RESTAURATEUR AIDA KHAN REVEALS THE SECRETS OF HOME-COOKED FOOD
by ASJAD NAZIR
Internationally-renowned chef and restaurateur Aida Khan has been surrounded by food from a young age.
The working mother has turned that passion into a full-time career, which included opening a branch of her restaurant Shola Karachi Kitchen in west London recently.
The London-based entrepreneur and food expert hopes to shed light on how Pakistani food can be healthy and appeal to vegans, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. She works with a dedicated team of expert chefs to bring the real flavours of Pakistan to diners and wants to convey the message of healthy eating.
Eastern Eye caught up with Aida to talk about food, cooking tips and the secrets of making it in a male-dominated industry.
What first connected you to cooking?
My parents. My father was such an avid foodie, even before it became trendy. He really enjoyed food and my mother loved to cook, so it was a great union. As kids, we had quite advanced palates because our parents made sure we tried everything.
What made you want to turn it into a successful career?
Making it a career was almost the next natural progression. I have loved cooking and enjoyed hosting as well. I started with supper clubs and caterings, and found myself loving it. To date, it doesn’t feel like a job and I feel super lucky. People have been very kind with their feedback and I hope it continues.
What led towards your signature style of food?
A passion to bring the food and flavours from my childhood in the cities I lived in, Islamabad and London.
How have you been able to balance cooking with being an entrepreneur?
The numbers part of the restaurant definitely takes the romance out of it for me, but it has to be done. If I had my way, I would be cooking and feeding all day, but in order for it to work, there are a lot of other things that need to be worked out. Luckily, my husband is incredibly involved and is my operations person, so I am able to still enjoy what I like doing.
What made you want to open a restaurant in London as well?
It was a lack of places in London where you could get home-cooked Pakistani flavours. I wanted to create a space where you could get authentic Pakistani food in a relaxing environment that you wanted to come back to, like home.
Tell us about the kind of food you serve…
We serve authentic and traditional Pakistani food the way it has been enjoyed in households for generations. We create all our masalas from scratch, in house. There really are no shortcuts in our food and we believe in low and slow cooking methods.
What defines Karachi cuisine?
Being a coastal city, Karachi has such an array of influences reflected in its food and is definitely defined by those. You can find the food from all over Pakistan available there.
Tell us, how involved are you with the dishes and menu?
Incredibly involved. All the recipes are family recipes that have been passed down over generations and I feel a responsibility to ensure they are represented accurately. I make our karahi every morning and ensure our palak paneer is cooked to the right consistency.
Do you cook less as you are the boss now?
I don’t think so. I am constantly training staff, so am in the kitchen quite a lot and if not cooking at the restaurant, I am cooking at home.
What top cooking points would you give?
Take your time. Pakistani food cannot be rushed. We slow cook our khatti daal for up to six hours. Our lamb is cooked overnight to give it that melt-in-the-mouth texture.
What are the common mistakes people make when cooking?
Not trusting yourself with the fire. You need to understand heat and the way it interacts with your ingredients and make it your friend.
Is there a secret ingredient you love to use?
No secrets. Just fresh ingredients whenever you can.
What is your favourite meal?
It changes all the time, but I have to say, to me, a good haleem is always a winner.
What is your guilty food pleasure?
Seafood, not necessarily guilty but fresh shell-fish always gets me.
Has family life influenced your approach to food and fine dining?
Luckily, our kids love to try different food and have quite adventurous palates. Whenever we travel as a family, food experiences are definitely part of the agenda. My motivation for working with Pakistani food was to make sure I shared with my two boys, the food that I had grown up with.
What can we expect next from you?
Shola in London is still in early days and I am focusing on expanding the offering here but will definitely be hosting some supper clubs in the near future.
Can you see yourself experimenting with other cuisines?
Not for now. I feel my strength lies in Pakistani food and I would much rather develop that.
What is the best advice you ever got?
Filter out both extreme criticism and extreme praise and then use the rest in productive manner.
Tell us, what is the secret of making it in a male-dominated industry?
It is the same ‘secret’ to making it in the world. Just believe in yourself and keep doing your best. Everything else follows.
What inspires you?
My mother. The ease with which she has over the years created banquets of delicious food single-handedly is something I have been in awe of.