There is much to be said about Berlin and the tone it sets for multiculturalism in Germany.
While the country has seen an influx of migrants in recent years, the German capital has been considered the most international city in the country, so much so that some locals joke about Berlin not being a part of Germany at all.
It is known for being multi-cultural or ‘multi-culti’ as the locals say it, and the food plays an important role in that, and I’m not just talking about döner kebabs.
Berlin offers a wide variety of authentic Vietnamese Pho, Japanese Ramen and Indian curries. While some may argue that there is no obvious difference between Indian and Pakistani food, a true enthusiast would know that there is quite a unique difference in masalas, flavours and family recipes.
And while Indian restaurants have gained popularity around Berlin, one would be hard pressed to find restaurants that are Pakistani. And then I found Mama Shabz.
I met up with Mama Shabz - Shabnam - at a kitchen space that she rents where she and her friend prepare large pots of channa or chickpea curry to prepare for their pop-up at a street food market in Berlin.
She has a usual spot at the market where, when you enter, you are faced with narrow little streets filled with stalls serving food from around the world. Japan, Nepal, even ‘traditional German’ cuisine. Speaking to Mama Shabz while I borrowed her shortly from the kitchen, she shared her story of how she began becoming the one-woman-show of authentic Pakistani food in Berlin.
Mama Shabz started her little food business in Berlin because desi food here was generally known to be mediocre and substandard. After moving to Berlin from the UK, Shabz had gone to a desi restaurant where she got a tortilla when she asked for a roti.
“[We] went to a restaurant and they gave me a tortilla when i asked for roti” says Shabz. “And then I was like excuse me, this is not a roti, it’s a tortilla and they’re like no, no it is and I said you can’t do that, I’m brown.”
A while after this incident, Shabz tested out her cooking by doing a birthday picnic. She hasn’t been trained as a chef and did everything her mother had taught her. The food was a hit amongst her friends at the birthday picnic and so she did her first food pop-up in 2015, and it was a busy one.
“It was really successful, so I started doing more and there were a lot people coming that weren’t just my friends and that’s when I was like okay, this is crazy,” says Shabz. “Magazines were getting in touch with me asking me if they could put my event in... it was all a bit like...I just did this because I thought the food was rubbish here.”
Since people continued coming to Mama Shabz’ pop-up, she was motivated to carry on and for the first two years, she did not have many desi people visiting.
The desis started coming recently in these last two years which was even more of an accomplishment for Shabz but also overwhelming and stressful. “Because they’re the biggest critics of course,” she says.
When Shabz moved to Berlin after working as a social worker for 10 years in London, everything started to fall in place for her despite not having a clear motive.
She knew she always enjoyed cooking and wished to open a cafe with her mother in London. She told her that she wanted to turn it into a mother-daughter business, but her mother laughed it off and said it’s too much work.
“That’s why I call it Mama Shabz, that’s one reason,” she explains. “Another reason is that when I used to live away, my mum always used to give me take-away boxes and my house-mates used to say ‘Oh, what did Mama Shabz bring now?’. So she’s always been Mama Shabz to me and this is why everything is inspired around her.”
Her menu has been a variety of experiments over the years and some research on what works well in a touristy German market. All of her recipes are inspired by what she saw her mother do her whole life. Her mother wasn’t keen on teaching her how to cook in her busy schedule, so Shabz learned all she knows by watching her.
During the pop-up stalls, Shabz does more traditional food like nihari, and that’s where all her Pakistani clients come. But at the food market, she realized that food like curry and rice and gol gappay don’t do so well. So she started researching ways she can do it well.
For instance, in her outdoor stalls, the pakoras do really well. But at the current food market, which is indoor and deep-frying and open flame isn’t allowed, she invented her pancake pakoras. And it was the same with her wraps, which consists of rice and channa chaat wrapped in a paratha.
“You call something a wrap and people will instantly buy it. So it's like I know for a fact that if I do channa chaat at the market, it wont go so well, so I put the channa chaat inside the wrap with rice,” she explains.
Recently, Shabz has been getting a lot catering jobs as well, including music festivals, which is something she is excited about. In June, she set up a stall at Fusion Festival, one of the biggest music festivals in Germany and another festival at the end of August.
