Food Memories: Reworking a Childhood Favourite
Words & Photography by Mehrunnisa Yusuf
Visiting my parents in Islamabad last month, I sat down to a breakfast of yoghurt drizzled with honey with a sprinkle of Roba’s mother’s Palestinian zaatar. I ate it with toasted roghni naan, a clay oven baked flat bread made from dough enriched with milk, sprinkled with sesame seeds and brushed with ghee. The sweetened yoghurt reminded me of my childhood favourite, dahi cheeni, literally translated, yoghurt sprinkled with sugar. As a child I loved the crunch of coarse sugar granules and did not care for the restraint of savoury or earthy flavours. Sometimes I would use shakkar (raw cane sugar), which would colour the yoghurt pale biscuit and lend it a butterscotch note.
I grew up in Islamabad in a family of mixed heritage. My maternal grandparents have Polish and Kashmiri origins. They absorbed English culture having lived in England for over a decade. My paternal family is from the Punjab, whose people are well known for their hospitality and love of food. Our kitchen table drew inspiration from this mixed heritage along with the culinary curiosity of my parents.
It was Baba who introduced me to hummus and labne and Mama who assembled oblong dishes of homemade lasagne and Ligurian pesto with green beans and potatoes. Her Polish heritage brought forth potato pancakes with soured cream and plump little pączki with a spoonful of homemade plum jam in their bellies. My favourite, though, was the labour intensive Polish cheesecake that mama would make with hung yoghurt cheese – the recipe for which came from her mother. She would combine live yoghurt with cream to lend it richness and strain the mixture through muslin overnight. The draining of the moisture would compact the mixture to creamy soft cheese, leaving gauze like patterns on the surface. The next day she would press a buttery biscuit crust into her fluted ceramic pie plate before preparing the cheesecake mixture. There would be egg yolks to bind, sugar to sweeten and lemon or orange zest for brightness. She would whisk the egg whites to soft peaks showing me how to fold them into the mixture gently, explaining why a metal spoon and a light touch are essential to a feathery cheesecake. The mixture would then be scraped into the pie dish to be baked for at least an hour. It would have to cool before it could be sliced into wedges. The waiting would make me impatient.
It is these food memories and traditions that I have inherited, along with a curious appetite. My own love for cooking and preserving family recipes came after I moved to London. Often I would call Mama or my aunt to jot down favourites like pea pulao or lentils crowned with tarka (a garnish of spiced oil often with crisp onions). My mixed heritage also meant that some recipes were an adaptation as they were cooked with local ingredients that differed from where the recipe originated. I discovered that my steadfast favourites are dishes from my childhood. The changes in place, along with my travels, have meant that some of these have acquired new flavours. Sometimes my classic Pakistani red lentils take the Moroccan route, spiced with rasl hanout and served with a dollop of preserved lemon crème fraiche. Or a pea pulao is made into a pea, herb and almond pilaf as a side for roasted salmon. The most frequent, though, is labne with a thick squiggle of honey the colour of dark amber, much like the pendant that Babcia* gave me one Christmas. In winter I dust it with zaatar whose woody and thyme like fragrance complements the season. In spring I prefer sumac for its brighter taste of lemons and tart red berries. This combination summons the memory of a bowl of dahi cheeni on a hot summer afternoon, and Mama’s hung yoghurt cheese. I have married it with nature’s nectar and my favourite spice blends.
* Grandmother in polish