A culinary journey
AS the Scottish sunshine gives way to darker, more dramatic skies, a crisp autumnal breeze fills my senses with fresh memories that have been made in Scotland: of picking brambles from wild bushes while crunching leaves on the grass, roasting freshly plucked fruits with spice, and slow-cooking gamey stews. But no matter how exciting these new experiences may be, old recollections of home in Pakistan are always there. Something about this time makes me miss Karachi the most, no matter where I am. And this time of year – a time of approaching celebration, festivity and togetherness, makes me crave family.
The bounty of a Scottish autumn is mesmerising – rich aubergine hues of sweet dripping plums, sultry elderberries are finding their way into my kitchen this autumn here. But when I think back of a childhood in southern Pakistan, which revolved around two major seasons (summer and winter), I remember the essence of saffron and cardamom filling my senses, as winter approached and festivities beckoned.
Pakistanis take huge joy in celebrating by sharing good food with others all year around, but most of all, during the winter months. Each event is celebrated with a daawat (mighty feast): be it a birth, a marriage or a festival, tables are lavishly adorned with slow-cooked meats, selections of breads, aromatic rice and the richest of desserts, all served family-style. Probably the greatest entertainments for most South Asians are weddings – and food always takes centre-stage. I dreaded winter weddings in Karachi when I was a complaining teenager. But as I grew up, they began to charm me as I was lured by the intoxicating aromas of deep red roses and jasmine, the enchantment of glittering fairly lights and, most of all, the food. The smoky aroma of barbecued kebabs, the theatrics of fresh puris being thrown into hot oil, deygs (large steel cooking pots) filled with spiced biryani or kunna gosht (goat shank stew) ...
These festivities began with late-night henna celebrations (mehndi): dinner would be served near midnight and the feasting carried on throughout the night. I always found myself drawn to the freshly made taftaan (saffron and cardamom enriched bread) and jalebis, and my greatest pleasure would be staying up late, chatting to friends and drinking Kashimiri pink chai topped with pistachio, salt and almonds. Festivities would usually end with a breakfast of halva, puri and spicy potatoes.
During these festive times, one tradition close to my heart is the practice of the niyaz, where we feed the poor on certain festival days, or as I remember it, even when a family celebrates a happy occasion. I remember spending mornings with my nani (maternal grandmother), preparing large cauldrons of biryani, kitchra or nihari – meat-heavy dishes bulked up with lentils, barley and oats to create an all encompassing meal, to share with those who usually eat little meat. We would then take the food to be distributed at the Sufi saint shrine near my house where people traditionally gathered, or distribute it through nearby villages. There is no feeling as satisfying for the soul as feeding someone who needs food, especially those who suffer bitter weather conditions, spars hot food and most of all, little to celebrate. Sharing food always bought a genuine smile to faces.
So as a cold winter beckons, it will be a time welcomed no matter where you are, as the anticipation of festivity. As I sit in Scotland at the beginning of the change of seasons, looking forward to spending the holidays with family back home, I know that no matter where I may be, there is a universal sense of gratitude, generosity and abundant hospitality at the eve of winter. So much to look forward to, but especially time with family, over bountiful platters of home cooking, laughter and togetherness, celebrating the flavours of the season. Sumayya Usmani co-presents BBC Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Cafe. Her books, Summers Under The Tamarind Tree and Mountain Berries And Desert Spice are out now, published by Frances Lincoln Visit sumayyausmani.com Twitter @SumayyaUsmani