Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A Melodious Monsoon Meal

Pakistanis, strong rooted in their culture, love to eat old-fashioned traditional food, especially on a rainy afternoon. Like always, monsoon season is here, whispering a new life into the green, never-ending fields and the wide spreading grey cities equally. In Karachi, where I live, people revive their bonds with nature through cooking and eating unique homemade monsoon meals. Sound and smell of crackling curry leaves in butter, appetizing fragrance of freshly roasted cumin seeds and sweet scent of ripe yellow mangoes, harmonizes with the aroma of wet soil and soothing sounds of rain drops knocking on a window. The music in the air of a romantic rainy day drives them to sing old melodies.

Back in the old days, when most of the people lived in villages, fresh herbs and vegetables were harvested to make monsoon meals. “Aloo bhera Parhata” or Potato stuffed flat-bread, my specialty, is one of the most loved monsoon foods. Chilled mint chutney, raw mango pickle, garden salad and any yogurt dip is served as complements. 

Aloo bhera Parhata
Potatoes are boiled, cooled, mashed and mixed with chopped herbs, green chilies, salt and lemon juice. Next, this mixture is layered between two small and slightly thick chapati or flat-breads, then it is rolled into a comparatively thin chapatti. lastly, it is cooked evenly on both sides on a hot griddle. Homemade butter is brushed on one side just before taking if off the heat. It is best enjoyed on a terrace where you can let your senses relax under the dark damp clouds. 

Sophie's Roast Tomato Chutney

Sophie's mouthwatering tomato chutney

Like our language,Urdu, our food also blends well with other cuisines. Just like this Australian sweet and sour tomato chutney compliments our very traditional Aloo bhera perhata.

Few weeks back, our friend from Australia, Sophie Gebhardt, shared her "Infamous Roasted Tomato Chutney" recipe on her community blog The Buzz and asked me to try it. Today seemed to be a perfect for this!

Slow cooked, roasted tomatoes with a drizzle of olive oil are pureed and mixed with a combination of hot and tangy spices, vinegar and sugar to balance the acidity. Freshly grated ginger and garlic completes the flavor and a dash of fish sauce adds an unexpected aroma. 

Aubergine and Yogurt Dip

Aloo bhera Parhata is best served with any type of a raita or a yogurt dip. I love making grilled or baked aubergine dips. Thinly sliced aubergines are lightly coated with olive oil and baked until soft. I used garlic infused olive oil for extra flavor. Skins are peeled and aubergines are mashed. Yogurt and mashed aubergines are mixed together with herbs and spices to make a think dip. 

Mint and Mango Chutney

This very aromatic chutney just lifts up your mood on a rainy day. Freshly harvest mint is blended together with a ripped mango along with salt, chili flakes, some sugar and kolongi or nigella seeds. 

Its getting dark outside and I am hoping for some rain to fall so that I can cook more aloo parhatas and enjoy them with mouth watering chutnies and dips.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

In a hurry? Make "blender" compost!

Warning: After reading this piece, you will be left with no excuse to avoid composting at home.

If you appreciate composting but have not tired it yourself, chances are that you are in a hurry like me. Here is the fasted way to make compost that I am trying for my  raised bed garden. You should try it too.

"Blender" Composting
We are consuming enormous amount of fruits and vegetables each day. I hate to throw away the nutrient rich peelings, eggshells and left over coffee. On the other hand, I need good compost for my raised bed project fast. I came across this idea of "blender" composting and loved it. Its super simple to make it.

Simply add all the organic kitchen waste in a blender with lots of water. Blend it into a smoothie. Now use it directly on your soil or collect it in a bin and let it decompose. If you use it directly, you will not see results until the compost is completely decomposed.  The best part is that it will take just a couple of weeks to decompose because it is blended!!!

I will also add Indigenous Microorganisms or IMO4 to speed up the process. I will share more about it in upcoming posts. Adding IMO4 to my compost pile will help me harvest compost in just three weeks.   

I am blending my kitchen waste every day and feeling rich already. Lets pledge to put all the organic waste from our kitchen in to a compost bin and not in to a dust bin.

Happy Gardening

Saturday, 3 May 2014

How to get 40 kg yield from a 18 sq.ft. garden

layout design by

I spend a lot of time in planning my kitchen garden. This means a lot of calculations. 

