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The Spark We All Need in Our Lives

Chef Aida Khan, who is the Founder of the restaurant SHOLA – Karachi Kitchen in London
and Islamabad, brings a colourful, desi cuisine to your doors. Recognized for its homemade taste
and fine quality, Shola offers a wide range of traditional recipes that run in Aida’s family.
Let’s dig in to find out what Shola – Karachi Kitchen is all about!

TTI: Aida, tell us about yourself and what pulled you towards the culinary world.

AK: Food has always been a big part of my world from a young age. My father was an avid foodie and my mother loved to cook, so it is literally a part of my DNA. My father left Pakistan in his 20s. We grew up in the UAE and he really wanted to make sure his children had the same food experiences and memories that he did.

All our trips to Pakistan over the summer holidays involved exploring different parts of Karachi for an authen- tic food experience. I spent most of my life outside Pakistan – first Abu Dhabi, then the United States for college, and finally London for my Master’s and now work. The expat life really makes you appreciate Pakistani food much more. I completed my Master’s in London when my older son was two years old. I ended up cooking a lot more at home while entertaining friends. I really wanted my children to have the same

food experiences as I did growing up, so I started researching for my family recipes. I eventually studied at Leith’s School of Food and Wine because I wanted to take my home cooking to the next level and take the leap into commercial cooking.

TTI: You are the owner of Shola – Karachi Kitchen, which offers a wide variety of desi, homemade food. What inspired the name plan?

AK: Shola or spark in English, is the first flame when we light up our BBQ grill. I felt it was a great way to get across the feel of igniting a spark for our food culture to a wider audience while also keeping the authentic food flavors of Karachi alive in Islamabad. Shola was always going to happen. As someone who is incredibly passionate about our food heritage, I felt there was a gap in celebrating it in its true form in the cities I lived in – London and Islamabad.

The menu at Shola is based on traditional family recipes that have been passed down in my family over generations. The true inspiration for all the dishes simply comes from wanting to pay an homage to the traditional cooking techniques found in the kitchen of our grandparents. We really focus on going back to the roots of the food. All our masala is roasted and ground in our kitchens. We don’t use any additives or colouring. It is simple, slow cooking the way it has been done for generations.

TTI: Does your restaurant chain incorporate food flavors of Karachi only or combines culinary finesse of other regional cuisines across Pakistan too?

AK: Karachi’s cuisine is an amazing melting pot. It is possible to find food from all over the country in one city. Our restaurant represents the diversity of Karachi and our menu has many
influences from all over Pakistan.

TTI: London is home to a large Muslim community. How well have Londoners responded to your business, and do Muslims, mainly of Pakistani heritage, make most of your customers?

AK: The response has been phenomenal in both London and Islamabad. It is especially an honour to share our incredible cuisine with the people over in London. Our restaurant is located at a site with many offices, so our lunch time clientele is very diverse with 80
percent of our customers not being South Asian. We have stayed true to our ethos of serving traditional food so we do not adjust the spice levels. Our chicken tikka is fiery hot and a firm
favourite. Even I struggle with high spices but people love it!

For dinner, we see more people travelling to the restaurant from different locations, looking for Pakistani food that they can enjoy in a fun and welcoming environment with friends
and family. My sons are often there after school and we have plenty of options to please even the pickiest of eaters. We cater to a diverse clientele from all backgrounds and it is heart-warming that our food is appreciated by them as well.

TTI: How do you ensure a fine dining experience for your clientele?

AK: We ensure that each guest has an individual experience. Each guest is treated like a VIP. We remember names, faces and how guests like certain dishes. Our service style is fast but that does not mean we are brusque. There is attention to detail in everything we do; how we welcome our guests, how we explain our cuisine to them and how we take their orders. It is a conversation, not just us taking your order and handing over food. When you dine at Shola, you are getting the full Pakistani hospitality experience.

TTI: What are the checks and balances of food hygiene at your restaurant? 

AK: The way I keep checks and balances at Shola is by being very involved and hands-on in the kitchen. Everything is made every day with fresh ingredients. Even our spices are ground in-house. Everything is tried before we serve to our guests, and if something does not meet the standard I have set, we are perfectly fine starting from scratch.

My team knows that I would rather get a dish right than try to get something below standard out of the kitchen. We all make mistakes and I am the first to admit when I have made one, or cooked something that just didn’t turn out right. I would make sure it is redone.

TTI: What is more important in your view: speed of service or quality of food?

AK: We categorize ourselves as a fine- casual dining experience, so as important as the speed of service is, we don’t let that get in the way of the quality of food we serve our guests. Nothing leaves the kitchen if it is not up to our high standards.

TTI: What is key to making a stellar desi dish?

AK: For me, picking fresh produce is key. It really makes a big difference in a dish.

TTI: What mistake do you think restaurateurs often make in the food industry?

AK: Getting too attached to the menu. There will always be things that might not work out despite how much you love them. Don’t take it personally. Learn from it and allow your menu to evolve.

TTI: Many restaurants purposely keep customers from reviewing their subpar dining experiences on social media. What is your game plan to foster constructive reviews of your business?

AK: We don’t avoid bad reviews. For us, as a start-up, bad reviews are learning opportunities and we pay attention to them. If the customer is open to it, we invite them in for another experience. I strongly believe that some of your most loyal customers are unhappy customers that have been converted. All feedback is incredibly valuable to us. 

TTI: Moving on, what pearls of wisdom have you taken with you from Leith’s School of Food and Wine? 

AK: Many! The most important for a

restaurant is definitely the balance between getting food out on time under pressure and maintaining quality. It takes quite a skillset to manage that and I really feel Leith’s has prepared me well.

The worst thing you can do during busy service is panic before you serve the food. I really believe in the notion that your energy is transferred into the food you cook. So, if I am stressed out, I am sure my guests will be able to taste that in my food.

TTI: What are you most proud of as a businesswoman?

AK: Flying the flag for Pakistani cuisine in London is definitely something I feel incredibly proud of. Also, it has been wonderful sharing the recipes of past generations and preserving the essence of our traditional cuisine in Islamabad and in London.

TTI: What is your success mantra?AK: Be true to yourself and to your work. Be humble. Never, ever stop learning. There is so much more to do, always.

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