A young British-Pakistani chef took Karachi’s Empress Market to London and added a new layer to the London food scene.
Numra Siddiqui is a young British-Pakistani chef, who is cooking up a storm and adding a new layer to the London food scene. For Numra, her second life began six years ago with a simple craving for the ever-so-humble snack – a bun kabab.
Throwing back to her pre-chef life, Numra trained as a filmmaker and journalist, working for the likes of the BBC.
While she was in between some freelance gigs, Numra’s career took a detour. London is lauded as a multicultural hub but up until a few years ago, the city was haunted by a bun kabab-shaped void. Numra set out to rectify this. Encouraged by her father, an entrepreneur by trade, she learned that running a food establishment went beyond just the food.
“My culinary experience comes from watching my mother’s cooking – from the yummy daal she made after school or the big dawats she would host,” Numra explains.
These are the same sights, sounds and smells that resonate with so many of us. The smell of frying onions, the symphony of flavor created by throwing in some zeera, haldi and laal mirch, and the heartburn that lingers post-feasts trigger memories of the irreplaceable variety. These memories were Numra’s training materials, her mother’s kitchen her school, and the strong women in her life, her teachers.
And so came Bun Kabab – a Pakistani thela with a menu dedicated exclusively to that one Pakistani staple.
Numra gave the bun kabab its own renaissance. From the flamboyant pink backdrop to the unique brioche bun, Numra added her own twist to the traditional snack. And so Bun Kabab found its way across London, spreading its masaledaar bun-print from east to west.
As the thela gained recognition, so did Numra. She received recognition by the BBC.
Fast forward to today and her humble food stall, Bun Kabab, has evolved into a contemporary Pakistani food startup, Empress Market. Dubbed by Numra as her shehzadi, Empress Market was the fruit of Numra’s yearning to expand her menu beyond the classic desi burger.
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Aanda Shami Beef Bun Kabab 🙌🏽the ultimate Karachi street food 🇵🇰 slow cooked topside beef steak in our home blend of garam masala, with a spiced omelette, my nan’s coriander chutney, tamarind sauce, kachumber salad all in a toasted bun 👩🏽🍳ONLY at Empress Market, Eat17 food hall, Hammersmith 💕open noon to 930pm 📷 @mackcamille
While the bun kabab makes an appearance in the Empress Market menu, so do other Pakistani darlings such as gol gappay, dum murgh karhai and baingan ka bhurta. Located in an edgy outdoor terrace in east London called The Pitch, Empress Market caters to all types of customers. From modern-day Londoners to nostalgic foodies, it is a must-visit spot. Through her shehzadi, Numra also hosts supper clubs with distinct themes.
Beyond her mother’s kitchen, Numra’s inspiration is embedded in her memories of Karachi.
“Karachi conjures up ideas of excitement. The beach, the camels, the markets,” she explains. For Numra, Empress Market that has always been a thing of fantasy and nightmares. From the fruit stalls and fabrics to the butchers and bizarreness, it continues to fascinate Numra, a Lahori by birth.
Numra’s fascination with Karachi is deeprooted in the sense that the city is a cultural melting pot. A place where culture and diversity are respected, both in people and food. It is a culinary nucleus that draws in many flavors and experiences. And its role in Pakistani cuisine cannot go unnoticed.
So what makes Empress Market different from London’s other Pakistani eateries?
Numra explains that the UK, and London specifically, is a western center for modern-day South Asian food. But the focus almost always remains on ancient historic food heritage and keeping traditional recipes intact. Empress Market does not attempt to do this. Instead, Numra tells her own story through her cooking.
“My food reflects my immigrant story”, she says as she describes her grandparents’ voyage from India to Pakistan and her parents’ voyage from Pakistan to the UK. “When my naani cooked she often used Carribean spices as many traditional spices would not be available”. The resulting dishes became a new form of Pakistani cuisine, and similarly, Numra’s own experiences play a role in her cookery.
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What a joy catering the Wood Party in West Sussex 👩🏽🍳Salads & cold plates inspired by traditional flavours for lunch. Chai & naan khatai for tea. Dinner was a classic Mughali Feast. Brunch service included seasonal fruit, desi omelettes & kheer topped with cherry sauce from my mum’s garden🍴 check out my insta story for the full menu ☀️ Sunshine, steel drums & chaunsa mangoes 🥭 A truly magical weekend ✨
Empress Market is beyond looking back – it is looking forward. Numra’s cooking is inspired by her Pakistani roots in tandem with the city that she lives in. Her food reflects where she has come from but also her current journey as a modern British Pakistani woman.
“There’s a level of narcissism to my food,” Numra explains. “I want people to know me when they eat my food”.