After spending an hour on, I was able to make several layouts for my garden projects. Next, I calculated average yield per plant based on my own experience and research papers available online. This one produces 40 kg of a variety of vegetables from a small space of 3 by 6 sqft.

How to get 40 kg of vegetables from a 3 by 6 sqft garden

Raised beds gardens are said to be most productive. Different types of vegetables and herbs are planted in a square foot according to the space requirement of each plant. Plants grown this way create a micro climate and benefit each other even more if companion plantation is practiced.
A layout that I made using garden planner.

Companion plantation is one of the most important element of  my garden layout. This simply means growing two vegetables together that benefit each other. For example, Beans provide nitrogen for corns to grow healthy, tomatoes deter pests that attack cabbage and lettuces while chives keep tomato protected from pests. This is how brilliantly nature works. We just need to learn more from it and mimic its ways. 

Other important element of a garden plan is to know which vegetables do you want to grow, how many plants will you need and how long will it take you to get the harvest. Keeping in mind average yield per plant, I calculated how much will a 3 by 6 sqft patch or a raised bed will produce based on my layout.

Tomatoes 14 -20 kg
Cucumber 2 kg
Eggplant 3.5 kg
Corn ears 4-8 
Spinach 0.75 kg 
bell peppers 2.6 kg
hot pepper 1.5 kg
beans 5.5 kg
Lettuce leaves 0.5 kg
Squash 10-25 squash 
Chives a few bunches 

Out of all these vegetables, Corn can be planted twice or thrice during a 5-6 month season. Peppers, chives and eggplants will stay for more than a year or two during which they will produce even more. Radishes and micro greens can also be included in this plan.

Each plant has a different space requirement. In a 1 sq.ft area you can plant 16 leaf lettuce plants, 2 cucumbers or 1 squash. 

More Variations

A raised bed of same dimensions with 14 tomato plants can produce 40-70 kg of tomatoes along with bunches of basil, chives and leeks.

Here is a garden layout by This is how a raised bed will look like when planted according to the plan in the next image.

Kitchen gardening is a never ending learning process. You can sketch your garden plans or use one of the garden planners online.  Make gardening fun, challenging and productive!

Do share your plans with us or

Happy Living!

Note: Due to some technical issue, I am unable to reply to comments made here. If you have a query please feel free to write to us on

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Cacti garden: Desert rose

Cacti provide gardens an eccentric beauty . PHOTO: ZAHRA ALI

A garden without leaves can only be a cacti garden. Its striking landscape and distinct architectural form strays away from a conventional one (rich in palms, seasonal plants and creepers), giving the space a cutting-edge look.
There are more than 1,500 varieties to choose from and some cacti can live up to hundreds of years and produce countless offspring with their seeds, eliminating the need to buy new plants. “Cacti live for as long as you can take care of it,” says Fahim Siddiqui, founder of the Cactus and Succulent Society of Pakistan. His collection consists of more than 5,000 cacti and 800 succulents and the oldest cactus in his garden is almost 35 years old. “The thing about cacti that attracts me the most is its tactics to survive in the most difficult conditions… a trait rare to us.”

Pink blossoms of a Mammillaria. 

The shape of a cactus is determined by its capacity to store water or minimise water loss. This makes it an ideal plant to grow in the country, where water shortage is a perennial problem. The slender, finely toothed Yucca variety grows slowly and can reach up to 3ft, while the Golden Barrel species, covered in rows of sharp spines, takes a spherical shape and produces yellow flowers. “A Mammillaria’s bloom fascinates me the most and there are more than 170 varieties that one can grow as a beginner,” says Khalid Suhail. His cacti collection of over 15 years features interesting red, yellow and white ones.
The Queen Victoria Agave cactus.

Buying a cactus
Start by buying potted cacti first which cost somewhere between Rs100 and Rs500, depending on the type. A wide variety of ornamental species are imported, primarily the eye-catching colourful, grafted cacti. Although they look vibrant, they do not last long as grafting means slicing your cactus in half which could go terribly wrong if not done properly. Also the colour is injected in the plant which overshadows its natural beauty.

Caring at home
Well-drained soil is ideal for a potted cactus. It can be 20% organic compost or animal manure and 50% sweet sand, with the remaining 30% covered in a layer of stone chips. Weekly watering patterns work best as the plant requires minimal water only when the soil dries out and during winter most species don’t require any watering at all. For this purpose, get pots that are barely one to two inches bigger in diameter as bigger pots allow the soil to store water longer. And the best time to re-pot or divide the plant is during spring.

