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Face to face with International Chef and Co-Founder of SHOLA Karachi Kitchen – Aida Khan

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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, White City, positioned where the BBC used to be.

Aida Khan has already been serving her Karachi offerings in Supper Clubs in London and in March 2019, opened her first restaurant SHOLA Karachi Kitchen in West London. With her first restaurant in London, Khan aims to explore the real flavours of Pakistan laden in tradition. Aida Khan’s nostalgia for Karachi’s bustling food markets with authentic flavorful food was an inspiration for SHOLA’s first permanent residence in White City. Aida also hopes to shed light on how Pakistani food can be clean and healthy – appealing to vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters. With the menu comprising of 50% grilled food, SHOLA takes one back to the foundations of Pakistani cooking. 

With SHOLA Karachi Kitchen, Aida Khan 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. At SHOLA Karachi Kitchen, Khan and her team of expert chefs use only the highest quality ingredients and traditional cooking techniques.

In Pakistan, currently offering takeaway home-deliveries primarily in Islamabad, SHOLA embraces hearty, artisanal traditional soul food combining the traditional flavours, aromas and authentic spices of Karachi.

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 its cooking with her boys, or feeding the tribes of friends and extended family who turn up to feast on her delicious meals. Bringing Pakistani food back into people’s lives, and through SHOLA, putting Pakistani cuisine on the London food map, Khan hopes to open more branches of SHOLA across the globe and more specifically, in Pakistan.

SHOLA Karachi Kitchen is located at Shop 9-12, Trade Centre, F-7, Jinnah Super in Islamabad for takeaway and delivery. In London, the restaurant is located at Unit 6, West Works, White City Place, Wood Lane. 

Aida Khan speaks exclusively to Daily Paperazzi about her passion project.

How did your journey begin to eventually become a seasoned chef? 

I moved to London about 9 years ago to do my MSc. at SOAS. My son was 2 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 and then the opportunity came up to open Shola so I finally took the plunge! 

What was your first big break?

I had done various caterings and private events but my first big break was when I hosted a Gourmet Karachi Supper Club at a private members’ club in London. It was sold out instantly with 60 people attending, I definitely had a lot of nerves that day but also realized that this is absolutely something I want to pursue. 

Did you go to culinary school? What credentials did you earn through your culinary studies?

I did an Essential Cookery Certification at Leith’s School of Food and Wine, which is a professional course aimed towards people who want to develop their cooking skills and learn the techniques and science behind how ingredients work. Each class was very hands-on and you had to produce a selection of dishes. Apart from cooking skills, the course also helped with time management and being able to plan and execute a well-rounded menu. We also learnt menu costing/pricing and essentially how to make the best of your budget and ingredients. It was a spectacular experience and despite my many years of cooking it has given me the right tools to feel more confident cooking in a professional environment. It also taught me how to handle large orders and get service right. 

SHOLA Karachi Kitchen has greatly added to the culinary map of London. Why did you choose to serve Pakistani cuisine over others? 

Because that’s what I feel I know best. I can bring authenticity to the food offering based on personal experiences. It’s also one of my favorite cuisines and I felt it was under represented in London. 

Currently, the Karachi Kitchen’s chapter in Islamabad is take-away & delivery only. Can we expect a dine-in restaurant in future?

For now, this works but never say never is something I learnt early on. 

What’s your biggest nightmare to date?

Sending food out that is below standard just because it was not tasted. 

What do you do to stay current on new trends? Describe two or three of the most interesting industry trends?

I follow various blogs and read up a lot on Chefs. I am fascinated with the science behind cooking and love looking at different techniques to ensure consistent flavors. As our food is really traditional I have actually found myself going back to using methods the way they were down in our grandparents’ kitchens. A pestle and mortar are incredibly essential in my kitchen just because there is an unparalleled depth of flavor that can be achieved with the masalas ground in one. I am also a huge advocate of low and slow cooking for even flavors. 

What inspires you in the kitchen?

Creating delicious food that is reminiscent of flavors from my childhood. When you get that nostalgic feeling as soon as you taste a dish – that to me is winning. 

What is your favorite meal to cook?

It really depends on the day. At the restaurant I love creating a Karahi or Biryani. Both have such interesting techniques. At home, I love trying out different marinades with grilled fish. Tahini and Harissa are a firm favorite in my repertoire these days.

Do you have a favorite ingredient?

I love using curry leaves. Maybe it’s my mother’s Hyderabadi influence but the scent of curry leaves frying literally takes me back home every time. 

If you could cook for anyone, who would it be?

My father – sadly he passed away many years ago, before I had ever even thought of taking this on as a career. He would be my toughest critic yet strongest advocate. He was a huge foodie so the feedback would have been genuine ☺ 

In your opinion, what are the biggest misconceptions about chefs in Pakistani context?

That it’s all one pot cooking and we have some sort of mother sauce that we throw everything in. Pakistani cooking is incredibly complex and we have so many steps and flavors involved, when done right.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Happy. Doing what I love to do with just a little more time for holidays.

Any advice you would give to someone wanting to become a chef?  

You really need to want to do this to make it work. It’s not something you can go into halfhearted. You also need to believe in yourself, there will always be criticism and there will always be praise. Learn how to filter both in such a way that it’s always productive. Trust yourself and your palate. 

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Entertainment

ART Alert!

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Escape Through Art II curated by Mahaa Malik. Featuring the brilliant artists from all over Pakistan!

