Chef-cum-food activist, Zareen Khan. —Photo by author

The aroma of fresh ginger and homemade garam masala immediately take over the kitchen as Zareen Khan places her famous gola kebabs and hara masala chicken skewers in front of me.

“I look around, and see what’s going on in the food industry and think it’s people like me who can make a change,” said Zareen the owner of Curry Village Foods, a local company that produces wholesome desi food in the Bay area.

Unlike most commercial Indian and Pakistani kitchens in the Bay area, you won’t find any preservative-laden and artificially flavored pre-made masala boxes or ginger paste jars in her kitchen. Zareen makes everything from scratch and all of her ingredients are natural.

“There is huge following in Berkeley and San Francisco, because they know the food is made from scratch,” said Zareen in an interview at her home in Saratoga.

“Pretty much everyone is using Shan masala boxes,” she said about Pakistani restaurants in the US. “And if you ask them, ‘who is your chef?’ It’s usually someone who isn’t Pakistan and is non-skilled.”

That’s why her scrumptious kebabs, light curries, and fragrant rice dishes have even made a mark in corporate catering in the Silicon Valley. In the last few months, she has catered business lunches and socials at the Stanford Hospital, Mozilla Firefox, Shutterfly, Semantic and the University of California, Berkeley.

An MBA graduate from IBA in Karachi, Zareen moved to the US after she got married. She started working after completing another master’s degree in Economics.

“When I came here, I would drink the milk and would think this is so pure. Little did I know that it’s a façade,” admits Zareen Khan.

“Behind it is just a corporation trying to make a lot of money. And now the same thing has transferred to Pakistan.”

Zareen started educating herself about the source of food, soon after she had her first child, 17 years ago. She later joined an organisation called The Weston A. Price Foundation, which is ‘committed to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism.’

“When I entered the food industry I realised that vegetables like ginger and garlic, are all coming from China.” Zareen explained that restaurants and food companies in the US are simply trying to minimise their costs without looking at the nutritional value of food.

“The way things are going right now, everything has pesticides in it.”

“All spices have to either be irradiated or fumigated before they cross the border.” Zareen said the process, which is known as core pasteurisation, “basically radiates the food which affects its DNA. So what are the benefits of spices then?”

Zareen buys natural and 100 per cent certified organic spices from www.Spicely.com, meat from a local certified Halal farm, and vegetables from her neighbourhood farmers market.

Her kitchen is stocked with raw milk from a local farm and homemade desi ghee. In her backyard you can find a pair of chickens, which give fresh eggs for the breakfast table.

But for years, food activism was something she kept to her own family. After working as a product manager for over a decade, she had enough of corporate America and wanted to do something closer to her heart.

Her husband Umair Khan, a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, suggested she go for her real passion: food. “I started with cooking classes,” said Zareen.

The classes, often theme-based, like ‘Desi Ishtyle Chinese,’ ‘Shaadi kay Khanay,’ and ‘Aroma and Spice all things nice,’ were soon sold-out.

“The way I do cooking classes, I get to talk about what’s going on in the food industry and how to be an educated consumer here.”

She also started offering all-natural frozen kebab packets to her students, which turned out to be very popular. Zareen then started selling her kebabs online on her website.

—Photo by author.

“Before we knew it, we were getting 400-500 orders. So then we went commercial and got the license.”

Besides corporate catering, Zareen now delivers gourmet lunch boxes around the South Bay, and her kebabs can be picked up from various locations around the Bay area.

“People are tired of restaurant food, they want healthy, home-cooked style. That’s the market we want to penetrate,” revealed Zareen, who on her website, urges customers to go for her lunch boxes “because it is time to Occupy Office Lunches, to protest preservative-laden, greasy blandness, and assert our right for fresh, gourmet lunches.”

“You won’t find daal makhni on my menu,” said Zareen “I am pretty focused on kebabs, the healthier, non-spicy, less oilier version.”

Zareen said many of her clients say that their children do not like desi food, “but they just love the kebabs.”

—Photo by author.

“A lot of the kebabs are going in the kid’s lunches. If I add spices, we are pretty much not letting them try our food.”

To balance for spice, she offers some interesting sauces like surkh mirch chutney and her ‘wicked spicy chutney’, which she says is inspired by Waheed Kebab’s chutney in Karachi.

“My parents are Memon, and initially we lived close to Burns road (in Karachi). So we got exposed to a lot of good food then.”

Surkh mirch chutney —Photo by author.

And a bite into any one of her shami kebabs, seekh kebabs, gola kebabs and/or hara masala chicken proves that Zareen has stayed authentic to traditional recipes. For the curry and rice dishes offered in corporate catering she takes more liberty with fusion cuisine.

“Right now my focus is corporate catering and introducing Pakistani food,” said the chef-cum-food activist.

With every meal ordered from Curry Village Foods, a meal is also donated to ‘a child in need’ through Doctors without Borders.

For Zareen Khan, being able to tell a different Pakistani story, one of its generous people, through its aromatic and traditional food is very important.

“In my own way I feel like I am an ambassador of my country.”

At a recent corporate lunch, one client had this feedback to give: “I wish you were in the room to hear all the gasps of amazement as our employees sampled the various dishes.

Those of our staff who were raised in India could not praise the food enough. As for those (to whom) some of the dishes were new, they eagerly went back to try new dishes (till) they realised that ‘everything’ was fabulous.”

Sahar Habib Ghazi is a journalist and founder of Hosh Media, an organisation committed to bringing youth voices on to the mainstream media in Pakistan.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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