Liberty Leaders: An Interview with Faaizah Rafiq of Fez Cooks

By Shama Mashroor and Faaizah Rafiq

Fez Cooks is not your typical food blogsite. For starters, it isn’t run by a Pinterest-perfect blonde living in some Pinterest-perfect American city with her 3 Pinterest-perfect little kids and husband. There are no guides for vegan casseroles or recipes with names like “Gluten Free Pumpkin Quinoa Biryani” (no joke, this is a real recipe). Instead, the lovely, accessible and down-to-earth site is run by a similarly lovely, accessible and down-to-earth British Pakistani girl from the UK. She is on a life-changing journey to learn to cook her mother’s recipes, with the hopes of inheriting her mother’s hands and recreating the tastes she grew up with. I recently got to catch up with Faaizah Rafiq, the person behind this unique immigrant daughter™ quest, and picked her brains about food, immigrant mums, influences and everything in-between.

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SM: So first things first, what inspired you to start Fez-cooks? What was the one thing, or moment, or place that made you think, “That’s it, I’m starting this project right now, I can’t wait any longer.”? (P.S. I saw that Julia Child quote in your “About” page, so I’m guessing that’s significant!)

FR: The starts of Fez-cooks are kind of dark much like my sense of humour, growing up and even now I love that taste of my mum’s cooking better than anything else I have ever tried. Even though I’m only 21, the thought that she won’t always be around does occur and I want to keep a part of her through these recipes. That, and the fact that I want to be able to make Chaat and Biryani whenever I feel like it. At the time, I’d just left a job I couldn’t stand and took a risk to make something just for me, about me and one night, I ended up making this website.

I’m glad you mentioned the Julia Child quote because I want to totally upfront: I am no Nigella domestic goddess who bakes cookies and makes perfectly round rotis. I burn dishes, break plates (not on purpose) and make the kitchen look like a bombsite. We are all human and we all have to start somewhere, I think that’s the essence of Fez-cooks.

SM: How did the website start to take form? How does it function now? Cause I really, really like your logo—it looks fantastic! Did you commission a friend to do it?

FR: The actual website was me on WordPress one night but I did take my time with the look and feel. I love visuals and honestly, I would still like to develop the site over time to better reflect me and my message. Nothing’s finished yet but I like that. The logo is something I commissioned my best friend to create (a.k.a she gave me a freebie). She really has a talent for seeing people as they are, and that translates into the work. I love lemons and cakes, and all the small elements together really capture me as a person. You can check out her instagram for more @sididthis.

SM: How did your mum react when you first told her about Fez-cooks? Does she act as a consultant for the recipes you publish?

FR: She is my muse and my first advisor. Without her years of experience, I would be lost. I like to see it as her generation connecting with mine—her recipes are from a time where you had two hours to cook every day, and people today hardly have thirty minutes with their busy lifestyles. I want to help translate those recipes and show how they can add value to our lives, how they can sweeten or spice up our days. It’s not always a smooth ride—we argue and make up like other mums and daughters but I think when I see the final dish on the table, everything is worth it (cheesy as hell but true).

SM: What are some of your favourite dishes prepared by your mum?

FR: I think my favourite is obvious but no doubt it’s my mum’s out-of-this-world Biryani. It has given me a lot of fond memories and without fail, it’s there every year on Eid. Biryani is like heaven meets masala and rice and it’s actually the recipe I am next featuring on my site. Another favourite is her Dahi Baras, which is a combination of Chaat, spiced up yoghurt and fried dumplings made with lentils. It’s great for summer evenings when it’s hot and you want something refreshing and packed with flavour.

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A gorgeous plate of Aloo Tikki by Fez Cooks

SM: You know what, my head is spinning because I am really hungry right now. What are some of your favourite foods from around Pakistan? What do you think makes Pakistani cuisine unique from other cuisines?

FR: I really feel that Pakistani food is the perfect meeting of adventure and comfort in a dish. It’s not just spice alone. When mixed with vegetables, meat and fire, it feels like a chemical explosion and the results leave you utterly satisfied. Too often, Pakistani cuisine is packaged under the same label as Indian cuisine, and as much I love both, there are definite differences. We are sisters, not twins. Different regions offer something distinct, whether it’s a Peshwari meat filled meal, a dairy rich Punjabi dinner or a heavily spiced Sindhi plate, there is a lot more to Pakistan than what we see on the surface.

SM: Let’s talk about childhooods. What are some of your earliest food memories?

