Over the years, I must have bought hundreds of cookbooks, and most of them are crammed into groaning bookshelves. Some of them I cook regularly from, others I read for pleasure, and some just gather dust. My latest acquisition falls into the first and second categories.
Sumayya Usmani’s welcome debut cookbook, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes and Memories from Pakistan, is probably the most beautifully produced and written cookbook I own. Unsurprisingly, it has been named among the top 10 cookbooks of 2016 by the Observer. Considering how many hundreds of books in this category are published every year in England, this is high praise indeed.
Ms Usmani has turned to memories of dishes cooked in her grandmother’s and mother’s kitchens for inspiration. Many of the dishes she describes so lovingly and evocatively appeared regularly on my parents’ dining table. Sadly, during my formative years, boys and young men simply did not enter the kitchen. Reading The Tamarind Tree, I can see what I missed.
A good cookbook is so much more than just that
The author’s culinary memory is precise, and she has recalled old classics as well as dhaba food. Her description and recipes of these dishes is greatly enhanced by superb photographs in a gorgeously produced publication. So I was delighted to pick up a copy in Karachi before I travelled to our beach house in Sri Lanka where I have already cooked from a couple of Ms Usmani’s recipes.
We have a large kitchen from where I have a view of the sea, and I love cooking with Nandi, our wonderful cook and housekeeper. Having someone to chop and slice for you is an obvious advantage in cooking in our part of the world. Here is a simple recipe for a karahi ginger chicken; my only criticism is that the recipe is for 200 grams of chicken. Who cooks just 200 grams of chicken? I tend to cook more than is needed just so I can keep any leftovers in the fridge. Of course, in a house with staff, there never are any leftovers. So while I am reproducing the recipe from the book, I multiplied all the ingredients by a factor of six as I cooked a kilo and a half of chicken. This is a simple dish, and the result was much appreciated by our guests from England. They all took details of The Tamarind Tree to buy their own copies.
Karahi ginger chicken
You will need: 200 grams of chicken breast, cut into 2-inch chunks; 2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used ghee); 1 tsp of cumin seeds; 1 tsp each of garlic paste and grated ginger; 2 large tomatoes, finely chopped; 1 tbsp tomato puree; 2 tbsp plain yogurt; ½ tsp red chilli powder; ½ tsp freshly ground pepper; ¼ tsp ground turmeric; salt to taste; 1 tbsp unsalted butter.
For the garnish: 2-inch piece ginger, finely sliced into julienne; 2 green chillies, finely chopped; handful of coriander leaves, finely chopped; 10 mint leaves.
Heat the oil in a wok or deep pan over medium heat. When hot, add cumin seeds and let them splutter for 30 seconds. Add the garlic and ginger and fry for a further 30 seconds until the raw smell of garlic disappears.
Ms Usmani has turned to memories of dishes cooked in her grandmother’s and mother’s kitchens for inspiration.
Add the chicken to the pan and cook until it is sealed all over. Now add the tomatoes and cook for five to seven minutes until soft, then add the tomato puree and the yogurt and cook for eight to 10 minutes, or until the oil starts to separate. Add the chilli powder, turmeric, black pepper and salt and cook for a further five to seven minutes until the chicken is cooked. Add the butter, turn off the heat and cover. Before serving, add the fresh ginger, mint leaves, fresh coriander and sliced green chilli.
This is a simple dish that would go down well at parties. The Tamarind Tree is also full of meat dishes that sadly must wait before I try them out as the quality of meat in Sri Lanka is quite mediocre. Meanwhile, there are all kinds of other delicacies to check out. This is a book that would make a great present for foodies as well as those who just enjoy food.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 11th, 2016