British Pakistani chef and founder, Aida Khan, has taken the flavors of Karachi to London and it’s incredibly nostalgic.
British cuisine hasn’t always been renowned for its creativity and in the 1960s and 70s, it was considered rather bland. But Asian migration to London and other parts of the UK soon changed that with biryani and chicken karahi becoming staple dishes as part of Britain’s foodie scene.
You’ll find hundreds of curry houses and supper clubs across the fusion of South Asian culture in London, but Shola Karachi Kitchen, envisioned by chef and founder, Aida Khan, has created a culinary home away from home for Pakistanis residing in London, seeking to fly the Pakistani food flag in a way that emulates the feeling of ghar ka kana.
Talking to MangoBaaz, Aida filled us in on how she created a space for Karachi-inspired cuisine overseas.
“When we moved to London, I found it such a challenge to find traditional cuisine so I started cooking a lot more at home. My friends would come over so I was cooking for a lot of people. I decided to fully get into the food scene a couple of years after my Masters.”
“I studied at Leeds School of Food and Wine and what I realized was that it is a completely different thing to be comfortable in a commercial kitchen. I wanted to create a place that was a niche to Karachi because Karachi is such a melting pot of flavors and my heart beats for Karachi!”
With the food scene in London constantly changing, Aida shared her experience of being amongst such a diverse range of restaurants and eateries.
“It’s been interesting to be part of the food scene in London. We’ve only been open for a few months, just during lunchtime but that in itself has been a challenge. It’s been great because the menu has been really well received and we’ve kept the food authentic. My skepticism about my food is high initially. I didn’t have the confidence but I thought, let me try this and see how it is perceived. I cook the karahi by hand every morning so I make 2 batches a day – I’m always smelling of karahi!
For all of us third culture kids out there, we all know how hard our parents try to make sure we don’t forget where we come from. Aida also feels it is important for her two boys to eat Pakistani food growing up and had the cutest anecdotes to share.
“My 3-year-old knows the menu by heart! In fact, he insists on ordering from our restaurant every day. They both love the food and are very into authentic cuisine. My 10-year-old is really into his spices and sometimes walks around with the flip chart because he wants to help out. They both enjoy coming to the restaurant and they often bring their friends too.”
Aida’s passion for cooking has been the driving force for her restaurant. We asked her what she enjoys most about cooking and what keeps her experimenting as a British Pakistani chef.
“I love it when I’m actually able to replicate flavors and make the taste consistent. If I can make it consistent, that means there is a science to it and that is fascinating to me. With Pakistani food, you can standardize it but there is always something that could be different. Like, should have it cooked a little longer?”
“Being in London, I want to create a name for Pakistani food. We have such a rich culture of food but unfortunately, we just haven’t had the right platform. I want to make people believe in Pakistani food and make it resonate with their mother’s or wife’s food so they feel at home.
“Here at Shola, we also make sure that we cook everything from scratch, even our garam masala because I think that adjusts our flavors a lot. We also stay away from cooking everything in the same sauce and that is very important to me.”
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Growing up in London, there was definitely the sense that men were often behind the success of British curry houses, even though women have dominated the domestic space and are stereotypically seen as the cooks in Pakistani households. Aida is an example of a woman who is setting the tone for more female Pakistani chefs to start owning their craft.
“Curry houses have been dominated by men, but the actual home-cooked food scene is being led by women. Now, there are quite a few female British Pakistani chefs in London and female food writers too. Pakistan has come to a point where women are making noise.” Aida acknowledged.
With that being said, Aida, the British Pakistani chef, had some practical words of wisdom to offer our young women in Pakistan who dream of opening their own restaurant one day.
“Trust yourself and trust your palette. Cooking at a commercial level means that it isn’t just about what you enjoy- it has to appeal to different kinds of people as well. For this reason, you will have to make adjustments and know that it will be a lot of hard work. You really need to have that desire to feed people.”
“For me, I’m the happiest when the restaurant is full and people are chatting.”
Keeping her food true to the roots of Pakistan is something Aida is particularly passionate about so for those of you on home soil, you can also check out Shola Karachi Kitchen’s branch in Islamabad where Aida trained her staff to cook all of her home recipes!
And if you’re ever London bound, be sure to take a trip to Shola’s to tickle your desi tastebuds and let us know what you think in the comments below!
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Cover image via Aida Khan/@sholakitchenuk