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.”


Why the bidet is making a comeback in coronavirus-stricken West

Updated 04 April 2020

Why the bidet is making a comeback in coronavirus-stricken West

  • Long a fixture in Arab and Asian toilets, device is now getting a second look in US and Europe
  • Attention to bidets comes as toilet-paper rolls become a symbol of panic buying in the West

WASHINGTON, DC: As the number of COVID-19 cases in the US continues to swell, a declared national emergency and state-wide lockdowns have led to a run on all kinds of products, from face masks and hand sanitizers to bottled water and canned food.

Turning into something of a holy-grail product, toilet paper has become the symbol of panic buying, the new normal in consumer behavior.

Across the US, throngs of patrons are tearing through supermarket aisles, loading toilet paper into overfull shopping carts.

Companies that help supply this everyday paper product were caught flat-footed, as stockpiling has led to shortages resulting in whole aisles being wiped clean.

“The hallmark of a crisis is loss of control, the sense that you have no say over how your life will evolve,” said Adam Alter, author of the marketing book “Irresistible” and a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“One way to take back that control is to find it in places where it still happens to be available, particularly in how you spend your money and the kinds of things you acquire,” he added.

“Toilet-paper hoarding makes sense when you consider that in many — but certainly not all — cultures, there’s no obvious alternative to toilet paper. It serves a purpose that people consider a necessity, and once people begin to hoard toilet paper, they send a signal that the product is scarce and so those necessary needs might not be met.”

FASTFACTS

  • 57 Toilet-paper sheets used daily by avg. American
  • 36 billion Toilet-paper rolls used by Americans yearly
  • 15 million Trees lost to US toilet-paper consumption
  • 253,000 Tons of bleach used in making toilet paper for US

The White House issued a statement urging Americans to ease up on stockpiling: “Supply chains in the United States are strong, and it is unnecessary for the American public to hoard daily essentials.”

The American Forest and Paper Association said in a statement: “Rest assured, tissue products continue to be produced and shipped.”

Such reassurances have fallen on deaf ears. No matter how quickly toilet paper is replenished, it is not staying on shelves for long.The supply chain is strained and production has reached capacity.

That has motivated desperate Americans to look for alternatives, and “very few exist that won’t clog your pipes,” said Alter.

A growing number of people are turning to an Old World device that has finally begun to gain traction in the US: The bidet.

Toilet paper is not staying on supermarket shelves for long and production has reached capacity, motivating customers to look for alternatives. (AFP )

A bidet, popular in the Middle East and parts of Asia, is a bowl designed to be sat on or a water hose for the purpose of washing after using the loo.

During the past couple of months, various bidet manufacturers have been struggling to cope with skyrocketing demand.

“Due to the increase of bidets sales, many items are on backorder or out of stock with all of the main suppliers in the industry,” said hellotushy.com, a company that brands itself as a “team of crusaders, fighting for clean bums and reduced global wastefulness … and ultimately turning people into born-again bidet lovers.”

According to Jason Ojalvo, CEO of Tushy, “Things started ramping up on March 9 and hit an insane high on March 13. We had a few days where we sold over $500,000 a day, including a day where we hit $1 million in sales.”

Born in France in the 1600s, the bidet took centuries before arriving at its present-day version.

Americans were first introduced to the bathroom fixture during World War II. American troops stationed in Europe would often see bidets in the bathrooms of brothels, and so came to associate them with sex work.

Given the country’s puritanical past, the returning troops were reluctant to introduce the device to their homeland. It became associated with sin, French hedonism and sexuality.

The device continued to evolve and morph into different variations, including a mini-shower attachment connected to the toilet.

The popularity of the plumbed bidets spread in Western Europe, the Middle East and Asia, as well as Latin America.

The device is still ubiquitous in Italy, Argentina and many other places, even though it is disappearing from the country where it was created.

In the 1960s, the American Bidet Co. took another run at making the bidet more acceptable to Americans by adding a spritzing function to the seat.

Opinion

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The original inventor, Arnold Cohen, wanted to change the “habits of a nation, weaning us off” toilet paper.

Although he installed thousands of those seats all over New York, the result was a fiasco.

“Advertising was a next-to-impossible challenge,” Cohen said. “Nobody wants to hear about Tushy Washing 101.”

He gave up and left for Japan, a nation that actually listened to his message.

“Since the late 1800s, we have been led to believe that toilet paper does the job,” Miki Agrawal, the founder of Tushy, told Arab News via email.

“But all it does is cost us money every month (to the tune of billions of dollars per year if you add us all together), kills millions of trees per year, and causes chronic infections and disease down there.

“I mean, would you jump into your shower, NOT turn on the water, and start wiping down your body with dry paper?

“People would call you crazy! So why are we doing that to the dirtiest part of our body? It’s time to upgrade our toilet habit from dry toilet paper to a precise stream of clean water."

For his part, Jim Ace, a senior campaigner and action manager at STAND.earth, cautioned: “It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has access to clean water, so for some people, bidets simply can’t be part of the solution right now.

“But where possible, bidets are an affordable, environmentally responsible alternative to toilet paper that destroys forests and harms wildlife.

“Our current public-health and economic crisis has motivated Americans to look for alternatives.

A woman carries groceries and toilet paper in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP)

“Charmin toilet paper can cost more than $1 a roll, while portable bidets can cost less than $10 and bidet attachments can cost less than $50.

“Countries around the world already use bidets, and in the US they’re starting to make economic — and environmental — sense.”

Over a year ago, STAND.earth sounded the alarm over the havoc toilet paper was wreaking on the environment.

Largely made of fresh-cut trees, toilet paper involves chopping down globally important forests such as the Boreal in Canada, which has declined more than 9 percent since 2000 from logging.

Toilet paper harms wildlife, causes soil erosion and requires lots of energy, water and chemicals to produce, which in turn pollutes our air, water and climate.

“Wiping our bottoms with fiber made from trees makes no environmental sense,” Ace said. “We’re literally flushing our forests.”