Gardening enthusiasts like to collect unusual cacti.

Conservation alert
Over-collection and habitat destruction has led to a threat of extinction. Preserve the endangered species by growing them in your own garden or donating to a botanical garden. Cacti take several years to grow large enough to be used for landscapes. If you come across one at a very low rate, it has probably been sourced from the wild unless the seller can prove otherwise.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 13th, 2014.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Recipe: Bell Pepper Nachos

I am enjoying my daily harvest of bell peppers and salad leaves. These yellow banana peppers are vibrant addition to not only my garden but also to my plate. Yellow peppers contain 305 % vitamin C which is why it must not be over cooked.
Here is a fun recipe using that I loved.

Bell Pepper Nachos
Heat a pan and add a dash of olive oil. Add finely chopped garlic clove and spring onions. Keep stirring while you add a tsp of garlic powder, paprika or red chili powder, salt, 1/2 tsp cumin powder, 1/2 tsp of oregano and crushed black pepper. Add a cup of cooked and shredded chicken. Toss well. 

Make a slit in two bell peppers and remove all the seeds. Carefully fill each pepper with chicken mixture. Top with olives and cilantro. Bake for 3 minutes. 

Serve it with brown rice or with a salad. I made my salad using some mix salad leaves, dried tomatoes and parsley.

Growing your own vegetables makes your food so much more special. Grow your own food!

Happy Gardening

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Recipe: Chicken-and-Broccoli florets with Garden Salad

Grilled chicken and broccoli with garden salad . image credit :Zahra Ali

I love eating raw vegetables especially the ones from my organic kitchen garden. These scrumptious vegetables fill my plates with color, flavor and unbeatable freshness! 

Here is what my lunches usually look like. Cooked fish, chicken or beans with fresh salad. This simple recipe is packed with nutrients and will charge you with energy and brightness!

Chicken-and-Broccoli Florets

Combine a tsp of soya, 1/2 tsp vinegar, salt and red chili powder in a bowl. Add a cup of chicken strips to the mixture. Mix well and let it marinate for 10 minutes. 

Heat a grill pan or a basic non stick pan. Drizzle a tsp of olive oil. Add chicken and cook for two mins and keep stirring. Add finely chopped onions, a clove of garlic and a little ginger. Mix well. When the chicken is almost done, add broccoli florets. Stir and  cook for 3 minutes. enjoy!

Garden Salad

The idea of making a garden salad is to simply go out in your kitchen garden, pick your fresh produce and combine to make a colorful and flavorful salad!

Fizz lettuce and red pear tomatoes from my garden
Since I grow several varieties of leaf lettuce, its always fun to try a new type or to experiment with a blend.

I picked some "Fizz" lettuce leaves, " Black seeded simpson" lettuce leaves, red pear tomatoes, bell peppers and some red cabbage. 

Chop cabbage finely, use cherry tomatoes as whole, use your hands to tear the lettuce leaves, squeeze a lemon, add some salt and you have your very simple and fresh salad!

If you love your vegetables then grow them at home and make them as pure as possible by not using any chemicals on them.

Join our community  for more inspiration and ideas.

Happy Gardening!