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Entertainment

Weekly roundup

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Here’s all the latest scoop you need on what’s been happening around town and across the globe. (June 8th – June 16th)

1 – It’s more than just a game – Fans around the world are tensely hoping the weather stays clear during the most anticipated World Cup 2019 clash between Pakistan and India 

2 – The newlyweds, Iman Ali and hubby Babar Bhatti are on their honeymoon in Istanbul 

3 – Photos of KP Minister of Information Shaukat Ali Yousafzai and his fellow officials sporting cat ears and whiskers went viral on Friday night after the social media team running the live broadcast on the official PTI KP Facebook page forgot to disable the cat filter

4 – Instagram accounts turn blue as people all around the world Standing in solidarity with the people of Sudan who are being forced to endure countless horrific atrocities

5 – North west turns 6!

6 – On Saturday, Notre Dame Cathedral held its first mass since the devastating fire that tore through the building two months ago on April 15.

7 – It has been seven years since the Ghazal King Mehdi Hassan passed away but his absence failed to fade away and his ghazals rule over many hearts even today

8 – Mawra Hocane met Rishi Kapoor in New York 

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Entertainment

GAME OF LAWNS Summer is Here

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On a cold February night while mindlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed, I came across a lawn advertisement. The next insta post showed socialites wearing sleeveless lawn suits at a launch event. Now I see these same women smiling into the camera almost every hour featured in different elitist magazines and posts. I could have sworn they were wearing jackets and carrying designer bags just yesterday at a polo match.

For those of you not familiar with lawn it’s a fabric to be worn in summers. It’s the finest form of cotton weave which has a soft almost luxurious feel to it. Its comfortable, airy and breathable to give women (never heard of men wearing it) much needed respite from the sweltering heat.

Some of the top brands which are magically sold out at Cinderalla time on their prebooking dates are Elan, Sana Safinaz, Faraz Manan and Sobia Nazir.

 “Please take care of yourselves, don’t put yourselves or others in harm’s way, be happy and stay safe.” Khadija Shah, designer of Elan addressed her customers on Instagram, preparing them for the battle ahead.

Lines are formed outside flagship stores the day of the pre-booking only to be broken as soon as doors open. Social media gets flooded with videos of violent women destroying anything and everything that comes in their way. Salesmen scarred both emotionally and physically.

 “A furious customer smashed a salesman’s head,” said Tahir who works as a driver and was an eyewitness to the incident.

 The disgruntled man had queued up for Elan 3A since 6am. When he finally reached the salesman, he was told they had run out of stock.

Now why do a certain class of people, mostly educated, behave like this is beyond human comprehension. Pushing and shoving are considered milder forms of aggression when it comes to buying their chosen design.

There is method to this madness. First the social media campaigns start. Then you see pictures and videos of unbelievably tall and beautiful women with fair skin and European features wearing long shirts, flared trousers and flowing silk dupattas (long scarves worn traditionally in Pakistan). Some are basking in the sun on a cruise in Italy with their fluttering dupattas following them everywhere. Others lying on a sofa in a French palace and some staring blankly while walking in a forest. The designs and campaigns of different designer brands each year have started looking eerily like each other.

Then the catalogues come out. Hype is created and countdown to online pre-booking starts. Women look through endless pictures while holding their breath and write the codes to their favorite designs for pre-booking. Its status symbol and the race to wear it first rather than the love for lawn that drives sales. There is frenzy around this time. Girls try to ask their friends which one they will buy while casually mentioning they will not buy any designer lawn this season as not to disclose the codes of the suits they are trying to get.

I vowed not to get into the designer lawn trap but unfortunately succumbed to buying just one suit. When I went to collect it, I was approached by a middle-aged woman who took me to the side and started whispering that she had the ‘out of stock’ lawn joras. She handed out her number on a piece of paper and disappeared as swiftly as she had appeared.

Out of curiosity and partly because the design my mother liked was also the first to run out, I called that number to ask about availability. To my horror, the woman quoted almost double the price for the same suit! Talk about creating a business opportunity out of women’s desperation to wear their favorite design before their friends do.

Now I know, designer lawns are nowhere in the affordable range. Most are around Rs 7,000 for a three-piece suit which include unstitched fabric for a shirt and trouser, a dupatta and some random patches (with little to no information given where each patch belongs). But paying double of that seemed unreasonable and wrong.

If you thought the ordeal ends here, wait till you take this lawn suit for stitching. The otherwise friendly tailors during winter months start showing attitude during this season. The prized packet comes with a paper indicating contents in English (I wonder why not in Urdu) and a picture of a model wearing it. When you open it, random cloth pieces much like a jigsaw puzzle keep coming out. Surprisingly this baffles the customers, but the tailors exactly know what fits where. For their services, they charge exorbitantly. Appliques, patches, hem, trimmings, home delivery, stitching early are some of the add-ons included in the final stitching bill which is not meant for the light-hearted. Stitching costs can go up to Rs 3000 or more for a suit.

The Pakistani rupee hit an all-time low of around 146 against the dollar and further devaluation is expected. People are complaining about inflation and rising food prices but there is silence on the topic of exorbitant designer lawn prices. How can so many people afford something so expensive?

More and more textile mills are collaborating with designers to come up with their lawn collection each year. This year low-priced alternatives by coveted designer brands like Muzlin by Sana Safinaz and Zaha by Elan were seen in the market but not met with that much enthusiasm by the seasoned lawn buyers. The whole concept of designer lawn works on looking expensive and showing off otherwise the veterans of lawn like Al Karam, Gul Ahmed and Nishat Linen still have the softest and purest form of the fabric.

Lawn mania doesn’t end here. Now that Eid is around the corner, all the brands are coming out with their formal collection. Did I mention Volume II and III will follow?

The saga never ends…   Maha Shah is a freelance writer, journalist and HR professional who has worked for Google and Bloomberg and has lived in Jordan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Qatar and now Pakistan

By Maha Shah

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