The secret behind Santosa's home-cooked food!
Every time you step into the sacred place that is Santosa, there’s an explosion of good aromas including incense and curry. While the former comes from Nepal the latter comes from the spicy cuisine of Gujranwala, a lovely city in Pakistan and home of Shahana Anwar, the heart and soul of Santosa’s vegan/vegetarian Cafe and the secret behind Santosa's home-cooked food... and this is her story.
Shahana came to Scotland back in 2013 with her three sons, looking to reunite with her husband after many years away from each other.
"My husband had already been in Edinburgh for three years when I arrived. I couldn’t come earlier as I had some family responsibilities back in my home country."
Unfortunately, Shahana didn’t find an idyllic family home waiting for her in Edinburgh. Personal issues with her husband obliged her to find another place to stay with her sons, starting from zero.
"If you focus on one thing to do, you need to tell your mind that nothing is impossible. I came here with no language, with the huge responsibility of my children and had to start from zero in a foreign country. You see, people can throw a stone at you, one after another till you fall to the ground full of bruises. But then, you need to stand up and keep fighting for what you want. Difficulties in your life make you stronger for achieving your goal in life. Only then you learn to survive and reach success."
Finding sustenance in the heart of Leith
Soon enough, her eldest son started working full time, bringing some much needed income to sustain the family. Shahana didn’t take long to find a job herself at an Indian restaurant in the heart of Leith.
"I started working as a volunteer in Punjabi Junction for two months. After that, I was offered a full-time position as a chef."
That gave her not only the possibility of earning money but the opportunity to do what she loves doing more than anything else.
"Cooking is what I love to do. Back at Punjabi Junction, I used to make food for up to 300 people as we were hosting weddings and other celebrations very often. I did enjoy very much to work there, although my English didn’t improve much. Most of the staff came from India. Since Hindi is very similar to my language – Urdu – I was rarely talking in English."
When Punjabi Junction was forced to close by the contentious and hugely unpopular local development plans, Shahana found her place within the sanctuary of Santosa.
"I feel very comfortable in Santosa. Here I feel very confident since I can stay in the kitchen on my own, cooking my favourite food. I find it a bit difficult to work with someone else in the kitchen because communication is key and I don’t feel very confident with my English level."
The secret behind Santosa's home-cooked food?
Shahana enjoys every single day cooking Pakistani food at Santosa. Every bite of her foods tastes of love and care, which are the two ingredients she always puts into her recipes.
"Cooking is my passion. I get up at six o’clock every day and start cooking for everybody at home. Then somebody gets up at seven and I can offer them something to eat, then the next person gets up and so on. For me, it’s something that comes naturally as I have seen it all my life in my mother and my mother-in-law. It’s in our blood, our culture. It’s my satisfaction to feed people but mostly to feed my family and my friends when they come home for a visit."
"I’m always cooking a lot of food. We like to eat a lot where I come from. In fact, my city is known as the City of Wrestlers because of that. We have a lot of these traditional wrestlers in my city. When sitting at the table we won’t have enough with a main course only, we need to have a lot of things to eat available on the table. The culture of our city is to eat a lot every time."
You may think Pakistani food is pretty much the same as Indian food, but according to Shahana, that’s out of the question.
"In our cuisine, we have meals like chicken curry and kebabs. It could be similar to Indian food but it’s different. Our food is spicier and I think we put more love and care into cooking our food. We never use a blender, for example. We cook some dishes even for six hours. Everything you need to get perfect and tasty food. Maybe it’s just something I have seen in my mother and my sisters. I’m sure we are gifted by God."
"We have competitions at home in Pakistan to see who cooks tastier food. Steam chicken is my speciality, my favourite dish to cook. Everyone follows my recipe but nobody would get the same taste as my food."
Whilst the kitchen is no longer a women-only habitat, in some cultures people are still anchored to these traditions.
"In Pakistan men don’t cook! Only in big and posh hotels you may find male chefs but not at home. They could do tea at most. It’s very rare to see a man cooking at home."
Future Dreams ...
After several years in Edinburgh and succeeding as a chef, I’m wondering about Shahana's future dreams. What is it that you would like to achieve?
"Since I love cooking for others, I would like to open a restaurant...or a cafe. To be honest, I would love to have any kind of business myself. Any kind of shop would do. I want to be a successful businesswoman. Because in a few years I’m planning to travel to Pakistan to visit my family and I want to go as a successful woman. I want them to be proud of me. and need to prove that to myself. I feel the pressure of not disappointing my children. But if I have to be completely honest, my main goal in life is to see my sons become successful men. And for that, I need to thrive in my profession so I can provide them with the best possible education."
For those of you willing to learn some of Shahana's skills, you can book a place on one of her popular cookery classes at Santosa, taking place on the last Saturday of every month.
"I just want to pass on my cooking knowledge to whoever is interested to learn. It’s also good for the business since you are letting everybody know that Santosa is also a place to learn how to cook nice food yourself at home."
Given her extensive knowledge of this particular cuisine, I am interested to know Shahana’s opinion about the food from the UK
"I don’t really find it interesting eating food that is not Pakistani or Indian. My tongue is already used to spicy food so if for some reason I have to eat another type of food, I make sure I add some chilli to it. Otherwise it is tasteless for me."
One wonders if after cooking every day for several hours, Shahana has time to do something else in her free time.
"I love reading. I’ve been reading regularly for more than thirty-five years now. You see, I may take a break from cooking but I never take a break from reading. I do it every single day. I started many years ago in school and then through a magazine from Pakistan which was full of interesting stories to read and which was giving away a book every week. Since the moment I came to Edinburgh, I went to visit the public library so I can have some books in Urdu."
"My knowledge of English is not that good. Don’t get me wrong, I can read things like the newspaper or the menu in a restaurant, but I struggle to read a whole book. For me, understanding every single word I’m reading is key to enjoying a book and that’s something I can only do in my language."
"I like to read any genre but I enjoy suspense and mystery the most. In my country, my family was always making fun of me because of this addiction I have. In our culture, this is not something common in a woman. I guess that explains why I was working as a teacher before I got married 19 years ago."
She’s smart, fun and a lovely soul to have a chat with. Until today, we only knew Shahana from her cuisine and now that we know her a bit better, I’m sure we will enjoy the wonders of her food on a deeper level.
The love and care she puts into her cooking are remarkable. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, bring yourself to Santosa, enjoy the peaceful space, breathe in that special aroma and order a piece of Pakistani delicacy on a plate in front of you. The spice is on the house!
Author: Mario Martinez
Traditional Punjabi Cookery Classes with Shahana
Last Saturday of every month | 6 - 8 pm
Shahana is sharing her cooking skills with small groups of four people. All ingredients are provided for these two-hour classes and you have the option of eating in or taking home the end result.
Classes take place on the last Saturday of every month. If you would like to book a group class on a different date, please contact the studio desk.
Each Cookery Class voucher costs £25 per person and is valid for 6 months from the date of purchase. You can sign-up at the Santosa Studio Desk or why not book online?