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Please tell us more about your delicious cooking.
My mission is to highlight my heritage Pakistani cuisine. I grew up in Pakistan and I knew my food to be nothing but Pakistani. Moving to the UK has made me realize that my cuisine is often confused with other South Asian ones, some of our dishes are labeled as such and no one knows the history, tradition and cooking styles that make up the Muslim heritage cuisine that Pakistani food is based on. My hope is that through my writing and cookery classes, people will soon appreciate and taste the individuality of my cuisine.
You once told me that you used to be sick of the sight of pink diamond salt back home. Was it really everywhere?
I remember seeing these pink glowing lamps with tiny tea-lights within them, twinkling by the dozens at open air weekend bazaars, in shopping malls and by the roadside. I never once gave them a second thought, though I always knew of their origin. Knowing that Himalayan Pink Salt is mined in Khewra Salt Mines (the second largest salt mine in the world), in Punjab, Pakistan – this salt is mined only on the Pakistani side of the Himalayas and then shipped across the world. I don’t believe I ever bought a lamp, but now I wish I had. When I first realized that Himalayan salt was so trendy in the UK, I was proud to know it was mined from my country and that its properties are very beneficial to us – much better than regular salt for consumption. The lamps themselves provide mood lighting and the pink glow is meant to give you an overall sense of well-being. It is said the miners that work at Khewra are happy and calm, much to the contrary of others such as coal miners!
And is pink diamond salt used in many traditional Pakistani deserts?
I’ve been cooking all my life in Pakistan and I have never used the pink variety in food, however we do use Kala Namak, or black salt, in our savory spicy snacks. In different masala blends such as Chaat masala, this adds a piquant, umami flavor and is used as a flavor enhancer. I have to say it doesn’t smell pleasant – it tastes better than it smells! Kala Namak is a hard black salt mined from the Himalayas as well, from the North West of Pakistan. I wouldn’t be inclined to use this in sweet dishes or chocolates, however Pink salt lends itself better for use in such sweet items instead. I intend to develop a few Pakistani-inspired recipes using Himalayan pink diamond salt soon!
What flavors and dishes define Pakistani food for you?
To me, Pakistani food is defined by smoky, meaty barbecue aromas, fragrances of saffron, mint, coriander and star anise, all infused in rice, vegetables and breads. Seafood from the coast of the Arabian sea, Indus river and the freshness of seasonal vegetables and fruit. For example, Pakistani Sindhri mangoes are some of the best in the world, as well as pink guavas and pomegranates and other lesser-known fruit such as Kinos (large oranges), Falsa (Grewia asiatica berries) Cheecko (Sapodilla) and Sharifa (custard apples). To me all this defines Pakistani warmth.
I’m not sure if many people in the UK realize what a stunning country Pakistan is. What is your favorite place and why?
Pakistan is a disparately beautiful land, with high snow capped mountain ranges such as the Himalayas and Karakorum, and the plains and plateaus of the arid dry desserts of Sindh, as well as the fertile agricultural lands of Punjab. Northern Pakistan is known to boast beautiful green valleys and hilly land – and many different races and ethnic people inhabit these areas. My country boasts a rugged beauty that many don’t know about and sadly tourism has been stunted in recent years due to political and security related issues. However, I am a firm believer that the land itself cannot be blamed for this, and one must celebrate the untouched purity my country has to offer. It is indeed a country worth experiencing.
It’s hard for me to choose one favorite place in Pakistan. I have three. One is in the North, Lake Saif-uk-Maluk in the Kaghan Valley, which is a glacial lake. The story goes that a famous Pakistani poet wrote about how a fairy called Saif-ul-Maluk fell in love with a Persian prince at the lake. People in Kaghan Valley believe that the fairies descend to the lake on a full moon. I also love Lahore, especially the Badshahi mosque, which is a celebration of Mughal architecture. However to me, the Arabian sea in Karachi, with its balmy waters and silver sands will always hold the most special place in my heart and will always be my home.
I love to learn more about the cultures of different countries. Are there any Pakistani books, music, films or art you would recommend?
Pakistani art, music, photography, film and fashion are at their greatest right now; we are progressive yet stay close to traditions and ethnic beauty. Some of my favorite artists are Farhan Manto, who sketches horses, Jamil Naqsh, who is known for his oil paintings of birds, and Gulgee, a contemporary artist who was world-renowned for his colorful oil-based paintings. My favorite pop musicians are the now disbanded group, Junoon, and Atif Aslam; while more folky in style would be the Sufi singer Abida Parveen. Some of our fiction writers have won and been nominated for many international prizes. Mohsin Hamid was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Some of my favorite photographers and fashion designers are Tapu Javeri and Rizwan Beyg respectively. Pakistan has so much to offer, it’s really quite hard to do it any justice in one paragraph!
How will you be spending Ramadan?
Ramadan is a quiet, contemplative time for me. I usually spend it being thankful for what I have, feeding those who cannot afford much and remembering and celebrating where food comes from. I don’t fast as often as I wish but I try to incorporate the key principles of the month into my life and try to be respectful of people who do fast. Ramadan ends with the festival of Eid, where celebratory foods are prepared and shared with family and friends. It’s a time of rejoicing the end of a month of abstinence and purity of mind and body.
Finally, what exciting projects are coming up next for you?
A lot more teaching, spreading the flavors of Pakistani cuisine, demystifying the spices we use and the cooking methods. Creating an understanding of our recipes and making people comfortable with cooking by estimation. I intend to write a lot more about Pakistan, Muslim heritage cooking and my culture for many more publications. Also I am writing a memoir-based cookbook inspired by the cooking I grew up learning in Pakistan, and my childhood memories.
Sumayya Jamil teaches Pakistani cookery classes in London and across the UK and is also a freelance food writer, specializing in Pakistani and Muslim heritage cuisine and culture. For more recipes and cookery class details please see http://www.pukkapaki.com