from the kitchen

With Love, Pakistan tastes like warm chai and nostalgia

Courtesy of Adam Sudmann

With Love, Pakistan serves up traditional Pakistani dishes by Sarah Robin, a refugee from Pakistan and the current entrepreneur-in-residence at Onondaga Community College’s teaching restaurant.

The little restaurant on North Salina Street had been open for 30 minutes, and it was already packed. Trays stocked with traditional Pakistani dishes flew out of the kitchen and some customers were already digging into some lamb chops and taking sips out of their warm pink chai.

With Love, Pakistan has been open since December, but it’s no ordinary dining establishment. As Onondaga Community College’s teaching restaurant, With Love provides training for immigrant chefs. They complete a six-month residency specializing in a cuisine from their homelands.

The idea came from an OCC workforce grant, said Adam Sudmann, the program manager. With this business-culinary venture, Sudmann hopes to bring people together by celebrating diverse cultures.

“By some estimations, Syracuse is the eighth most segregated city in the nation, so we figured food is a great way to break those walls down and get people to mingle, and restaurants are a great way to do so,” he said.

The restaurant kills two birds with one stone, giving resident chefs practical, hands-on experience while simultaneously diversifying the tastes of the neighborhood.

Conversation and music flowed easily on a sunny Friday evening at the restaurant. Blue walls decked with world maps match a blue futon on the floor that serves as seating. The customers take off their shoes and sit down together on the floor.

The seating situation was adored by Anya and Owen Reckess, six and nine-years-old respectively, who beelined for the cozy corner as soon as they entered the establishment.

“The corners are the best seats,” Owen said, taking off his shoes and hurrying into one. Both Owen and Anya enjoyed their pink chai and butternut dal, a lentil dish, but Owen declared the fish special his favorite as soon as he bit into it.

“The fish isn’t hard — it’s squishier so it’s easier to eat,” he explained.

Approving remarks are the norm at With Love, Pakistan, the current entrepreneur Sarah Robin said. Robin is a refugee from Pakistan and came to Syracuse about four years ago.

Despite not knowing how to cook professionally before, Robin, with the help of the entrepreneur-in-residence program at OCC, found not just a knack for it, but also a livelihood.

“People really like my food,” Robin said. “And when they ask about my food, they ask about me, that’s the way I connect with people.”

ftk_courtesy

Courtesy of Adam Sudmann

Robin serves customers seven specialty items: apple pakoras and chaat papri, both crunchy savory items as appetizers; followed by haleem, a dish flavored with 37 different spices; lamb chops and butternut dal as entrees; and finally, a gajar halwa, a carrot-based dessert overloaded with sweetness.

Beverages include coffee from Salt City Coffee and the customer favorite pink chai, drizzled with crushed pistachios.

Although the dishes on the menu are doing well, Robin wants to completely revamp it to say goodbye to colder days and welcome warmer ones.

“It’s so amazing and warming,” she said about the gajar halwa. “But it’s summer time now, I’m going to change it and make it something different.”

Each dish on the menu has a lesson-plan and goal behind its making, like soup, slow cooking, knife skills or in the case of the gajar halwa, nostalgia.

Robin talked about how it wasn’t easy settling down in a place completely different from her hometown of Lahore, Pakistan. She came to the United States with her husband.

“I feel so blessed coming in this country because this country has given me so much, more than my own country and it was not easy in the starting,” Robin said. “It was not difficult also, because of Catholic Charities and so many different NGOs (non-government organizations) and programs that help out.”

Robin wants to start her own café after her residency at With Love is finished. She already has plans and recipes that focus on sweet tooth indulgences at her dream café, “Punjabi Girl.” She is definitely more confident about her future, thanks to the compliments from customers.

“The best thing I have heard is when people said it’s the best food of their lives,” she said, smiling happily. “Many people have told me, and I’m going to hear it again in few more minutes when they’re leaving. It’s a really huge blessing.”

Nobody knows yet which country’s cuisine will grace the restaurant-front six months from now — Sudmann is still playing around with ideas.

“We have a lot of people here from the Middle East, South-East Asia, from the horn of Africa, so that might be a possibility,” he hinted. “Something good.”

Sudmann also wants to incorporate more local produce in the menu and have dishes that are more seasonal. He has worked with specialty grocery stores and produce before as the owner of My Lucky Tummy, another pop-up restaurant series showcasing the traditional foods of immigrants who participated.

With efforts like these, Sudmann wishes not just to capture the refugees of Syracuse in a conversation, but really anybody who wants the chance to witness a myriad of cultures, both refugee and otherwise, in the same place.

Said Sudmann: “It’s nice to get a little bit of blending. That’s what kitchen culture and restaurant culture is good at. My hope is that it’ll make people less isolated.”

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