Aquaponics: No dirty business

Aquaponic set up at Nasreen Ashraf's place. image credit: Zahra Ali 

Aquaponics is the use of waste produced by fresh water fish, shrimp, prawns, crabs or lobsters to grow plants. Live fish are used to make fertilizer which produces ammonia that is high in nitrogen and is essential for plant growth. In return, the plants filter the water so that fish can live in it.
Tilapia is the most famous fish that reproduces and grows fast in an aquaponic system, but you can even start with a pair of goldfish. You can either leave the plants floating on the top of your tank or direct the water through pipes using an air pump to your grow-bed that holds plants with a growing medium. Water is then directed back into the tank to complete the tank cycle.
“Aquaponics is a quick, simple and cheap way of growing your food, and you don’t even need a green thumb!” says Abdul Aleem Shekhani, an aquaponicer from Karachi. Shekhani set up his first system in 2010 using his mother, Nasreen Ashraf’s storage boxes and store-bought PVC pipes, fish and other aquarium equipment. After two years, he upgraded his system and bought used bathtubs to turn them into a fish tank. The garden now produces everything from tilapia to cherry tomatoes to giant melons, unlimited sponge gourd, lots of basil and oregano. The set-up can cost anywhere between Rs1,200 and Rs1,500 and may even be cheaper if you reuse supplies.
“The only thing I do regularly is feed the fish and harvest vegetables when they are ready,” says Ashraf who also has a rooftop kitchen garden which needs much more work. “Vegetables that I grow using aquaponics have larger, greener and healthier leaves compared to the ones in the pots.”
Even though the method is relatively new, it is picking momentum globally. Ellezerdo Sarsalejo is a Philippines-based aquaponicer, who lives a few miles away from where the typhoon hit last year. He built a system using PVC pipes, barrels and large water bottles. Unlike Nasreen and Aleem, he did not use any edible fish. Within 75 days of starting his backyard aquaponic system, Sarsalejo was able to harvest dozens of bitter gourd which is remarkably quick. “You can double or triple your harvest if you have a good system,” he says. “I started an aquaponic system back in September 2011 as an experiment and since then it has been very successful.” Now Sarsalejo grows all kinds of vegetables and herbs, including cherry tomatoes, lettuce, basil, eggplants, huge beans, okra and bitter gourds that grow fast using his aquaponic set-up.
It is a well-known fact that during 1150-1350 CE, Chinampas — an ancient agricultural method which used rectangular areas of fertile land to grow crops on shallow lake beds — produced one-half to two-thirds of the food consumed by the city of Tenochtitlan, including maize, squashes, amaranth, tomatoes, peppers and beans. Hence, aquaponicers might be justified in claiming that the method can feed the world one day.
Zahra Ali Husain is a sustainability education specialist, writer and an environmentalist. She tweets @Zahrali 
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 23rd, 2014.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Green thumb: At home with herbs

Whether you grow herbs for cooking, healing, beautification, pest control, fragrance, crafts or a stunning garden display, rest assured, these delicate plants will prove super easy to grow. All they need is a spot in the sun. Follow the simple guidelines and treat your mind, body and soul to your very own blissful herb garden.
Most herbs will do surprisingly well in containers of different sizes, picked depending on usage. For culinary use, you can plant fennel, basil, thyme, sage, parsley and rosemary; lavender and chamomile to soothe senses; tansy and mint to deter mosquitoes and flies; and chives to stop pests from attacking vegetable plants. And if you have a larger space, plant majestic herbs like marshmallow, honeysuckle, bronze fennel and foxgloves.

Patios and balconies
In sheltered areas that get sunlight only for a few hours, plant shade-loving herbs such as mint, parsley and yarrow. If your balcony or rooftop braves strong winds, plant herbs like rosemary and lavender that can tolerate strong winds and ensure that they are well protected.
To create an aesthetically appealing combination of herbs, get a larger window box and try planting different herbs together. Basil coupled with climbing roses and parsley at the base look striking. Even hanging pots of nasturtiums and chives can do the trick, and if you prefer all green, then simply plant coriander, tarragon and marjoram together.

Planting herbs
Herbs are either planted by sowing seeds or by taking time-saving cuttings from existing plants. Always read the seed pack and follow the sowing instructions that vary depending on the type of herb and size of the seed. For instance, lavender might not germinate as easily as other herbs. It requires a moist/cold treatment to break dormancy and is best planted during the winter season.
Each herb needs to be tended to separately as they have different growing habits and needs. Some herbs like rosemary and lavender are drought tolerant and grow better in loose, light, well-drained soil, while herbs like lemon balm grow in moist soil. Parsley and basil grow in rich, moist and deeply dug soil and sage requires dry, alkaline and well-drained soil.
While unique in their own way, all these herbs come together to brighten up your home and lives with their magical properties.

Some must-have herb combos:
Salad Herbs: Red salad bowl lettuce, chives, mizuna mustard and rocket salad.
Aromatic Herbs: Lavender, mint, sage, rosemary, lemon balm, white jasmine and climbing rose.
Moonlight garden: Forget-me-nots, rosemary, thymes and evening primrose.
Pakistani culinary herbs: Oregano, dill, fenugreek, coriander, mint, bay tree, saffron, fennel, garlic and basil.
Zahra Ali Husain is a sustainability education specialist, writer and an environmentalist. She tweets @Zahrali.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 22nd, 2013.

further reading

crops in pots