Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes & Memories from Pakistan, written by Sumayya Usmani, features the diverse and often unexplored cuisine of Pakistan in over 100 recipes and beautifully written stories. I’m sharing a recipe for Sumayya’s Nani’s Firni (Pakistani Screwpine-Infused Ground Rice Pudding) and an overview of this gorgeous book.
Sumayya Usmani is a food writer and culinary teacher currently residing in Glasgow, Scotland. She was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan to Muslim Indian immigrants. She originally followed in her father’s footsteps and worked as a lawyer before fully embracing her love of food and turning it into a career. She started her blog (My Tamarind Kitchen) to share this passion and awareness of Pakistani cuisine with the world. Her work has also been featured in The Guardian, Delicious, BBC Good Food, The New York Times, and International Herald Tribune.
Chapters are divided by course: Summers under the tamarind tree; Pakistan: The spirit, the passion, the flavour; Childhood tales (Growing up in the kitchen); Cooking methods (Pakistani techniques explained); A note on spice (What to buy and how to use it); Masala blends (Traditional family recipes); Awakening the senses (Breakfast); Tantalising the taste buds (Street food and snacks); 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); and Chai-pani (Hot and cold drinks).
Along with sharing the delicious food of her country, Sumayya also provides a glimpse into her childhood with memories and family photos. For those unfamiliar with Pakistan, she gives a background of what makes Pakistani cuisine and each region unique. This diverse country is fairly new with a formation date of 1947. It has been a part of many empires over the years, including the British, Greek, Rajput, Arab, Mughal, and Sikh. Today the country shares its borders and culinary influences with China, Afghanistan, Iran, and India, creating a varied cuisine and people with over 20 different languages/dialects. I personally appreciated the closer look into mealtime practices, celebrations, and other cultural notes.
I love the detailed explanation of the techniques essential to Pakistani cuisine including Bhunai (removing moisture), tenderizing, Tarka or bhagar (tempering), dum (steaming), Dhuni (smoking), and making the basics such as ghee and tamarind pulp. This foundation will really help in the success of capturing the essence and authenticity of the dishes. Those new to South Asian spices will also appreciate the notes on how to use whole spices and the recipes for a variety of Masala spice blends.
Measurements are provided in Metric and US Customary. Preparation times, cooking lengths, and serving sizes are also included. The name of the dish is listed in English and Urdu/original language where applicable. Every recipe has a headnote with background information, family memories, tips, and kitchen secrets.
The beautifully-styled food photography is by Joanna Yee. Many of the dishes are accompanied by a full-page colored photograph, generally of the finished product. Much of the Pakistani travel photography is by Shaukat Niazi.
This book is a great pick for those interested in South Asian/Middle Eastern cuisine. Many of the dishes and flavors were exciting and new to me. The cuisine of Pakistan tends to be meat-heavy, but there are quite a few offerings for vegetarians as well with seasonal, fresh produce highlighted. Breakfast lovers will find a variety of potato, egg, and other dishes to start the day. With Pakistan’s coastline along the Arabian Sea, there is a handful of seafood dishes from crabs and fish to squid, mussels, and prawns. Desserts and beverages are definitely not forgotten. You will find an assortment of sweets, teas, and even a Rose Milkshake. Having an international market with South Asian ingredients and spices or finding items online is essential to completing some of the recipes. Some of the lesser-available products for the average American include rose petals and rose water, whole spices, fenugreek, chickpeas, silver leaf, gram flour, moong daal, white poppy seeds, atta, sultanas, curry leaves, and more. Recipes range from very simple and easy to the more complex for special occasions.
Firni (Phirni) is a Pakistani pudding made by boiling ground rice with milk and seasonings. It is also popular in some areas of India and Afghanistan. Sumayya’s recipe comes from her maternal grandmother. This dessert is traditionally served in small earthenware pots that absorb some of the liquid to thicken it further and also contribute an earthy quality. I didn’t have any clay pots available, so I used glass dishes.
I especially love that the rice is ground. As a child I wasn’t a fan of the European style rice pudding due to the texture. This would have been perfect. You can make your own rice flour or use premade (not sweet rice or mochiko, just plain rice flour). Rice flour is available in the gluten-free baking section of larger supermarkets, in Asian food markets, or online.
