It was March 2015, I was 26-years-old and had just opened my own restaurant. After months of looking at different sites and discussing menus and suppliers, my mother Nabeela and I launched Masala Wala Cafe, a Pakistani eatery in Brockley, South London. We had always dreamed of serving our home-style Punjabi cooking to the public, and now we were ready to start.
At first, the restaurant only had five tables and a small menu. All of our dishes were cooked from scratch each day, from the chickpea curries to the rotis and on-the-bone chicken simmered with kale, sweetcorn, and tomato. Our slow-cooked lamb curry quickly became one of the most popular menu items, with customers returning to try it again and again. It felt good to be serving our take on Pakistani food in an industry that is traditionally dominated by men. We soon had customers visiting from across South London.
Before opening Masala Wala Cafe, I didn’t have any experience managing my own business, but I wanted to use my skills to do more than sell someone else’s product. Cooking and serving my ancestral food with my mother was liberating. I felt like my true self and a million miles away from the young Pakistani girl I once was, running out of my family kitchen, shouting, “Mummy I don't want to smell like curry at school!” I felt proud of my British Asian identity and wore my turmeric-stained hands like a badge of honour.
After six months of working without pay—enlisting the help of my husband, three sisters, and friends—my mother and I managed to make Masala Wala Cafe profitable. We improved our family’s financial situation and became entrenched in the Brockley dining scene, winning a Time Out award for best local restaurant and multiple reviews from happy customers.
A curry house owner who can't eat her own food. How punishing life can be, I thought to myself.
But then, in April 2018, just as I was getting into the swing of being a restaurateur, everything changed. After a short period of illness, back pain, and what appeared to be a swollen gland which then turned out to be a tumour in my neck, I was given a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer. I was 29 years old.
From this point onwards, everything changed—both for my family and the restaurant that we had built together. I had to step away from the day-to-day running of Masala Wala Cafe to deal with the multitude of side effects I was experiencing from my cancer treatment. At one point, I lost my sense of taste. Stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth and lips) left me sensitive to spices and strong flavours. A curry house owner who can't eat her own food. How punishing life can be, I thought to myself.
During those dark, tasteless days, I would dream about spicy lentils doused with pungent garlic and ginger, vegetables licking mustard seeds, and dry spices. All the beautiful aromatic flavours I had learned to love and enjoy from such a young age now seemed impossible to ever experience again.
Taking a less involved role in the running of Masala Wala Cafe also meant that my sisters had to split my job between them. I felt guilty about giving them this extra workload and seriously considered closing the restaurant. It was always my dream to cook professionally with our mother, so why should I burden them with it? But in the end, both my sisters assured me that they wanted to help keep Masala Wala Cafe open and our vision alive. Our regulars were understanding and supported us with donations for repairs when we suffered a break-in, as well as countless messages of encouragement. Somehow, our little curry house kept on going.
I am currently receiving palliative care as my disease is not curable. It's a combination of radiotherapy and targeted drugs, alongside other treatments the oncologists see fit to control my cancer symptoms. I have my full taste palate back and am as involved as much as I can be in the running of Masala Wala Cafe. I curate our menus, support staff, and make sure our customers feel looked after. I want to ensure that the restaurant my family and I built together to celebrate the food of our heritage has stability and longevity, even if my health doesn’t.
My journey with cancer and running a restaurant has taught me that you can never fully plan for what life throws at you, but you can always find small joy in the everyday. For me, that’s in tasting a new dish, finding comfort in an old favourite, and breaking roti with loved ones.
Food should be celebrated each day, and I hope to keep celebrating our Pakistani home cooking with my family and our wonderful community.