It’s not easy for a newbie chef to get attention in the “restaurant capital of the world,” but Karachi-born Asna Qamar is winning the hearts of Londoner’s with her new travelling Khao suey stall. This SOAS grad left her job and went to culinary school the day she came to terms with the fact that she was obsessed with food, claiming that there was nothing she’d rather do than create delicious food that reminded her of her homeland for her friends and family. Now she’s taking her skills to the streets of London. Here is what she tells WO exclusively.
Tell us about your stall.
It’s called ‘Khao!’ short for Khao suey , but also means “eat,” in Urdu. This word, I feel, can be Pakistan’s motto. We are a pop up with a cool, edgy vibe trying to represent Karachi in a different light, one that most non-Pakistanis know nothing about. It’s a travelling stall so we’ll be moving around the city. The idea we are going for is akin to a burrito bar – you pick your base, your meat, your curry and then we have eight awesome toppings to choose from – from a prawn crumble to a home-made fiery chilli sauce.
What sparked your decision to go to culinary school?
I used to work at WWF while I was in Pakistan and then moved to London for my masters. I later got married here and worked at Developments In Literacy for a short while. I decided to go to culinary school because I have always been fascinated by cooking. Both my parents are excellent cooks and all of us are really into food, i.e. we are either eating it or talking about it – it drives everyone around us nuts. That combined with a desire to create something with my own hands – just creating something and having someone appreciate or critique it there-and-then is extremely satisfying.
What was the best part of going to culinary school?
The discipline I learned and the camaraderie I shared with the other students. Every moment spent at Le Cordon Bleu, my culinary school, was great but it was tough work, both mentally and physically. I am really proud of myself for being able to achieve all of that. I started from the very basics; I have had my pans thrown in the bin by chefs. It taught me to keep my chin up and keep going even when everything was going wrong in the kitchen. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have great chef friends working at top-notch spots around the world.
Why Khao suey? What’s so special or different about it?
This is the blurb we share with our customers : it is delicious and everyone can customize it according to their preferences. It is also a novelty in London – people love Ramen and curry so Khao suey is the perfect combination of the two.
“Noodles in Pakistan” – weird, right? The story of ‘Khao Suey’ in Karachi echoes that of ‘Curry’ in London. Something new and foreign that a city embraced wholeheartedly as its own!
What kind of Khao suey are you serving?
Chicken and beef both have completely different flavours.
Putting this stall together couldn’t have been easy. What were some of the challenges you faced?
I have had many ups and downs in getting Khao! on the road. My initial business partner and very close friend decided it was not for her and now has a beautiful baby girl who she wants to dedicate her time to. It was a rough patch for me, I was extremely overwhelmed and did not know how to make this concept a reality. Luckily through my close Pakistani connections, I found Adnan who is equally passionate about food and enjoys cooking and has helped me turn this concept into a full-fledged business.
What’s the plan from here?
I would love to see Khao! in a permanent spot hopefully serving other delicious treats from back home (fingers crossed). So far the response has been great. London is the best market to be in – people are so willing to try something new.
What message would you like to give to aspiring Pakistani women who want to go after what they want as their career choices?
Be brave and determined and do not get overwhelmed. Take it one step at a time, start small, see if you really want it. I spent one winter working an 18-hour shift scrubbing floors at a two-star Michelin restaurant. It was back-breaking labour but I was willing to do anything to get into this industry. It is difficult breaking out of the mould, but once you find something you are passionate about doors will open up for you. Also remember it is never too late to explore new skills and become a pro.