Globalisation has seen the melding of cultures permeate through society; from the way we communicate, to art and fashion, to the food we eat. We are now living in a world where the word ‘fusion’ is so commonly used that it has almost become a culture in itself. And nowhere is this word more used than in the world of food, and while it is a common theme in cooking, it is not very often seen in reference to baking. Ashia Ismail-Singer is a passionate cook and baker (and also a registered nurse!), who has seen the magic that can happen when two cultures merge in food. Born in Malawi of Indian heritage, and then moved to the UK as a teenager, before finally settling in New Zealand, by way of the US, Ashia’s experiences of living in different countries around the world has shaped the way she bakes and cooks, using it as a way to adapt to new environments.
Her latest book, Saffron Swirls and Cardamom Dust, infuses the flavours of Eastern and Western culinary traditions by adding hints of spice to what would normally be very sweet baked treats, creating a perfect balance of flavour. From easy comfort baking to more complex desserts, the book is a visual feast of an array of beautiful indulgences, and is categorised by season, making use of the fresh produce available at the time.
We caught up with Ashia to talk about how her experiences of living around the world has influenced her culinary methods, what she looks for when fusing Eastern and Western cooking styles and the joy that comes from baking and sharing.
What started your love for food?
Watching my mum, when I was growing up in Malawi, and how effortlessly she combined ingredients and presented us with beautiful, nourishing meals. She combined East and West and was way ahead of her time when it came to fusion cooking. I loved how she did that, it inspired me.
You have lived in many different countries throughout your life. How do these experiences shape the way you cook and bake?
Leaving behind your childhood home is always hard, but then adapting to a new country and a new way of doing things was even harder, especially as a teenager. Cooking with my mum and sisters in our new home country gave me solace, where we blended our worlds of East and West and created a new way of doing things. I have adapted to my new environments using ingredients that are available and adding my own special twist to recipes.
While they are traditionally very different styles of cooking, your book, Saffron Swirls and Cardamom Dust, demonstrates some beautiful ways in which Eastern and Western flavours and methods work together. What do you look for when creating recipes that blend Eastern and Western styles?
Having grown up as a Muslim Indian, I have retained the special traditions of our ancestors and the way we cook and how this has been passed down through generations. But living in a Western world also has its own special flavours. Having learnt from my mum of fusing cultures together, and after writing my first cookbook – My Indian Kitchen which is a mixture of both cultures, I felt the need to share baking and desserts with spice. I love some of the Western baking recipes and I created some magic by combining seasonal fruits with spice. The key to combining these two immensely different styles of cooking is the subtle use of spice.
You mentioned in your introduction to your book that nothing gives you more pleasure than baking and sharing. What in particular do you love about baking, as opposed to cooking?
I love finding solace in my baking, and getting away from the pressures of the daily grind. I work as a Registered Nurse so for me this is therapy especially in these trying times. The methodical way a recipe reads, the precise measurements of ingredients, which then ends up being something amazing. And I love sharing my creations with family and friends. And with the way the world has been over the last year and half, I wanted to create a book that gives us something to enjoy and look forward to.
Your book includes a section on spices, breaking down key flavours and notes on each. What do you find so special about baking with spices?
Baking with spices adds a touch of exotic flavour, taking the ordinary to something quite magical. I wanted to create Saffron Swirls and Cardamom Dust to showcase how spice can transform something and give you another layer of flavour and how easy it is to do.
What spice do you find most interesting to bake with?
I love saffron and cardamom, two of my favorite spices (too hard to choose one!). They both work beautifully with sweet and savoury dishes.
When creating recipes for this book, what flavour combination were you most pleasantly surprised by?
Mandarin, cardamom, basil and lime! I was inspired by a Jo Malone fragrance. It sounded divine together, so I decided to create a granita for my summer section, it turned out to be just perfect!
What advice would you give to those who are new to baking with spices?
Don’t be scared to use spice and experiment – it’s truly magical when a flavour combination works.
Your book is divided into seasonal sections to take advantage of the produce in season at the time. What is your favourite season to bake in?
My favorite season has to be autumn, with apples, pears and feijoas in season. It’s warm enough on some days to indulge in ice cream but then cold enough to curl up with a hot pudding or steaming mug of my chilli hot chocolate. The scent of saffron and chai spices permeate the air, adding to the coziness of colder days to come.
Do you have a favourite recipe from the book?
That’s so hard to choose! I love baklava and my carrot halva, both are just divine. But again, there are so many gorgeous recipes to choose from, there is something for everyone.
Rose, Saffron & Orange-blossom Baklava
Ingredients (for 18-20 pieces)
- 250g pistachios
- 200g mixed nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- 12 sheets filo pastry
- 125g butter, melted
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons rose water
- 2 teaspoons orange blossom water
- Pinch of saffron
- Dried rose petals to garnish
- Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease a 23cm square cake tin.
- Place the nuts in a food processor and blitz until finely chopped. Transfer to a large bowl, add the sugar and the spices and stir to combine.
- Place a sheet of filo pastry on a clean work surface and brush with melted butter. Cover with two more layers of filo, brushed with butter, then place into the tin and fold the edges to fit. Sprinkle a layer of spiced nuts over top. Prepare three more layers of buttered filo and place them on top of the first layer of pastry and nuts. Repeat the process with the remaining filo pastry and nut mixture, ending with a layer of filo.
- Using a sharp knife, score the filo into diamond shapes all the way through to the base of the tin. Bake for 35–40 minutes or until golden.
- Meanwhile, make the syrup. In a saucepan, combine the honey, 1/2 cup of water and the sugar over a medium to high heat until the sugar dissolves. Cook until the syrup thickens, then remove from the heat. Add the rose water, orange blossom water and saffron. Stir to combine and set aside.
- Remove the baklava from the oven and pour the syrup over. Allow to cool completely and then serve with dried rose petals to garnish and a cup of apple tea.
This recipe is extracted from Saffron Swirls and Cardamom Dust by Ashia Ismail-Singer. Published by Bateman Books. RRP $49.95. On sale now.