Chef to the stars, Saima Khan serves up homecoming feast in Pakistan

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Celebrity chef Saima Khan’s signature Persian slow-cooked lamb, a version of which was served in Lahore with meat donated by local butchers. (AN photo by Saima Khan)
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Celebrity chef Saima Khan’s signature Persian slow-cooked lamb, a version of which was served in Lahore with meat donated by local butchers. (AN photo by Saima Khan)
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Updated 23 January 2020

Chef to the stars, Saima Khan serves up homecoming feast in Pakistan

  • For Khan it has been a homecoming years in the making

LAHORE: Chef Saima Khan has cooked for billionaires, Hollywood’s A-list, royalty and US presidents. But, until earlier this week, she had never served up a feast or run a restaurant in Pakistan, where her parents were born.

The charity fundraising dinner in Lahore, at a new pop-up restaurant called Fred, attracted tycoons, artists, actors and philanthropists. Mezze dips, ruby red pomegranates and other delights adorned the tables. Guests tucked into dishes with their hands, laughing and chatting as they ate. There were no courses and no waiters. Khan chose black jeans, sneakers and an apron over a chef’s hat and white jacket.

For Khan it has been a homecoming years in the making.

She was born and raised in London, spending two decades as a commodities broker and investment banker although she was always a creative cook and warm host to friends.

But it was a chance meeting in 2012 with billionaire Warren Buffett in a Nebraska airport lounge that changed the course of her life.

“Our conversation turned to relationships, the meaning of life ... and food. I told him I made a mean chicken karahi he should try. He told me he’d take me up on the offer,” Khan said, not thinking the “Sage of Omaha” was being serious. But she would come to know him as one of her dearest friends and mentors. 

Two weeks later she got a call from Buffett’s secretary, asking to set up a time for the home-cooked dinner she had offered in that remote airport lounge.

“It was bizarre. My first thought was ... somebody is joking with me. But I hadn’t told a soul I’d met Warren except for my parents.”

On the day of the dinner, in her small New York City apartment, Khan worked alone, preparing chapati dough, daal, chicken karahi, achari gosht, chicken biryani and other Pakistani staples.

Out came old Pakistani table runners, napkins and fabrics. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan played in the background. And then she received another phone call.

This time it was Buffett himself, asking if he could bring some friends. Khan joked that he could bring whoever he liked because she had cooked enough for 20 people. 

But she was surprised to later see Bill and Melinda Gates smiling at her doorway.

At one point in the evening Bill sauntered into Khan’s tiny kitchen and asked for butter with his chapati. “You realize after a while, it doesn’t matter who they are. People are just people in the end ... and there’s nothing like good food to truly connect with them.”

She was breaking bread around the table with four of the world’s richest people, while at the same time opening doors to a new life.

Buffet asked if she would consider catering a dinner for 20 people a month later at his Palo Alto home. She agreed.

She saw some very familiar faces that May evening when she stepped into the room to meet the guests she had cooked a Pakistani feast for the Obamas, the Clintons, the Zuckerbergs, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Ariana Huffington among others.

Since then, as founder and chef with her London-based catering company The Hampstead Kitchen, Khan has cooked for heads of state, celebrities and royals. Her firms employs almost 100 people.

Everyone on the payroll is either a former refugee, a former convict or formerly homeless men and women. Almost 70 percent of all business proceeds go to charities around the world.

In Pakistan she supports charities and runs three free schools built on land from her father’s village near Gujranwala, a city north of Lahore known for its wrestlers and food.

She has been a private chef for the royal families of Qatar and Europe, dishing up her creations in palaces around the world, in the White House, on private jets and at celebrity weddings. 

But her food and feasts have the same ethos wherever they are served and whoever they are prepared for.

In Lahore she told her guests how proud she was of her Punjabi heritage and of its culinary culture where people regularly ate from a single plate.

She cooks food from cultures where sharing is encouraged and loved - Middle Eastern, Persian, Scandinavia and Nordic. “That’s what sharing a meal is all about,” she said. “It’s about peace, love and kindness.”

Long-lost 19th-century travelogue sheds new light on Indian ruler’s historic Hajj

Updated 01 August 2020

Long-lost 19th-century travelogue sheds new light on Indian ruler’s historic Hajj

  • One of the most interesting aspects of Sikandar Begum’s account is her open criticism of Ottoman governance in Makkah
  • Imprecise library record had for decades obscured access to the original Urdu manuscript for researchers

WARSAW: History recently came to life in a manuscript with royal stamps discovered in the archives of SOAS University of London. The historic find? A tantalizing new insight into the journey of the first ruler from the Indian subcontinent to set out for Hajj. 

In November 1863, the ruler of the princely state of Bhopal, Sikandar Begum, began the sacred pilgrimage many other sovereigns of her time could not make for fear of losing power — in the 19th century, sea travel from India to Makkah meant long months of absence from the throne. Unlike them, Sikandar was safe. Her Hajj included a mission to compile a travelogue for those who guaranteed her reign.

