Aida Khan, the entrepreneur and chef behind Islamabad’s traditional cuisine destination, ‘Karachi Kitchen’, proudly extended her culinary prowess by introducing her establishment: ‘SHOLA Karachi Kitchen’, in the heart of West London.
Aida comes from a family with a deep passion for food. From an early age, she learnt how to cook traditional family food from her mother, and inherited her love for food through her father’s passion to eat. Her fondest childhood memories are of early morning drives to Karachi markets with her father, in search of the fluffiest poori or the sweetest halwa for breakfast. Since moving to London, traditional Pakistani family recipes play an integral part at home, whether it’s cooking with her boys, or feeding the tribes of friends and extended family who turn up to feast on her delicious meals. With ‘SHOLA Karachi Kitchen’, Aida aims to bring back the era of simple, clean cooking, the way it has been done in the sub-continent’s family kitchens for centuries, on the London food map. In an exclusive interview with You! Aida talks about her culinary journey and her passion for food...
You! When did you first get involved in cooking?
Aida Khan: As far as I can remember. My father was an avid foodie and my mother loved to cook so it has always been a part of my DNA. I would be in the kitchen often helping with prep and creating snacks for my sister and myself from a very young age.
You! Who taught you cooking?
AK: My mother, my sister and my aunts have all taught me how to cook. I also studied at Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London to help me hone my skills and add that extra layer of depth to the techniques.
You! Did you always want to be a chef?
AK: I grew up in Dubai and Pakistan and then spent about 9 years in America where I completed my undergraduate degree followed by working at Bank of America. I did my BA in International Studies with a minor in Economics and Creative Writing. I then did MSc. in International Management for Middle East and North Africa. I completed my culinary qualifications after that. I always knew my passion lay within food but have taken my time with journey.
You! How long you have been working as a chef?
AK: I have been cooking for over 25 years but professionally for about 4 years now.
You! How did you come up with idea of opening a restaurant in London?
AK: I moved to London about 9 years ago to do my MSc. at SOAS University. My son was two years old then and I couldn’t help but notice a lack of authentic Pakistani restaurants we could eat at or order in from, when that desi food craving hit. I inevitably ended up cooking a lot more at home and hosting many evenings for friends looking for a taste of home and finally decided to take it on as full on task to bring our food to London. I started out by hosting supper clubs and eventually expanded to catering events. Opening a restaurant just felt like a natural progression.
You! Who suggested the name of the restaurant - SHOLA Karachi Kitchen?
AK: Shola (or Spark) is the first flame when we light up our BBQ grill and I felt it was a great way to get across the feel of our food culture to a wide audience. Karachi cuisine is an amazing melting pot, in that it’s possible to find food from all over the country in one city. Plus that’s where I am from, so it had to be in the name!
You! What makes this place different from the rest?
AK: It’s authentic, traditional Pakistani food, but created in a modern and hygienic kitchen. We roast and grind all our spices in-house to ensure consistent flavours and quality. So it’s no short-cuts, old-fashioned Karachi style food from family recipes that few people have the time to make properly anymore.
You! What is the seating capacity?
AK: In London we have seating for 42-45 indoors with an additional space for 18-20 outdoors. It’s a very contemporary design with fresh, light colours and lots of daylight.
We currently operate only on a take-away and delivery basis in Islamabad. Our packaging is all recyclable and as a company we aim to minimise single-use plastic.
You! How do you manage working in two different cities - London and Islamabad?
AK: I am between both cities regularly and have a very competent team in charge in both locations. With the level of online connectivity we have now, it is quite possible to run a business in two separate countries. In the initial set-up phase, there is more of a need for me to be hands on but once our processes and recipes are set, it’s more a matter of management and quality control.
You! Your signature dish:
AK: Definitely our Biryani.
You! How would you define your cooking style?
AK: Traditional, wholesome and slow-cooked.
You! What do you like most about your job?
AK: Recipe development and then the satisfaction once you have managed to achieve consistent flavours. I feel that is the key to any successful food offering - it needs to taste exactly the same every time you go back.
You! An ingredient you can’t live without:
AK: Salt! Everything else can be improvised.
You! Who is your favourite chef - your inspiration?
AK: Hands down, my mother. The ease with which she has over the years created banquets of delicious food single-handedly is something I have always been in awe of.
You! What is your favourite Pakistani food?
AK: I find Haleem is a fascinating dish. It is technically difficult, with incredibly complex flavours. It has to be done just right, although it looks deceptively simple: and it is the ultimate comfort food.
You! What’s the main difference you find between English and Pakistani food?
AK: Completely different flavour profiles. Pakistani food has multiple layers of spice and fragrance that are unparalleled in any cuisine.
You! What has been the response so far?
AK: We have an incredibly diverse client base representing all nationalities which is the beauty of being in a multicultural city such as London.
You! How would you describe eating in the UK to someone who’s never visited it?
AK: London has transformed in the last decade or so, to one of the food capitals of the world, with every cuisine well represented. We are proud to be flying the flag for Pakistani food here!
You! What sort of people have you cooked for during your career?
AK: Some incredibly picky ones but always super satisfying to convert the doubters into regulars.
You! Do you ever have regrets that you chose to become a chef?
AK: No regrets at all. It honestly doesn’t feel like a job anymore because there are so many elements to it and no one day is the same as the next. If not a chef, I would have definitely done something else with food. I used to present a travel food show in Pakistan on a news channel and would have definitely pursued something similar within food journalism.
You! What are the low points of being a chef?
AK: Food costing, I find it incredibly tedious and feels like it takes the romance out of the whole process but sadly it has to be done.
You! What would be your advice to someone who is thinking of becoming a chef?
AK: Prepare to make many mistakes and learn to never think your job is actually done. There is always something better to be created.
You! Is this a lucrative job?
AK: The food business is famously competitive, but when it works it works!
You! What do you do to relax?
AK: I have two young kids so most of my spare time is spent making up for the inevitable maternal guilt! My husband and I love to explore different restaurants and our ideal date night involves trying out new places. I love working out so whenever I can squeeze it in I either do a Barre class or go for an outdoor run.
You! Do you offer cooking classes?
AK: Not yet.
You! What do you think are the main ingredients to become a good chef?
AK: Grit and thick skin. Don’t take criticism personally, everyone has their own palate. Be true to yours.
You! How do you keep balance between family life and work?
AK: We work very hard and try to ensure we play very hard too. My husband and I believe in taking regular breaks every few months with the kids.
You! What’s next in your agenda?
AK: Expanding Shola to other parts of Pakistan - in due course.