A review of Jasmine in Her Hair by Huma Siddiqui

This is more than a cookbook, although it does provide over 55 recipes for a wide variety of foods from Siddiqui’s native Pakistan, including appetizers (starters), meat and vegetarian main courses, desserts, rice and bread dishes, sauces and drinks. Each section is prefaced with a personal and evocative essay which puts the food that follows into context.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Jasmine in Her Hair:
Culture and Cuisine from Pakistan
By Huma Siddiqui
April 2004, Paperback
White Jasmine Press
ISBN 0974837105

Cooking and eating is so much more than a utilitarian or even a nutritional experience. Food can invoke the response of Proust’s madeleines, conjuring, through scent, texture, visual appeal, and gradual taste, memory and all those things that make up the human imagination. Great cultures are built on food, and for some, it is a critical tie between the generations, as parents hand down their recipes, gossip in the kitchen and come together to eat in celebration of major events. Cookbooks that provide only recipes with no context, no culture, may be useful in the kitchen, but they miss an opportunity to make use of the medium. A loaf of bread is so much more than the sum of its flour, water and yeast. A soup is much more than water, stock and vegetables. It is in the spirit that Huma Siddiqui has created Jasmine in Her Hair. This is more than a cookbook, although it does provide over 55 recipes for a wide variety of foods from Siddiqui’s native Pakistan, including appetizers (starters), meat and vegetarian main courses, desserts, rice and bread dishes, sauces and drinks. Each section is prefaced with a personal and evocative essay which puts the food that follows into context.

The essays are the true heart of the book, and go into some detail on things like the importance of spices to Pakistani cuisine, traditions like the exchange of scarfs, recollections about servants, education, glass bangles, traditional food ‘walas,’ the war between India and Pakistan, traditional Pakistani celebrations, and some reflections on Siddiqui’s personal travails, her migrant experience, and the business she put together after her marriage failed and she moved to the US. All of the writing reflects Siddiqui’s deep respect for tradition, family, and good food, and ties together the recipes which follow:

For many years after the wars because of the shortage of cattle, we used to have two meatless days, which were every Tuesday and Wednesday of the week. All the meat shops were closed during those two days. Sometimes extra meat could be purchased in advance to make up for the two days or only vegetarian dishes were cooked. The men in my family always complained about not having meat dishes but my mom would make the most of the opportunity and ask the cook to prepare a variety of delicious vegetable dishes. (64)

The recipes themselves are easy to follow, requiring no special techniques or fancy ingredients, other than simple Indian spices like cumin, coriander, garam masala, or turmeric, found in most supermarkets or at Siddiqui‘s own White Jasmine mail order shop (naturally). Most of the recipes can be done quickly, with only 10 minutes or so of preparation time, and include many well known traditional dishes like samosas, Chicken Tikka, Lamb Korma, the delectable Aloo Sabzi (spicy potatoes), biryanis, pilaos and chutneys. Like most dishes from the sub-Indian continent, these are great for entertaining, full of wonderful subtle flavours, with excellent holding and reheating properties (so they can mostly be done the day before or early in the day for a dinner party). The celebration section is particularly nice, and contains fancier and more unusual recipes such as an exfoliating paste called Ubtan designed to buff a bride’s skin for the wedding day, a variety of scented Halwas, fancy puddings and sweet balls.

The book is very nicely presented, with attractive, colourful full page photographs, and in a clear demonstration of the values espoused by Siddiqui, the book has a forward from Siddiqui’s son and an afterward from her daughter. For anyone interested in finding out more about South East Asian cuisine, this is a lovely, easy to follow cookbook, which also provides food for thought. For more information visit: http://www.whitejasmine.com/

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