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Gourmet girls: Blessed by food

September 23, 2012

The food industry knows no saturation point, especially in a city like Karachi where everything culminates with food, even a burial. Three enterprising foodistas have combined their passion for cooking with good business sense to create a loyal clientele that’s hungry for more.

Reema Sharif’s Thai menu is so popular that invitations to dinners come with the promise, “There’ll be Reema’s fish and chocolate gateau.”

On a holiday to Thailand she attended a Thai cookery course. Back home when she reproduced the food for her family and friends, it wowed them so much they wanted encores. Word spread, orders started pouring in and she started full-time catering around nine years ago. “I love to cook for people who appreciate good food,” she says.

“The good thing about working out of my home is that there are no overheads. I have made no major investments. I cook in my home kitchen and buy equipment as and when needed. I have trained my personal help to assist me and no outside staff is hired. I buy fresh ingredients daily, based on the orders, and keep a stock of dry items.” Reema doesn’t need to advertise. Her clients, coming from all walks of life, have spread by word of mouth and they know what they want to order. A three course Reema meal may set you back around Rs5000 but her servings are generous enough to feed all your friends at one go.

Saira Faruqi worked as an interior designer, a jewellery designer and a software designer before she started designing cakes. “Cooking and baking are also a form of creative art — my favourite so far.” Her dream of a home-based catering concern materialised when Kidz Club hired her as their official caterer. Her first order was for their kids’ party and that’s how her sweet and savoury lines, Sugar Plum and Pepper Lime were born three years ago.

Saira has a tiny kitchen with a tiny hob and some basic pots and pans, and buys material as needed, like some of her baking equipment which she bought from the US. Currently she can bake only one cake at a time and two or three-tiered cakes take hours to prepare. She needs to increase productivity to meet the growing demand and work on kitchen extension is underway. This will require a major investment; a basic oven costs Rs60,000 to 70,000, and that’s just the oven.

Saira has a staff of three for preparatory work like cutting, chopping, assembling, weighing and mixing. Everyone, including herself, multitasks. She handles the 3D shapes and decoration for the cakes. Saira is proud of the fact that she uses local and organic ingredients. It supports local business and keeps prices down.

At Rs350 for a two-person serving, her khaosuey is hard to beat. The cakes are at par with market rates. They range from Rs450 per pound for plain cakes to Rs1,500 per pound for the artsy ones that require intense labour. The profit is good, with no overheads and no wastage because of her pre-ordering policy. Marketing is by word of mouth. “An honest product sells,” she says.

Samar Hussain is a self-confessed gastronome. “My love of food is inherent: my father and grandfather are both phenomenal cooks and even bigger foodies — so I’ve been eating Michelin star food from around the world since childhood.

“I have had formal training from Leiths, a leading cookery school in London, and I have attended over 30 specialised short cooking courses from schools all over England ranging from Cordon Bleu to Smashing Pans for everything from cupcakes and back to macaroons.”

Samar took all these courses just out of interest, to learn how to cook for friends and family. At that time she had no intention of making it her career. When she needed a career change (she was teaching art at Indus Valley), catering was the most natural choice.

For Samar, cooking and the love of food is expensive and time consuming — her investments include an awesome stove and oven, excellent pans, expensive knives and, “for an ingredients junkie like me, lots of pots of weird and whacky stuff to enhance flavours”. Help is essential to her work. She prefers hiring novices and teaching them her cooking techniques from scratch. Local cooks’ pre-learned techniques, like using corn flour as thickener, tend to make the food commercial, “I’m a perfectionist — I prefer to allow a sauce to boil down rather than thicken it with flour. It’s more labour-intensive but also more rewarding.”

Samar has two lines of food. San-Which, her line of gourmet sandwiches, is her very special baby born incidentally just six months ago; the sandwiches are not cheap but considering her ingredients are imported and top quality, she thinks they are fair price. Her other catering line is more expensive, proportionate to the ingredients used. “I don’t mind sacrificing profits over quality. I would rather wow clients with a great dish than fleece them with an average one.”

The Chateaubriand with Wild Mushroom sauce, Lasagna, Hoisin Chicken Rolls, Beef Bourguignon, Peking Chicken, and Butterscotch Trifle are some of the items from her extensive menu that are popular with her large and almost fan-like clientele. “They know what I cook and keep coming back for more. Most San-Which customers order several times during the week.

I cook because I enjoy cooking and because I love the ingredients. Is it worth it? To be able to do what I love everyday and to think about it all the time and be able to make it my life — yes, I’m blessed by food!”