Summers Under The Tamarind Tree and Grilled Spicy Chicken

Picking a favorite cuisine is not easy for me. I adore the lusty Ukrainian flavors of my childhood as well as the subtle interplay of nuances of Japanese cooking. Italian dishes, especially the Abruzzo specialties I learned as a teenager living in southern Italy, are the mainstay in my repertoire, food I turn to if I don’t know what else to cook. Persian delicacies like layered rices and stewed meats are what I make when I feel like playing with colors and flavors. And the cooking of the subcontinent, especially Pakistan and India, satisfies my perfumer’s sensibilities. Diverse though the cuisines are in different parts of the countries, they give me a chance to compose a dish as I would a fragrance by building accords and creating top, heart, and base notes.

Pakistani cuisine may be less known in comparison to Indian, but it boasts a splendid variety of dishes, from grilled meats to banana leaf steamed fish, from breads perfumed with saffron to rice garnished with dried fruit and nuts. It’s both a new and an old country. Formed in 1947, Pakistan bears the imprints of civilizations that succeeded each other, from the Indus Valley Civilization to the Greeks and the Mughals. As a place where different faiths met and different people traded, fought, loved and lived, it has a varied and rich food culture. Short of visiting a Pakistani family, one way to discover it is via Sumayya Usmani’s cookbook, Summers Under The Tamarind Tree: Recipes & Memories from Pakistan (public library).

The book is timely, since there are very few English language publications on Pakistani cuisine. It shares many dishes with the north of India, but there are also many differences. Pakistani flavor combinations recall Persian and Afghani cuisines, while techniques of smoking and roasting make me think of Central Asian traditions. Summers Under The Tamarind Tree is a beautifully produced volume with photos of prepared dishes and scenes from Usmani’s native Karachi. She mentions regional dishes, although I wish that the book had more information on different localities and what makes their food different from other parts of the country.

Still, the recipes included make this book memorable: flatbreads flavored with sweet potato and mint, lentils with smoky spices, lamb chops marinated in cardamom and rose petals, pilafs colored with saffron, watermelon and vegetable salads, and a wide selection of chutneys, drinks and sweetmeats. Some dishes, like the rice biryanis, are complicated, while others like the chicken stews or Khagina, eggs scrambled with tomatoes, chilies and cumin, require little time and produce mouthwatering results. Few recipes need exotic ingredients, although building a spice collection would be essential for cooking Pakistani food.

I’ve learned the cooking of South Asia from my Gujarati mother-in-law, and I loved spotting familiar flavors in Usmani’s recipes. For instance, her dhania mirchi (coriander chili paste masala) is based on a blend of roasted coriander seed and cumin powder that I’ve shared here as the CC powder. Usmani’s recipe comes from her mother and includes fresh red chilies and what must be my favorite spice after cardamom and saffron, ajwain.

Ajwain seeds, also called carom, look like tiny grey beads, and when crushed, release a thyme-like aroma, dry and sweet. Married with fruity red chilies, coriander and cumin, the perfume becomes elegant. Usmani mentions that the blend can be added to vegetable stir-fries, curries, and marinades, and I found that like CC powder, it’s versatile.

One of my successful experiments was grilled chicken breast marinated in coriander chili paste. The marinade can be prepared the night before, while grilling can be swapped in favor of broiling or frying. You can serve chicken with rice or bread. Or in my summery version, on a bed of green salad and topped with a juicy tomato-onion salad.

Grilled Coriander Chili Chicken with Tomato Onion Salad

Serves 2

If you can’t find ajwain, you can substitute it with 1/2 teaspoon of minced thyme leaves. The flavor will be greener and more lemony, but it will still have the original’s complexity.

Pakistani Coriander Chili Masala

Masala means a spice mixture. The recipe comes from Sumayya Usmani’s cookbook, Summers Under The Tamarind Tree: Recipes & Memories from Pakistan. For most instructions on roasting spices, please refer to the CC powder recipe. The recipe below makes enough for several portions of grilled chicken or other dishes.

1 Tablespoon roasted coriander seeds
1 Tablespoon roasted cumin seeds
1-3 Fresh red chilies
1/2 teaspoon ajwain (carom) seeds

Chop chilies coarsely and grind with the rest of the ingredients and 1-2 Tablespoon of water. Store in the fridge for a week or freeze.

Marinated Chicken

2 chicken breasts, skinned and flattened with a meat mallet
1 Tablespoon Pakistani Coriander Chili Masala
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
salt and lemon juice to taste

Mix spices with oil, lemon juice and salt. Cover the chicken breasts thoroughly and leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes or overnight in the fridge.

Tomato Onion Salad

2 medium tomatoes
1 small white or red onion
1 fresh green chili, minced (optional)
1/4 cup minced coriander leaves
1/4 teaspoon roasted cumin seeds
salt, black pepper, lemon juice to taste

Cut vegetables into small cubes. Toss with the rest of the ingredients and adjust salt and lemon juice to taste.

Preheat a grill to medium-high heat and oil the grate. Cook chicken breasts on the hot grill for 10 minutes per side, or until the juices run clear. If you’re using a broiler, preheat it to high heat and cook chicken 4-5 inches from the heat source for 10-15 minutes per side.

Serve topped with tomato onion salad.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin (images #3 and #6 are from Summers Under The Tamarind Tree).

