Among shelves lined with neatly labelled boxes of spice and piles of vintage china plates, chef Numra Siddiqui is busy gathering ingredients. Already in front of her are brioche loaves, slow-cooked beef patties, small bowls of sauces, and bigger bowls filled with red onion, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. After running a Pakistani street food stall at markets around London for the past three years, Siddiqui has just opened Empress Market, her first permanent restaurant. She's not used to all the space.
"I'm still working out where everything is! With the street food stall, everything was at arm's length," she laughs. "Even though I've now stopped trading at the stall, I still get messages from people asking where I am. People are quite loyal to it and so they've been coming here from far and wide."
These loyal customers keep coming back for one thing: Siddiqui's renowned bun kabab.
"Bun kabab is a very traditional street food from Karachi. It's usually made with spiced, slow-cooked beef in a sweetened round bun. I also serve a chicken and a lentil bun kabab here," she explains. "People call it the desi burger—which means South Asian burger. It's served everywhere. Outside school and colleges, outside offices, in shopping centres. I've grown up in Lahore as well as London, and whenever we were in Karachi and went out shopping, we'd pick up a bun kabab."
But before setting up her London street food stall, Siddiqui did some serious homework.
"Bun kababs are something I've eaten all my life but when I decided to make and sell them here, my dad and I spent two or three months in Pakistan, properly researching the right recipe," she says. "It's very regional to Karachi so for three months, every day, we'd have six different types of bun kabab from different stalls. I even had a questionnaire—the stallholders thought I was nuts!"
After extensive testing on friends and family, Siddiqui finally had her recipe.
"There are a few restaurants in London that do a bun kabab but it's closer to a burger. I was very keen in following the way a bun kabab is made in Karachi." she says while cutting a bun in half. "But I do use brioche rather than the sweetened bread used there because I felt it works better. I think when people say something is traditional, they're assuming there's one way to make it, whether it's a bun kabab, a biryani, or a nihari [a slow-cooked beef stew]. But as well as different regions influencing how food is made, everyone has their own recipe."
She continues: "'Flavour in the hand' is the literal translation of the Urdu phrase for bun kabab. The way I put spices in food will be very different to someone else's. My mum actually taught me to use the lines on my palm to measure spices so there's a literal application where my personal estimates determine the flavour. My nan would scoff if she saw me use a teaspoon!"
Siddiqui cracks an egg into a metal bowl, locates a tub of chili flakes, and adds a generous sprinkling before whisking. An omelette, she tells me, is an essential component of any good bun kabab.
While the bun goes on the grill to toast and the egg and the beef cook separately, Siddiqui talks me through the dish's other elements.
"We add salad—which must include raw red onions—and then the different sauces," she says. "There's my nan's mint and coriander chutney which is the spicier one and a tamarind sauce which my mum and I worked really hard on to get right. We use raw tamarind—you can't find fresh here but you can get the tamarind paste and seeds—and add medjool dates. It's quite sweet and smokey. Then I add a yogurt raita which is more cooling and my secret ingredient (which isn't really a secret) is daalmoth, or Bombay mix as it's called here."
With her dad's company on the research trip, her nan's mint and coriander sauce, and her mum's help with the tamarind sauce, it sounds like Siddiqui's family have been heavily involved in her quest to bring bun kababs to London.
She laughs and agrees: "The whole family have been involved! My mum has been involved with all the recipes and maintaining the quality of food. The nihari on the dinner menu and the chicken liver dish on the brunch menu are family recipes. My sister has taken two weeks off work to help me out. My brother used to help me out on the street food stall and has put the playlist together for here … "
With all the components ready, Siddiqui starts to build the bun kabab. She tells me that she hopes to show a different side to Pakistani cuisine—one that Londoners wouldn't find anywhere else in the city. And simply by being in the kitchen making this Karachi street food, she's already doing something new.
"Only men worked on the street food stalls in Karachi and even when I was contacting halal butchers in London, they told me that they'd never had a woman order meat for a restaurant before," she says. "And when I did an interview with BBC Urdu, they told me I was the only woman in the world selling bun kababs. Now, there's another female trader in Brooklyn, New York doing it so we always 'like' each others' pictures on Instagram."
Siddiqui offers me the assembled bun kabab, which has been wrapped in paper with the ends twisted like an old-fashioned sweet. It provides an anticipatory rustle before I take a bite.
Just as the Urdu phrase promised, the enclosed kabab is spicy, soothing, hearty, soft, and crunchy—and all in my hand.