In most Pakistani households, women are skilled cooks. Cherished family recipes are passed down by older female relatives, and men usually learn kitchen skills from their mothers. You wouldn’t necessarily think this when you walk into your local Pakistani curry house. The South Asian eateries that sprang up across Britain in the 1960s were established by early waves of migrants from the Indian subcontinent, many of whom were young men who left their families back home. As a result, Pakistani restaurants became male-dominated spaces.
When I moved to London in 2009, I was surprised that the Pakistani food from high street curry houses, while delicious, did not reflect what I grew up eating at home. It was heavy, oily, and fairly uniform, no matter where you ate. I also noticed the lack of gender diversity—there were rarely any women working front-of-house or in the kitchen.
Even today, some Pakistani curry houses are reluctant to hire women. The long hours and physical demands of restaurant work are perceived to be difficult for female staff, particularly those with children. Safdar Azam, manager of Lahore Kebab House, a popular Pakistani restaurant in East London, tells me: “We don’t hire women chefs because we don’t think they can keep up with the demands and time pressures of working for a large-scale operation of a 550-seater restaurant.”
Despite the patriarchal culture that still exists in some curry houses, a quiet but steady disruption is emerging. More and more female Pakistani chefs are setting up their own restaurants, street food stalls, and supper clubs; sharing home-style curries, kababs, and roti with a new generation of diners.
I spoke with four of these women about how they hope to shape the future of Pakistani food in Britain.
Numra Siddiqui, Empress Market
I meet Numra Siddiqui on a crisp summer morning at a cafe in Brixton, a multicultural neighbourhood in South London, not far from where her mother’s family settled in the 1960s. Since 2014, Siddiqui has introduced Londoners to her modernised take on family recipes. She started out running a bun kabab stall on the city's South Bank, then opened pop-up restaurant Empress Market in Hackney last summer. This year, she founded a supper club series focused on South Asian food and history.
I have eaten my way through almost all of Siddiqui’s dishes, from her nihari (a beef shank curry) to the dahi baray (lentil dumplings soaked in yogurt, served with a tamarind sauce), but continue returning to her food. It inspires a sense of belonging, catering to third culture kids like myself who crave the flavours of their childhood, but also want a culinary experience that speaks to their intersectional identity.
In Siddiqui’s view, existing Pakistani establishments lack the warmth of home, and the capability to nourish.
“Female chefs can bring the domestic sphere to the fore,” she says. “The notion of Pakistani hospitality is central to the experience I wanted to create at Empress Market. I want diners to feel they have come to a friend’s home.”
Siddiqui is also committed to empowering women who work in her kitchen. “As I expand my operations, I would like to hire and train more Pakistani female home cooks. Once these women enter professional kitchens, we will have culinary stars in the making,” she says excitedly.
Saima Arshad and Nabeela Muqadiss, Masala Wala Cafe
“I was confident that my mother’s delicious home-style cooking would draw in the crowds,” says Saima Arshad who established Masala Wala Cafe with her mother Nabeela Muqadiss in Brockley, South London, in 2015.
When I visit Masala Wala Cafe for lunch, I’m reminded of visiting an aunt’s home. Arshad and Muqadiss welcome me warmly and the menu is short and simple, featuring a chicken dish, a lamb dish, and two vegetarian dishes. Arshad explains that having a limited menu reinforces the home-style nature of the experience and also reduces food waste.
Arshad notes that immigrant women of her mother’s generation are typically excluded from the labour market, despite having highly valuable experience.
“Recently, there has been a lot in the media about Muslim immigrant women being amongst the most excluded demographic in the UK,” she says. “This needs to change and we hope to set an example through our entrepreneurship.”
I wonder how hard it was for Arshad and Muqadiss to transition from cooking in a home kitchen to serving diners daily. When I ask them about this, they look unfazed.
“Cooking at the scale that a restaurant requires is easy for Pakistani mothers who are so used to preparing feasts for unannounced guests and family gatherings throughout the year,” Arshad points out.
Aida Khan, Shola Karachi Kitchen
Earlier this year, I found myself at the Shola Karachi Kitchen supper club in West London. I ate chicken hara masala (chicken cooked in a herb yogurt sauce) and bihari kababs that transported me back to lunch spreads at my grandma’s home in Karachi. Aida Khan, the chef and founder, relocated to London from Karachi eight years ago, where she hosted a television travel show that took her across Pakistan in search of regional delicacies.
While the show equipped Khan with knowledge of Pakistani cuisine, it was nostalgia that eventually led her to the kitchen to practice her family recipes.
“Food was a huge part of my upbringing in Karachi,” she says. “My mother’s family migrated to Pakistan from Hyderabad Deccan in India and a lot of my cooking reflects its cuisine such as baghare baingan and tamatar ki chutney.”
Khan decided to start her own supper club because she saw a lack of innovation in Pakistani food in London.
“It is important to me that my sons who are growing up in London understand Pakistani flavours and their meals comprise healthy and simple dishes that I grew up eating,” she says, adding with a laugh: “I find that people avoid eating Pakistani food before a night out because they don’t want to snooze afterwards!”
Much like Siddiqui, Arshad, and Muqadiss, Khan has exciting plans for her next culinary project. She will open her first restaurant in White City Place, a new business district in West London, later this year. I reflect on Siddiqui’s words as I look forward to what these trailblazing chefs do next.
“I’m so proud that the voice for Pakistani food in this country is dominated by women. We are definitely here to stay.”