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24 Comments

  • Karen A: Oh Victoria, please keep writing these wonderful posts! They are uplifting and expand my horizons, cultural and culinary! Book looks like a worthwhile addition to the cookbook shelf! July 17, 2017 at 9:00am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a marvelous volume. My other small qualm is that it should have a glossy paper, to make it less fragile. I understand that the cookbook publishers don’t really expect that people will use their tomes for cooking (even though the recipes are fantastic). My book has been heavily used in the kitchen, so it looks it. Luckily, a friend who also loved it gave me an extra copy. July 17, 2017 at 12:18pm Reply

  • Fiona: Loved this article showcasing another unusual cuisine. I just love your Blog, am an avid cookbook collector and have quite a sizeable collection of perfume bottles.
    One perfume that I feel epitomizes today’s feature is the vintage Body Shop perfumed oil called Samarkand. I remember it from the 1980s. Do you remember it?
    Please share more recipes. Just wonderful! I am away off to order a copy of this beautiful cookbook. July 17, 2017 at 10:06am Reply

    • Victoria: I also love trying new flavors, so it’s fun share any discoveries.

      Yes, I remember Samarkand, although by the time I tried it, it was in the 90s, and it was already discontinued. They had so many interesting fragrances then. July 17, 2017 at 12:16pm Reply

    • Sara: Does anyone remember Fuzzy Peach from the Body Shop? July 18, 2017 at 4:32am Reply

      • Victoria: I seem to recall that it smelled like canned peach juice and was a lot of fun. July 18, 2017 at 11:31am Reply

  • Trudy: Thank you for today’s post! What an uplifting and inspiring way to start the week. I love to cook and love recipes from around the world. Beautiful summer tomatoes are now abundant in l the farmers markets and I’m sure I can get the coram seeds and masala at the local Indian market. I will be making this recipe this week. Food brings us all together! July 17, 2017 at 10:20am Reply

    • Victoria: For this recipe you don’t need anything particularly exotic, just carom (ajwain), cumin, coriander. I recommend making a larger portion of the spice mixture and freezing it. This way you can easily make this dish anytime you have a craving for something wholesome and delicious. July 17, 2017 at 10:52am Reply

  • Judy: Hi, Victoria — I so enjoy your blog. I joined for the perfume reviews and have stayed for all your other interests, too! I collect cookbooks and cook a lot. I own Under the Tamarind Tree, and agree that it’s a lovely book. If any of your readers is on the fence about purchasing it — go ahead! You’ll be glad you did. July 17, 2017 at 10:59am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your vote of confidence, Judy. By the way, did you see Usmani’s new book on Pakistani desserts. I don’t remember the title off the top of my head but it starts with “Mountain Berries.” It also looks interesting. July 17, 2017 at 12:15pm Reply

      • Judy: Yes! Mountain berries and Dessert Spice — have ordered it, but haven’t received it yet.

        May I also mention “Oklava, Recipes from a Turkish-Cypriot Kitchen”? There’s a recipe for fish with a preserved lemon/cream sauce that is a real life-changer!

        Thanks again, Victoria! July 17, 2017 at 1:27pm Reply

        • Victoria: We obviously have the same taste in cookbooks, because I also have Oklava and love its recipes. That’s another book that should be reviewed. July 17, 2017 at 2:03pm Reply

  • Sara: Thank you. It sounds mouthwatering and easy enough. July 18, 2017 at 4:31am Reply

    • Victoria: Very easy. And the flavor of ajwain is addictive. July 18, 2017 at 11:31am Reply

      • Sara: I made it yesterday and we loved it. But I didn’t have ajwain and/or thyme and had to skip them. The flavor of roasted coriander was sooooo nice! I had no idea. Thanks for sharing such a tasty recipe. July 19, 2017 at 3:03am Reply

        • Victoria: I’m so happy whenever I know that one of the recipes I shared turned out well. Enjoy it and thank you for letting me know. July 19, 2017 at 4:30am Reply

  • Aurora: My spice cabinet is not very well furnished. There is definitely no ajwain in it a spice I discover today, thank you Victoria. The book looks wonderful. I fare a little better with herbs, at least I have bay leaf and thyme (parsley I buy fresh) the three ingredients to make a bouquet garni indispensable for French cooking, at the moment mainly ratatouille. July 18, 2017 at 2:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love buying spices and dried herbs when I travel, because they last so well and every time I use them, I’m reminded of my trips. So, my spice collection has been growing. Of course, the usual spices I just get from an Indian grocery store.

      If you like thyme, you’ll love ajwain. Thyme also marries coriander and cumin, not to mention chilies, well. July 18, 2017 at 2:04pm Reply

  • Marc: I also can’t pick a favourite cuisine, but Indian is one of them. I don’t think I’ve eaten at a Pakistani restaurant before, but Ill get this book and cook at home. Thanks for a great blog. I visit here almost every day, and I’ve just signed up for the email notifications. July 19, 2017 at 1:02am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Marc. This book is really worth looking at. Beautiful recipes and very interesting stories. July 19, 2017 at 4:29am Reply

  • January: Thanks for recommending this book! As someone born in Lahore, with a very cosmopolitan upbringing, I am excited about the recipes. Pakistani cuisine is a cross between Northern Indian/Mughal and Persian cuisine!!! July 20, 2017 at 2:42pm Reply

  • Lucy: The tomato-onion salad is basically pico de gallo, a condiment well-beloved here in Texas. The band Trout Fishing in America wrote a happy little ode to it. There’s some in my fridge right now. I make mine with lime, and I’ve never added cumin seeds but that would probably be good. We put it on beans and rice most often.

    I have never even heard of ajwain seeds, and I like to cook with spices from around the world. We Texans are pretty brave about hot foods. I hope my Indian grocery has them. I shall try this recipe soon. July 25, 2017 at 11:53am Reply

    • Victoria: I like this kind of salad/condiment. It’s called koshimbir in Marathi, a language my Indian in-laws speak. Another ingredient they add to it is roasted peanuts, which makes flavors bolder. July 26, 2017 at 12:23pm Reply

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