Entrepreneur and award-winning chef Aida Khan talks about Shola Karachi Kitchen, Islamabad’s go-to place for quality desi cuisine.
Shola Karachi Kitchen has created quite a stir amidst foodies and desi cuisine lovers in Islamabad, especially those looking for clean and hygienic takeaway options. The woman behind the enterprise, Aida Khan is an award-winning chef, which is why her name comes with quality and credibility; it’s also why the restaurant already has a second branch, that too in White City, London. Through this passion project, Aida hopes to shed light on how clean and healthy Pakistani food can appeal to vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters alike. The menu comprises 50 per cent grilled food – celebrating the traditional flavours, aromas and authentic spices of Karachi – while there are ample vegetarian options for those on restricted or special diets.
Instep got hold of Aida Khan and spoke about her venture…
Instep: Where does your passion for desi food come from?
Aida Khan: Food has always been a huge part of my life. My father was an avid foodie and he absolutely loved Pakistani food. He left Pakistan in his 20s, so we grew up in the UAE, and he really wanted to make sure his children had the same kinds of food experiences and memories that he cherished. A big part of our summer trips to Karachi involved exploring different parts of the city for that authentic and diverse food experience that it is famous for. In some ways, I think my passion for Shola comes from wanting to share the same heritage with my children.
Instep: When exactly did you decide you wanted to start this business; how did Shola Karachi Kitchen originate?
AK: My childhood was spent in Abu Dhabi. However, my teenage years were spent in Karachi and I will always consider Karachi home. From there, I went to college and worked in the US for a few years. After marriage, I moved to Islamabad and then we shifted to London. While living in all these places, I often found myself missing authentic Karachi-style home cooked flavours.
When my son was two years old and I had just completed my masters, I began cooking and entertaining at home in London more. I wanted my son to have the same food as I did growing up, so I began researching family recipes. I really enjoyed hosting and felt that these recipes were too good to not share, so I started doing supper clubs, which were a hit! Eventually, I decided to go to the Leiths School of Food and Wine to take my cooking experience to the next level and make the leap to commercial cooking.
Instep: Shola Karachi Kitchen now operates in both Islamabad and London. Tell us about the menu and what inspired it.
AK: The menu at Shola, both in Islamabad and London, is based on traditional family recipes that have been passed down in my family, over generations. The true inspiration for all the dishes simply comes from wanting to pay homage to the traditional cooking techniques and food found in the kitchen of our grandparents, that I was able to experience in Karachi. We really focus on going back to the roots. All our masala is roasted and ground in our kitchens, and we do not use any additives or colouring. It’s simple, slow cooking, the way it has been done for generations.
Instep: As an award-winning chef who has earned the ‘Food Entrepreneur of the Year’ award at London Asian Business Awards 2019, what does food mean to you?
AK: For me, food is a way to connect. My cooking helps keep the memories and traditions of those before me alive. It also allows me to create new connections with the people I meet and am able to cook for. In London it’s a way for me to promote our culture in a positive light, and to share the incredible flavours our cuisine has to offer with those who haven’t tried it before.
Instep: Serving local cuisine to international destinations is a coveted experience for any chef; tell us about the restaurant located in London.
AK: It’s so wonderful to be able to share Pakistan’s rich food culture in London. Our restaurant is a lovely space located on a site with many offices, so our lunch time clientele is very diverse. 80 per cent of our customers are not South Asian. However, we have stayed true to our ethos of serving authentic Pakistani food, so we don’t adjust spice levels; our Chicken Tikka is fiery hot and a firm favourite (even I struggle with the spice level but people love it!). If anything, the authenticity has earned us a number of fans! For dinner we see more people travelling to the restaurant from different parts of London in search of Pakistani food to enjoy in a warm and welcoming environment with their friends and family. My sons are often there after school and we have plenty of options to please even the pickiest of eaters.
Instep: How would you compare Pakistan’s food industry to the international scene?
AK: The food scene in Pakistan is incredible and definitely growing very fast. People are travelling more, gaining exposure to different cuisines and bringing these influences into their cooking. Customers have so many options now, so food service providers need to be willing to up their game and stay ahead of the curve. I love seeing new restaurants bring innovative concepts to the Pakistani market. We just need to ensure our quality controls and hygiene standards are kept high, and very soon we will be at par with the international food industry.
Instep: The world today is gradually moving towards healthy eating that is not just limited to the macro-nutrients we consume. Today, we are also concerned about the product used and its source. Has quality control, in a country like Pakistan where food sourcing is not a particular concern for the public, been a challenge? How is it different or similar to your London establishment?
AK: At both Shola locations, in London and Islamabad, we ensure our ingredients are ethically sourced; our standards are the same. Our prices are considered slightly higher, but that’s the cost of ensuring we prepare and deliver food using the best available meat and vegetables. I cannot compete with vendors who sell contaminated or substandard meat, which is flooding the market. Our Islamabad customers know that when they order food from us, they are guaranteed quality they can trust. We have strict temperature controls and product shelf life codes. All our greens are washed and rinsed in drinking water. In terms of packaging, we are trying to minimize the use of plastic. In Islamabad, we are one of the few desi food delivery services that provide recyclable and biodegradable packaging.