A Conversation with Chef Farhana

This article was published in the July 2017 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.

Whenever I return to Belfast, I make a point to eat dinner at one of the Indian restaurants in town – Bengal Brasserie, The Jharna, Mumbai 27. My favorite parts of those meals are the incredibly rich flavors of turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, garam masala, cumin…. They jump off my tongue like they are on a trampoline. The seduction is so complete that I always find myself over eating. Just one more piece of naan, I think to myself as my belly strains against the waistband of my jeans.

Using Jamie Oliver’s base curry paste recipe, I’ve managed to duplicate a version of the delicious dishes I dream about, but I’d like to come closer to those rich plates that are so lovingly stuck in my mind from Belfast.

So when I learned about Farhana Sahibzada a chef and teacher of Indian and Pakistani cooking, I had to learn more. She immediately drew me in with her warm and welcoming personality, peppering her stories with spurts of easy laughter. I was mentally checking my calendar, wondering when I could sign up for one of her cooking classes, but before I could get any further, she told me about her life and love of cooking and culture.

Sahibzada immigrated to the United States in the 90s. She calls California home. Sahibzada’s husband, a physician, thought they should have a business. Their children were growing up, so Sahibzada would have time to invest in a new venture. From the beginning Sahibzada resisted the stereotypical Pakistani/Indian businesses she saw around Los Angeles: “don’t tell me a 7-eleven or a gas station.”

She wanted to take on something she would enjoy. A coffee shop and café from her childhood in Lahore called Gogos became her inspiration. “How about we open up a cappuccino place? Sandwiches from East and West.”

She ran the café for seven years and recalls that time as one of great learning and labor of love. From the beginning she dreamt of turning the café into a small cooking school. In the mid 90s she was able to do so. Her first class, Basic Indian Food, filled up.

“Once you decide on a recipe, sit down with a cup of tea and breakdown the recipe in different steps,” she advises her students. Sahibzada gives herself a visual walk through first before making the recipe.

She believes that Indian cooking is simple, but people perceive it as complex.

Her interest in food developed before she immigrated to the United States. She can still remember winters in the garden in Lahore. Her mother was an artist and turned their garden into an outdoor dining room, which Sahibzada remembers as always in bloom.

Years later as an adult, when she was living in Saudi Arabia in the 80s, she acquired almost four years worth of Bon Appetit magazines from an American family. Sahibzada was shocked by the “Cooking Class Column” where a chef would share her/his own recipe.

“In my culture, recipes are held tight. There’s not much sharing,” she said.

However when Sahibzada decided to cook professionally, she felt an obligation to get more information about the cooking traditions and recipes from her homeland. When she visits Lahore, her mother brings her to bakeries, cafes and restaurants across the city. Her brother invites chefs to their home.

In the beginning, Sahibzada was afraid to ask for the recipes because of the culture of holding onto them like tasty secrets, but she grew bolder and is no longer afraid to ask. Recently, she went to a well-known sweet shop and asked for a recipe and the owner took her to the dessert chef in the basement kitchen.

Although Sahibzada learns from the chefs in professional kitchens, she says that home cooks are the hidden gems. She taps into them as resources and always visits them in their kitchens. It’s common for wealthier families in Lahore to employ a cook.

But when she’s back in California, her adopted home, she relies on her own cooking prowess. She’s honest about the work it takes to prepare food day in and day out. “If I had to cook a meal every night, I couldn’t do it. I refuse to cook every night,” she said. Sahibzada cooks twice a week, making dishes that preserve well.

In her cooking classes she always asks: “By the end of the day, both genders are tired. What’s keeping you guys out of the kitchen?” As she recounted this to me I could picture a knowing grin on her face.

Ultimately she believes that, “Food becomes an excuse to talk about culture, to talk about so much more.” I don’t need an excuse to talk about food or culture, but I certainly wouldn’t mind brushing up on my curry-making skills in one of Sahibzada’s classes.

Her book ‘Flavorful Shortcuts to Indian and Pakistani Cooking’ (Trafford Publishing) won the 2014 ‘Beverly Hills Book Award’ as the Best International cookbook. You can find more information here: http://www.flavorfulshortcuts.com.


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