat, and I always go to Pakistani families for cooking meat”.
I asked Jaffrey if she would be open to the idea of reading my book and writing its blurb. Six years later, when I wrote her an email announcing that the book I’d said I would write had been written, she came up with a very articulate, beautifully detailed and honest long quote, only four days later, part of which is on top of the title of my first book. She called my book “a treasure”, and that meant a lot.
The second experience came around when I did a show for BBC Radio in Scotland, last year. We interviewed her in celebration of her as an icon in the Indian cooking world. And the third time we met was for the LLF in London, earlier last year. We were on stage with Lizzie Collingham, a professor in the UK, who’s written the beautiful book called Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. Jaffrey and I talked about 70 years of Indian and Pakistani cuisines —- the differences and similarities —- and how the cuisines had developed during the last 70 years.
Working for Jaffrey has been an incredible experience. She’s been a guiding inspiration because her story resonates with mine: she too moved to the UK; didn’t know how to cook, and used to reach out to her mom for recipes exactly the way I did. She would often say, “I’ve been a bit of an imposter because I didn’t know how to cook before I started all of this”.
TNS: How far is it true that the word ‘mutton’ is indigenous to use in South Asia as opposed to the Anglophile world?
SU: ‘Mutton’ is much in use in the UK. In fact, in Scotland, we have mutton pie, which has been around since the early 18th century. Mutton used to be consumed quite extensively in the northern parts of the UK such as Scotland, Ireland, etc. But it saw a huge decline in post-industrial Britain: people took to eating beef and pork. In older kitchens such as the one at Sterling Castle in Scotland, you can find old recipes of lemon with stewed mutton and different spices because of the spice trade. In fact, there’s a huge revival of mutton, of late, being the fashionable meat to eat, for a couple of reasons: it is much cheaper than other types of meat in Scotland (they’ve started having more farms that produce mutton). However, for the last 50-60 years, you weren’t seeing mutton on menus because it was meant to be the working-class kind of food to eat. It definitely takes in a lot more flavours of other things as well.
TNS: Lastly, what do you refer to as andaza cooking or sensory cooking?
SU: It’s a personal recollection of what you can take as flavour. Andaza or guesswork is very interesting because it’s different for everybody. I call it the art of sensory cooking in my book because it’s an art you use your senses to create. You believe that the sight, the smell, the taste of food is something you gauge with what, in your mind somewhere, is the memory of food.
When things are done from scratch, food always tastes better. And whether it’s just a psychological idea of the fact that it works better or because it does actually taste better for the fact that it’s slow cooked is, perhaps, a matter of getting used to easy cuts. There’s a very interesting book a friend of mine has written, called The Missing Ingredient. Time is the missing ingredient in cooking nowadays.
I am a great advocate of slow cooking. I think everything about cooking should be slow, right from growing food to the way it comes to your table. Cutting out the middleman is very important. I am part of an international movement called ‘Slow Food’ that started in Italy in the ‘60s. It’s about going back to sustainability —- how things are grown, about how you cook and eat. It’s about the whole culture.