Sikandar ruled Bhopal from 1844 to 1868. Her forefather, Dost Mohammad Khan, was a Pashtun warrior who, in the early 18th century, gained independence from the declining Mughal Empire and founded a new Muslim state in today’s Madhya Pradesh. Under British rule, for four generations, the country was led by women. Sikandar was the most reform-oriented of them all. She reorganized the army, appointed a consultative assembly, and invested in free education for girls. She was also the first Indian ruler to replace Persian with vernacular Urdu as the official language. 

In late January, SOAS librarians came across a title recorded in their archives’ catalogue as “Journal of a trip to Makkah by Skandar Baigam, Ra’isah’ of Bhopal. Bound manuscript in Urdu. Written at the suggestion of Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Marion Durand, 1883.” 

“I was really intrigued that such a beautifully bound-in-silk manuscript with obvious royal stamps in its colophon could be linked to such an opaque and short library record,” SOAS Special Collections curator Dominique Akhoun-Schwarb told Arab News.

“It quickly became obvious that there was a bit more story and depth behind the note ‘written at the suggestion of Maj. Gen. Sir Durand,’ when the author was a queen herself, a pioneer, since she was the first Indian ruler to have performed the Hajj and authored an account of her pilgrimage.”

Sikandar Begum ruled the princely state of Bhopal from 1844 to 1868. The photo was published in “A Pilgrimage to Makkah” (1870). (The Asiatic Society of Bombay via AN)

The imprecise note had for decades obscured access to the text for researchers. A deformed transliteration of Sikandar’s name had compounded the issue.

Until the chance discovery a few months ago, all scholarship on the Bhopal ruler’s pilgrimage had to rely on two translations of the text as the original Urdu version was missing for some 150 years. One of them was the abridgment of Sikandar’s account in Persian, compiled by her daughter, Shah Jahan Begum, and included in a state chronicle titled “Taj Al-Eqbal dar Tarikh-e riyasat-e Bhupal.” The other one, “A Pilgrimage to Makkah,” is an English translation by Emma Laura Willoughby-Osborne, wife of Col. John William Willoughby-Osborne, British political agent in Bhopal in the 1860s, which was published in 1870, two years after Sikandar’s death. The two texts are quite different.

In the English version, Sikandar quotes a letter she received from Durand, the British colonial administrator mentioned in the SOAS record, and his wife: “He was anxious to hear what my impressions of Arabia generally, and of Makkah in particular, might be. I replied that when I returned to Bhopal from the pilgrimage, I would comply with their request, and the present narrative is the result of that promise.”

The letter is nowhere to be found in the Persian text.

A preliminary reading by Arab News of the original Urdu manuscript, which has already been digitized by SOAS, reveals that Durand’s letter is mentioned in the very first pages of the text. The correspondence and accuracy of other parts, however, are not immediately obvious.

In the preface to “A Pilgrimage to Makkah,” the translator, Osborne, said that the Urdu manuscript consisted of “rough notes” demanding some arrangement. According to Dr. Piotr Bachtin from the Department of Iranian Studies of the University of Warsaw, who studied female pilgrimage of the era and translated the Persian version of Sikandar’s account, the English translator’s note immediately raises questions regarding Osborne’s interference in the text.

Osborne’s assurance that the only license she had allowed herself had been the “occasional transposition of a paragraph” seems to be an understatement. From the reading by Arab News it appears that the text was heavily edited. As suggested by Bachtin, Sikandar might have been a “reporter” entrusted with a specific task and became an “incidental informer” in the service of the British Empire.

The most interesting aspect of the travelogue, which the newly found manuscript should soon verify, was Sikandar’s political involvement with and open criticism of Ottoman governance in Makkah. One of the most prominent instances of Sikandar’s criticism is the following:

“The Sultan of Turkey gives thirty lakhs of rupees a year for the expenses incurred in keeping up the holy places at Makkah and Medina. But there is neither cleanliness in the city, nor are there any good arrangements made within the precincts of the shrines,” Sikandar wrote, adding that had the money been given to her, she would have made arrangements for a state of order and cleanliness. “I, in a few days, would effect a complete reformation!“

Sikandar’s political commitment is noteworthy. For some reason it is completely missing from the Persian version of her text. “Only in the English translation, she openly criticized both the Pasha and the Sharif of Makkah, going as far as to say that she would have managed Makkah better herself!” Bachtin said, “However, we must remember that her book was commissioned by Sir Henry Marion Durand. For me, this paradoxical dynamic is particularly interesting.” 

With the original manuscript now available to researchers, further study should soon reveal how much of the Hajj account was informed by the colonial circumstances Sikandar faced at home, and to what extent it was guided by her own ambitions to be a modern and reformist Muslim ruler.