“This is the sort of vibe that I like to go for, basically trying to fit my personality into my work.” She says. All the cooking is done by Shabz in batches and her friend, Tim helps her prepare and also serves at their stall at the food market.
Although, being a Pakistani food stand hasn’t entirely been easy. In some cases, people have thought Mama Shabz to be a Mexican stand and not even desi. Yet at the same time, many South Asian women have come up to her and mentioned that they follow her on Instagram, and she has a number of Indian customers as well.
“That makes me really happy instead of like getting men turning their noses up at what I’m doing.” But when it comes to male clients, she says it’s 50-50. There are men who are genuinely interested in what Shabz is doing but then there are others who make a face at her and walk away.
“I had this one guy who was trolling me but he has never tasted by food but because I had a sold out pop-up, he hates me forever. And it’s a South Asian man.”
When Shabz started catering her food and starting building a clientele, it was also a way to educate people about Pakistani food as they had never had it before.
“Even the Pakistani restaurants here in Berlin call themselves Indian.” Shabz feels that this is because no one has educated the world about Pakistan especially in Germany, and everyone knows where India is even though Pakistan is right next to it. This led to Shabz trying to get people to visit Pakistan.
“It’s such a nice country with a different personality compared to India and I just want people to recognize it more.”
Every week at the food market, there are visitors that question Shabz about where Pakistan and what the difference is compared to the rest of South Asia. What has been most surprising for her is that she has had a couple of white people speak Urdu to her.
“Once a guy came and he was like “you have done your stand just like Pakistan. You know, I live in Islamabad and I go back tomorrow” and he was super impressed that it wasn’t fake. Because there are a lot of tacky restaurants out there,” she said laughing.
But it is a lot of hard work, and she feels it is harder being a woman in the food business and also being the main face of the business.
Majority of the South Asian restaurants in Germany are run by men. And this was something she noticed in the UK as well and she feels this is also why she doesn’t have as many male supporters as her female fans.
“They get threatened when a woman does it and they get a bit scared,” she explains. “In the South Asian community, it’s like women have to be below the men. And this is why we can’t really do creative things and be bosses,” she adds.
She had an incident where a desi restaurant owner wanted to do a pop-up with her but the head chef there refused to even look at her.
“He wouldn’t even acknowledge I was there and when you're doing a pop-up with someone, you do the menu together,” she explained. “They just wanted my clientele and wanted cooler clients coming to their restaurant and he openly said he wanted to take some of my Lahori recipes.”
Running a pop-up every week is no easy task when you’re a one-woman team with a helper. The most challenging aspects have been carrying kilos and kilos of onions and other ingredients, loading and unloading vans and building a wooden stall when serving at music festivals.
Shabz had been looking passively for a cafe in Berlin and finally came across a place she liked in November last year but the owners didn’t get back to her. This year, after making her application, she heard back from them and was finalised as the new rentee of a cafe space in one of Berlin’s hippest areas.
“That was always the bigger plan, because it will be a lot more different when I have my own kitchen so I don’t have to do this constant loading and unloading and I’d rather just have things delivered. There will be renovations happening and it will hopefully be finished in September.”
Her mother is going to help her set up the cafe and with the cooking, so her life-long dream of having a cafe with her mother will partially be fulfilled.
Her concept for the cafe is to have a place for people to just come and have chai the way we used to with our families back home. For the menu, she is planning to “have chai - kaava and kashmiri - and just have street-food snacks".
"I’ll have a vegan plate and meat plate, a weekly menu rotating. And hopefully on the weekends I’ll do a weekend special. Maybe just have like breakfast one weekend, do haleem another weekend and things that are more time consuming to make and then I’ll have it through the weekend,” Shabz explains.
She does not want to have a hipster coffee shop which are a dime a dozen in this city. “My vibe is home-food, home-feeling and [the cafe] is for people to come in and just have chai and samosas, that’s what we used to do,” she added.
What keeps her going are the goals she sets for herself. She has a goal every year, for instance this year her goal was to have a stall at Fusion Festival and the cafe was meant to happen next year.
“But that kind of like double-whammied this year. This could have gone really badly and I wouldn't have been here. It’s nice to hear that people are appreciating this and that's a really massive factor,” says Shabz.