FR: Of course, there are many memories of me falling in love with a samosa and chowing down on a lamb chop but one that didn’t start out so positive was being a 7-year-old and getting parathas in my lunchbox one day. At the time, I was embarrassed by the absence of a cucumber sandwich that would help me fit in with my white peers. I think anyone who lives outside their country of origin can relate. Throughout my life in Britain, many moments have passed where it was uncomfortable to be British Pakistani but you grow to accept who you are and take pride in it. And Looking back though, those parathas tasted a lot better than any sandwich.

 

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Source: Tumblr

SM: A very My Big Fat Greek Wedding experience that I’m sure many other immigrant girls around the world have had to face while growing up. It’s nice to know we’re not alone! Also, you’re making me wish for a Pixar movie about a little South Asian girl rummaging around in the kitchen and learning about her mother’s cooking and food from her homeland. Speaking of homelands, I know you grew up in the UK, in a nice little town near London. What are some of our favourite foods from there and why? Has it influenced the way you cook in any way?

FR: Growing up in the UK and living so close to London, I have the privilege of enjoying a wide array of cuisines and I think expanding my dictionary of flavours has helped me better understand ingredients and how they work together. I recently tried some Peruvian Ceviche and the sourness of lemon and the tenderness of fish really inspired me to see the role of citrus in lighting up so many dishes. I think it’s really important to eat well and to cook well and London provides an infinite amount of options. My Instagram (@fez365) acts as a sort of food diary and search tool for my research (eating waffles counts as a gastronomic experiment too).

SM: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you in the kitchen?

FR: I am really clumsy so the list is pretty long but I think the funniest thing to date is when I was cooking pasta with my sisters and I insisted I would drain the pasta. Off to the sink I went and ended up spilling all the hot water over the stomach. Cue screams and an hour later, my sisters were still laughing and I was applying toothpaste in hopes of avoiding excessive burning. Though it wasn’t serious, I’ve never been able to live down the fact I couldn’t boil pasta without injury. But I am a professional now, I promise.

SM: What are some essential items in your kitchen?

FR: Equipment I couldn’t live without are all the basics, a sharp knife, solid wooden spoon and a decent chopping board. There is a lot of prep involved with Asian dishes as well as mixing together different flavours, and these three are the starting point for that. I have to say that my dream kitchen item is a cherry red Kitchen Aid stand mixer—it’s the Ferrari of kitchen equipment as far as I’m concerned.

SM: What are your favourite ingredients to work with?

FR: Keeping things simple, I really enjoy working on dishes that are rice based. As I found out on my first recipe, the state of each grain can impact the whole dish. I think it’s an often-ignored element of the meal when it has every potential to be the centre stage star. Another favourite is the holy trinity as I like to call them: garlic, ginger and green chilli. A lot of my recipes include this paste and honestly it just smells amazing in hot oil. It’s a staple.

SM: Do you have any celebrity chef icons?

FR: Although my approach to food is anything but domestic goddess, I do love Nigella and her recipes. I think she really personalises her kitchen and her recipes to represent who she is as well as appeal to readers—it’s a great skill. (Related: I totally fangirled when I met her at a book signing). I also love Nigel Slater, a man who knows a good vegetable dish and the importance of organic produce. I think Yotam Ottolenghi is an artist with his Mediterranean flavours. His visuals are the best balance of natural beauty, and his food looks stunning and welcoming.

SM: Now, to wrap this up, let’s talk about dreams and faraway lands. What are some of the most memorable food destinations you’ve visited?

FR: One of the best places for food I’ve been to is Tokyo, the udon noodles and tempura was hands down one of the best food experiences. I also love green tea so the abundance of green tea flavoured things was just like being a kid in a candy store. I love to travel so I would love to go back and explore more.

Another place that left me utterly food-struck was Sicily. When people say the tomatoes and olive oil taste different in the Mediterranean, they aren’t making this stuff up. The produce and production is a organic and you can taste that in every dish. Beautiful views served alongside fresh pasta and a few too many scoops of pistachio gelato made me fall in love with the seaside town of Taormina. I definitely recommend it as your next holiday destination.

 

Left: Sicilian zucchini flowers, Right: Sicilian citruses (Courtesy of Faaizah)

SM: If you could go to any food capital of the world right now, where would you go?

FR: To be completely honest, this list could just be a globe because I want to see everything but I’ve been dreaming of a food tour of Pakistan and India for as long as I can remember. I would love to explore the different regions and cuisines with a group of friends. I think it would be the ultimate trip. I would also add China to the list, I love Chinese food and think Beijing and Shanghai would be an eye-opening experience. I’d also love to visit the Uyghurs Muslims and try everything available. Ultimately, I’m hungry not just for the food but to see new cultures as well.

Faaizah’s new Biryani recipe is now up on Fez Cooks and can be found here.

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