Mountain Berries and Desert Spice by Sumayya Usmani

Mountain Berries and Desert Spice: Sweet Inspiration From the Hunza Valley to the Arabian Sea
Sumayya Usmani
Published by Frances Lincoln
A collection of Pakistani sweets and desserts from the author of Summers Under the Tamarind Tree.
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The subject of desserts and sweets from the Indian sub-continent is not a well covered one. What do we usually get? Some mango, perhaps a western pudding with a dusting of cardamom, maybe gajar halwa (grated carrots cooked in milk and sugar), or at a push bhapa doi (baked set yoghurt). But rarely more than that.

So it comes as a pleasant surprise to see that Sumayya Usmani’s second book is exclusively sweet based. Her first, Summers under the Tamarind Tree, celebrated Pakistani savoury cuisine, which again is overlooked but appears varied not least thanks to a bountiful coastline, and borders with Afghanistan, Iran, China and India.

Mountain Berries acknowledges the influence of geography on Pakistani food too, as the recipes are set within a structure that reflects the diversity of the country’s terrain and population; the one thing that apparently unites being “the people’s love for desserts, confection, fruit and nuts — no Pakistani table is ever without this celebration of sweetness“.

Usmani takes the reader on a sugared and spiced journey through her homeland. From the sour berries of the north, through milky desserts from the borders near Iran, and rose water and cardamom in Lahore, to the saffron infused spice trail and, of course, mangoes on the coast. At the same time she sets the sweets and desserts in the context of occasion — decadence for festivals, comfort for homecoming, and daily mithai or sweet treats.

The resulting recipes are consistently mouthwatering and exotic. Buckwheat porridge with pink salt, cardamom and stewed halva; sweet parathas filled with date, walnut and milk fudge; rabri kulfi sticks with honey, cardamom and bay leaf; and Pakistani jalebis (spiralled fermented doughnuts in turmeric-infused syrup). These are not things I cook regularly or that come naturally to me (nor, I’d wager, most Brits). But though I’ll probably need to specifically set out to make a meal or occasion to suit, they’re almost always accessible — though it’ll be worth finding a source of dried hunza apricots to soak and use in a number of the most tempting recipes.

This collection of recipes feels contemporary, rather than a bible of old family hand-me-downs. Which is both inevitable given the terrain the writer is attempting to cover, the size of the book to fill, and also appropriate for the intended user. Certain dishes note that they are inspired by rather than replicate; like Shahi tukra brioche bread pudding with saffron, ricotta, cranberries and chopped nuts, and what is effectively labneh rather than burutz curd cheese with nuts and honey. To my mind updated, realistic recipes trump ‘authenticity’. All in all, this is a thoroughly modern cookbook: useful, inspiring, eye-opening, and grounded in a cuisine and culture that’s under-explored.

Dessert books are a fairly niche genre, and this one carves an even narrower niche into that. Yet it still offers a diverse range of recipes, which makes it an excellent resource for anyone interested in going beyond chocolate fondants, blondies and Victoria sponge.

Format and design

Crown quarto format. Appealing photography. Most (if not all?) recipes are illustrated, which will be useful for many given the exotic nature of them.

Recipes that tempt

Pakistani jalebis; rabri kulfi sticks with honey, cardamom and bay leafAfghani gosh-e-cil (fried pastry with ground pistachio and cardamom); Malpura semolina pancakes with raspberry and pomegranate sauce; Gajrela (carrot rice pudding).

Who is it for?

Fans of sweet and spiced things. Cooks looking for exotic inspiration.