The Screwpine/Pandanus is a tropical tree found in South Asia, Australia, and a few Pacific islands. Its slender, long green leaves have a herby vanilla-like flavor popular in Asian sweets or as a wrapping. The flowers are used to make kewra (pandanus flower water), a floral extract used in sweets and select meat dishes. Do not substitute with pandan extract since that is generally made using the leaves. For the firni, you can use rose water if kewra is unavailable. Both can be found in International markets featuring South Asian/Middle Eastern products or online: Kewra Water and Rose Water (I have also found Rose Water in Whole Foods and in some larger grocery stores).
Dried rose petals are available at International Markets featuring South Asian/Middle Eastern food or online. They are optional, but add a nice touch of color and floral note. The edible silver leaf (Vark, Varak) is an also optional garnish often used in South Asian dishes to elevate the presentation. It is flavorless and pounded into thin, brittle sheets. Be careful of the quality of the silver since some brands use aluminum or other additives. I was unable to locate it locally, so I purchased on Amazon. Make sure to keep the package well sealed to prevent tarnishing.
I also made Beef Meatball Pulao with Silver Leaf and Rose Buds, Green Chutney, Sheermal (Semi-Sweet Saffron and Cardamom-Enriched Bread), and Cardamom and Coconut Mattha Lassi.
The Beef Meatball Pulao is an overall simple recipe to make, but is taken up a notch with the adornment of edible silver and rose petals. This was my first time working with silver leaf and it definitely added a bit of sparkle (this can be omitted if unavailable). The meatballs have a little kick of heat with the addition of red chili powder (ground red chilies, not the American chili powder). The meatballs are arranged over a bed of spiced basmati rice.
The Green Chutney is the perfect herby accompaniment to breads, fish, or as a marinade. It is made easily by blending together cilantro, mint, green chili, coconut, and spices with a little lime juice. I served it with flat bread as a light snack. Sumayya mentions that if the spices are too strong, the chutney can be mixed with some yogurt to lighten the flavor.
Sheermal is a special type of flatbread popular during celebrations. It is richer than the everyday flatbreads with the addition of ghee, cream, and egg. It is often served with Kunna Gosht (recipe in chapter- Slow-Cooked Lamb Shank Curry) or Kitchra (recipe also in chapter- Lentil, Barley, and Oat Stew). The bread is leavened slightly with yeast and seasoned with cardamom, rose water, and saffron. The top is decorated with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or nuts before baking until golden and puffed.
Claire’s favorite was the Cardamom and Coconut Mattha Lassi. I have made a few different lassis in the past, but this was the first time she got to try one. It was a huge hit! I have made this recipe a couple of times since and she gets so excited when she sees me prep the ingredients. Coconut yogurt (or plain yogurt mixed with dried coconut) is blended with cardamom, milk, and a little sugar. Just a handful of ingredients and less than 5 minutes to prepare.
Disclaimer: I received this book from Frances Lincoln in exchange for my honest review. All comments and opinions are my own.
Nani’s Firni (Pakistani Screwpine-Infused Ground Rice Pudding)
Adapted from Summers Under the Tamarind Tree
60 grams (2 1/4 ounces) ground rice
200 ml (7 fl ounces, scant 1 cup) water
500 ml (17 fl ounces, 2 cups) whole milk
100 g (3 1/2 ounces, scant 1/2 cup) caster sugar
200 ml (7 fl ounces, scant 1 cup) condensed milk
4 tablespoons ricotta cheese
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
Pinch saffron threads
1 teaspoon drops kewra (screwpine extract) or rose water
1 tablespoon chopped pistachios
1 tablespoon dried edible rose petals
1 tablespoon edible silver leaf
Place the ground rice in a bowl and cover with the water. Stir to combine.
In a large saucepan, place the milk over medium heat. Once it is boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until beginning to thicken, 10 minutes.
Stir in the sugar, condensed milk, and ground rice with water. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened, 5-7 minutes.
Stir in the ricotta and cardamom until smooth and similar in consistency to a custard. Remove from heat and add the saffron and kewra/rose water. Allow to cool slightly before transferring to terracotta or glass serving dishes.
Cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour to overnight. Garnish with pistachios, rose petals, and silver leaf right before serving.