Familiar food, in unfamiliar places: a Karachi Kheer in South Holland

This story was originally pitched and sold to a newspaper, but since the publication isn't going ahead I'm posting it here.  

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Shahzad Kazmi is touting the benefits of agave nectar in the kitchen of Hills & Mills. The tiny town of Delft in south Holland is more known for being the birthplace of Johannes Vermeer than a hub for vegans, but Hills & Mills - which bills itself as a pure food cafe - is packing in fans of both.

Kazmi and his enterprising family have struck on a winning, and yet unlikely formula: turning popular South Asian food into hipster-friendly concoctions. Pakistani or Indian food isn't popular in Holland, let alone in this historic town in the southern province. But dishes like spicy nihari and haleem, the grains-and-meat stew, have been unlikely hits with the residents of Delft, along with the decidedly-unPakistani raw cocoa bars.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Kazmi - who arrived in Holland in 1976 as a 19-year-old and worked for 40 years in restaurants and catering - lifts the lid on a pot for the dinner service: a familiar chicken korma, but with the addition of sweet potato. At Hills & Mills, the traditional South Asian rice pudding of kheer is made with soy milk - something that would perhaps be considered unimaginable in most households in Pakistan - but one that Kazmi insists gives it great flavor and colour. There are no sodas on the menu, which also features a quinoa salad and banana-mango bread.

It's a far cry from his hometown of Karachi, Pakistan, where quinoa is only just beginning to pop up in upscale restaurants.

"Cooking was always a hobby," Kazmi says. His father worked for the Pakistani air force, and Kazmi migrated to London at the age of 17, but then moved to Holland on an aunt's advice.

He would cook for friends, at social and religious events, and at home for his (now divorced) Dutch wife, and kids. "I love cooking and eating," Kazmi says. "I could only fry an egg when I was in Pakistan. I lived in England for a couple of years alone and I learned how to make lamb chops, that sort of thing. But when I came to Holland and had a proper family life, that is when I started cooking properly and stocked the house with lentils etc."

But the transition from a home cook to the chef of an organic food restaurant seems like a leap, particularly given the stereotypes surrounding South Asian food as being unhealthy.

"You're not considered a good cook in Indian or Pakistani restaurants if the food isn't oily," Kazmi says.

Turning Pakistani dishes into paleo food seems like a tall order, but one that the family seems to have taken up as their personal challenge.

His sons - entrepreneurs Sheraz and Nawaz Kazmi - hit on the idea of taking their father's culinary skills and incorporating new food trends into a restaurant. Hills & Mills opened in the summer of 2012. Three years later, the cafe, which seats 30, is often booked to capacity. It helped that they opened in Delft, where nothing similar existed, and at the cusp of people discovering organic food and gluten-free diets.

Sherryl, the Hills & Mills manager, and Kazmi's daughter-in-law has seen dietary requirements multiply in the three years since the restaurant opened. "These days everyone has an allergy or an intolerance," she says. "We get lists - 'we can't eat this, we can't eat that' - but it's fine. We want to serve anyone. We don't have allergies ourselves but it's really hard for people who have a list of requirements to find a restaurant they can eat at and feel welcome. Sometimes it is difficult, but it is rewarding when five people come up and they have a different requirement and you can make them happy."

Sheraz Kazmi says that while his father sometimes has to be convinced about using certain ingredients or lowering the spice factor, he is the first to say that they can adapt recipes if they know what people need.

The familial nature of the business and the cafe is paying off - the family has ventured into opening up a salad bar in Delft. While some competitors have cropped up, the Kazmis believe what sets them apart is the soul of the restaurant: Shahzad Kazmi, who is branded as 'Papa Kazmi' - a name apparently bestowed upon him by a loyal customer. Kazmi credits his family's hard work, prayers, and authenticity: "People aren't stupid. They know what the real thing is."

Kazmi's fame is set to spread further: a cookbook featuring his recipes and sepia-tinted photos of Kazmi and his family over the years is being released this December. (Available here)  It features stylised images of the dishes, which is a rarity for Pakistani cuisine, given the stodgy look of most curries. Kazmi shows off the meatball curry for Wednesday's dinner - the meatball is almost tennis-ball sized, so it "looks good" in a bowl instead of just a couple of smaller ones. But ultimately, it's the taste that trumps everything.

"People say there is a lot of taste in my cooking. Whatever I make is with a lot of love," Kazmi says. "Anyone can cook, but no one can cook the same way. There is a difference."

Kazmi, who is 60, says he is happy to have his own venture, but might retire in the next decade. For now, he is enjoying the unexpected success and unfamiliar ingredients, as well as being the toast of Delft. "Customers just say - 'Papa Kazmi, make whatever you want.'"