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Seattle’s Karachi Kitchen hopes to raise awareness of Pakistani culture and cuisine

UPDATED: Fri., April 1, 2022

Sadaf Ahmed, left, and her mom, Kausar Ahmed, are the owners and chefs at Karachi Kitchen, a company specializing in traditional Pakistani spice blends and chutneys they create and market themselves.  (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)
Sadaf Ahmed, left, and her mom, Kausar Ahmed, are the owners and chefs at Karachi Kitchen, a company specializing in traditional Pakistani spice blends and chutneys they create and market themselves. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)
By Jackie Varriano Seattle Times

Kausar Ahmed is on a mission to teach people about the cuisine and culture of Pakistan. Born in the country’s capital city of Karachi, Ahmed is a longtime chef, food stylist and instructor. She has taught countless people how to cook through in-home classes and a television show in Karachi.

Since moving to Seattle four years ago, she has been working as a chef instructor with Project Feast, a Kent-based nonprofit that helps refugees and immigrants “transform their lives by providing pathways to sustainable employment in the food industry,” and she teaches classes through PCC Community Markets.

The first thing she noticed when she moved to Seattle from California was the absence of Pakistani restaurants. Despite a growing Pakistani community in Seattle and Bellevue, there was a general lack of awareness about Pakistani culture and cuisine, in Ahmed’s eyes.

“I felt really strongly I had to make a point of talking about it; how are we different, what is Pakistani cuisine, and how does it stand out,” Ahmed said during a call that included her daughter Sadaf Ahmed.

At the prompting of Sadaf, a longtime artist and designer, Kausar published a cookbook in 2017 titled “The Karachi Kitchen: Classic and Contemporary Flavors of Pakistan.” The book is a collection of family recipes passed down through generations, and stories from Kausar’s life as a cook and mother.

In 2019, the mother-daughter team launched its biggest project yet – geared toward educating people about the flavors of Pakistan – a line of chutneys and spice blends, also called Karachi Kitchen. Kausar delivers the cultural expertise, and Sadaf is responsible for the packaging design and their website. The project started with Spicy Green Coconut Chutney – one of the recipes from the cookbook – and soon grew to include a full line: tamarind date, spiced plum and spicy mango chutneys; and chaat, fish, roast beef, garam and smoked tandoori masala blends.

The flavors of Pakistan often get confused or misidentified as belonging to Indian cuisine – a mischaracterization Kausar has come across frequently. She laughs as she recounts a story about a man who hired her as a personal chef and kept requesting Indian dishes, and how she had to remind him she was Pakistani.

“The question I’ve always had is, ‘Pakistani? You mean Indian, right?’ People don’t know the difference,” Kausar says.

While there are some similarities – after all, Pakistan was once a part of British India until partition in August 1947 split the region – the differences are what Kausar wants to highlight.

“There are spices that are more prominent in Indian cuisine and not ours, like asafetida and a lot of turmeric, which we don’t use so intensely. It’s not only the flavors; it’s the aroma as well,” Kausar says.

“For me, the flavors are paramount,” Sadaf adds.

Kausar isn’t trying to define Pakistani cuisine – there’s no way it can be distilled to one thing. Rather, each region has specialties. Karachi is a port city that highlights seafood dishes, so the fish masala spice blend, designed to be used as a marinade, combines fenugreek, coriander, black pepper, chili flakes and dried lemon with sugar, cumin, cinnamon and chaat masala.

Street food is very popular, Kausar says – especially beef. The roast beef masala is a rub with dry coconut, cinnamon, black pepper, mustard, fennel, cardamom, cumin, black pepper, coriander and clove.

“Chutneys and relishes are a great part of our culture. We have to have a couple of them on the dining table. Growing up, I did, and my mother, too,” Kausar says.

The chutneys in the line are designed to further enhance the flavors of rice dishes, curries and stews.

While they have received tons of positive feedback from other Pakistani immigrants in the area, Kausar laughs when she says she tells them, “You’re not my target market!”

Their products have been available at farmers markets and online, and Sadaf says she’s working to further distribution. “Our main goal is to distribute across Washington state,” Sadaf says.

In addition to working on distribution and growing the Karachi Kitchen line to include even more spice blends and chutneys, Kausar is creating a second cookbook, specifically on the regional cuisines of Pakistan that each have dishes not commonly available or known outside of small communities in her home country.

Kausar says it’s an ongoing process, but one she loves.

“Everybody has their own goals in life, and this is our goal. It’s just been wonderful,” Kausar says.

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