Quite candidly, Numra says that she does not want them to feel nostalgia. Rather, she wants her food to tell her stories. Her supper clubs act as a perfect outlet for her to tell her stories through carefully curated menus. Numra wants to prompt foodies to learn more about herself and her British-Pakistani identity. Growing up between Lahore and London, Numra developed a unique dual identity that is reflected in her culinary exploits. As a result, she is able to be as British as she wants and as Pakistani as she wants.
Even today, however, Numra faces the common struggle of a British-Pakistani. She often crosses paths with Pakistanis who belittle her version of Pakistani cuisine, reducing it to “an English version of Pakistani food”. But after years of managing her dual identities, she finds this amusing. It is a humble reminder of her privilege as a British-Pakistani and that she does not need to fit into a specific box. Her fluidity makes her experience special, along with her food.
Numra cherishes many recipes but a particular desi condiment holds a special place in her heart.
Chutney between the bun and kabab is the desi analogy to a cherry on top of a pie. And Numra’s coriander chutney is her ultimate cherry. Passed down her family’s matriarchs, this chutney stirs up mixed feelings for Numra.
On the one hand, it’s intricate history gives Numra a distinctive sense of pride when making it, along with a good chuckle. The recipe has been handed down from generation to generation when the woman marries but Numra’s acquisition strayed from the norm. Unmarried but curious to discover the secret to the sauce, Numra asked her naani. The response? “Magar iski toh shaadi hi nahi hooin hain!” Sounds all too familiar.
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Qween coriander chutney 👑you can’t have one of my baby girl Bun Kababs without some hari chutney ☘️it’s my family recipe so secret I promised my mum I’d never share it with anyone outside of the family🤫kinda makes it tricky scaling the business but hey if it keeps my BKs delish I’m happy 👩🏽🍳
Now onto the hate. “Blending that much coriander is a nightmare”, says Numra. Some days she finds herself picking hara dhaniya leaves out of her pockets, her fingernails and her sanity. But alas, this culinary heirloom is one of her favourite things to make – and hate.
While Numra has mastered her version of Pakistani cooking, she does not want to be viewed as just a South-Asian chef. She is a chef, capable of a multitude of cuisines, and her next venture is proof.
Numra has opened a new eatery called Mac Man which serves soulful mac and cheese with a helping of nostalgia as it plays on the beloved game Pac Man. This exciting new project is a testament to Numra’s versatility and curiosity as she explores new flavors and fusions.
Longer-term, Numra’s hesitation speaks to a generation of millennials. While she used to be a stickler for her five-year-plans, her attitude has changed in recent years. By adopting a more flexible approach Numra finds that she achieves much more than any to-do list demands. Her belief that “the universe has a wonderful way of sorting your life out if you have faith in it” is refreshing. Especially in a world of synchronized calendars, hefty checklists and aunties constantly asking about your future plans.
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5 years today posing with my baby Bun Kabab 💖 My name is Numra and I run Empress Market. I cook Pakistani food in London 🇵🇰💖🇬🇧 What started as nostalgia for Bun Kababs at a family picnic in Brockwell Park, has grown into a vision to share my cross cultural heritage. The journeys to Karachi watching the master Bun Kabab chefs, the unsung karigars of the city streets. Learning from them, aspiring to stand in their ranks. The privilege of cooking my grandmother’s recipes, the food stories she brought with her when she moved to Stockwell Road all those years ago. Bun Kabab x Empress Market extends beyond the food, to the stories about who I am and where I am going from here. This is my way of connecting with people around me to create my own special community. 💖 Ngl, running a business is hard 💪🏽Challenging my imposter syndrome along with being undermined as a young woman of colour is a constant battle. I am a chef (there I said it without feeling silly). I am business woman. No I am not doing this to bide my time before I get married. Empress Market is my bread and butter. Everyday is hard work and I’ve really tested my mental and physical health along the way 🤕 Running a business takes a lot of courage (and stupidity). But the hustle is built into my DNA. A heritage of people travelling across violent borders during the partition, across oceans for the hopes of a better future to the UK. My people, my family, are experts at starting from scratch, building something of their very own 🙌🏽 My name is Numra and I run Empress Market. If you’d like to experience my food stories through my Pakistani cooking, visit my POP-UP at The Pitch @pitchstratford this summer. Attend my SUPPERCLUBS, immersive Pakistani dining events. Or get in touch if you’d like me to CATER your party [email protected]
Without a doubt, Numra’s culinary talent, entrepreneurial drive and ability to tell a story within each bite will see her thrive. From murghi to macaroni, Numra has proved herself as a formidable chef and we at MangoBaaz are excited to see what she has in store next! If you find yourself hungry in the city, catch the next train Stratford and pull up a chair at Empress Market and taste the food that transcends borders, nationalities, and cultures.
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Cover image via empressmarket/Instagram