City Lit Blog

In conversation with Sumayya Usmani: part one

Story added 6th Jun 2017


This May, we were thrilled to welcome acclaimed food writer Sumayya Usmani back to City Lit to discuss her latest cookbook, Mountain Berries and Desert Spice: Sweet Inspiration from the Hunza Valley to the Arabian Sea, and to enjoy some delicious samples of her latest recipes.

Sumayya studied food writing at City Lit with Nikki Spencer. Her debut cookbook and memoir, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree, was published by Frances Lincoln in 2017. The book was shortlisted for the Food & Travel Awards 2016, the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards 2016, and was voted a cookbook of the year in many publications including the GuardianIndependentIrish Times and Sunday Herald. Her latest book is available now.

Below, you can read Sumayya's thoughts on the genesis of her first book and the inspiration for her second. And check back soon for part two of our conversation, in which Sumayya discusses the road to publication and offers some advice to aspiring writers!

In conversation with Sumayya Usmani

On her inspirations for Summers under the Tamarind Tree

I grew up in Pakistan and moved to London about twelve years ago. Then, about two years ago, I moved to Scotland, which I love. But I noticed that nobody there really knew about the Pakistani cuisine. And I missed the flavours of my home, my mum's cooking and the aromas, the smells when you walk down the street--because street food's such a big part of it. And I realised that when I go out to eat, I find a lot of other stuff that I love, but it's not this food. And why is it that Pakistan is never celebrated? 

On Pakistani cuisine

All cultures borrow from different places. I define Pakistani food as a confluence of all these different things: invasions, migrations, and ideas were brought across the borders from Iran, Afghanistan, China…  All these different groups impacted the flavours I grew up with and creating something really individual.

On her hopes for her first book

I didn’t want it to just be a story that would teach people about Pakistan. I also wanted it to be a journey of my own discoveries. And I know so many people who read the first book and said, ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly the stuff that happened with me,’ or ‘That’s exactly what I used to do when I was ten!’ It’s really nice to actually have someone say that, because it means I’m telling every Pakistani’s story, not just my own.

On the idea behind Mountain Berries and Desert Spice

People have a certain idea that desserts come at the end of the menu, and they don’t necessarily want them after a really spicy, heavy meal. But in Pakistan there’s a great tradition of celebrating happy occasions by giving sweets to people. And I don’t necessarily have a sweet tooth, but I do love making desserts, because it comes from that whole idea of festivity—for example, if someone passes an exam, or gets married or engaged. And in a world of ‘sugar-free this’ and ‘low-fat that’, I think we’re losing touch with what makes life really exciting and happy and something to celebrate. You don't want to have this sort of food every day, but as a treat, it’s great.

On the form of the book

The second book is a journey and that’s reflected in the title. It starts out in the north of Pakistan which borders on China. It’s more Central Asian, Mongol-inspired. Quite simple, authentic things. Then it moves through the different communities of Pakistan. Again, like the first book, it's very memoir-based, and I included my grandmother’s recipes that inspired me when I was growing up. 

What’s next?

I’ve written another book and I have two more proposals in my mind, so I’m definitely going to continue writing! I also have loads of stuff I want to do in Scotland, will definitely continue on the radio. I’m also about to embark on a column in the Sunday Herald, which was quite daunting at first, until I realised it’s a great opportunity to improve as a writer because of the weekly deadline. So that's me for the time being. That'll keep me busy!

Click here for the second part of our conversation with Sumayya...


>>Visit Sumayya's website to learn more and get your copy of the book.

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