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‘Keep Cookin’’: Pakistani restaurateur makes inroads in U.S.


Guy Fieri is leaning back, his right foot up against a black signpost, his smile stiff beneath a black and white goatee. His eyes are looking straight into the camera — or at least his sunglasses are.

The poster sits near the checkout counter at Curry Corner, and beneath his photo, the celebrity chef has written words that Farah Khalid cherishes: “Curry Corner, Keep Cookin’… Guy!”

Khalid is the owner of Curry Corner, an unpretentious but beloved Pakistani restaurant near the ASU campus.

For 20 years, it also has been a mainstay for college students, especially those who come from South Asia and who miss the foods they have grown up with. Curry Corner’s food reminds them so much of home and Khalid so much of family members that they soon begin calling her “mom” or “aunty.”

“I come here thrice or four times a week,” says Anish Jain, who lives across the street from the restaurant. “I am from India, but we share the same border with Pakistan and the food tastes the same as if I eat at home.”

Khalid grew up in Pakistan and married a diplomat, which meant postings to different countries.

The first was to Austria in 1985, where she gave birth to her two children — a daughter and a son. The family went on to live in England, Portugal, Sydney and Qatar before arriving in the United States in 1998.

Her travels brought her into close contact with new cultures. “When you go to different places, you see their culture, and it makes you know about their food,” she says.

Rana initially arrived in the United States with her husband on a visitor’s visa. But after her husband’s death in 2002, she joined her sister in Arizona.

But once she moved to Arizona, she began to miss her home country’s food. She couldn’t find a local restaurant that served Pakistani cuisine, and her brother, Syed Ahsan Bukhari, who also had moved to the United States, reminded her that “our food is so good, it has so much aroma, it has so much taste in it, and nobody knows about it.

“The idea came into our mind, and we thought that we should make an effort to bring our food to Arizona.”

So, the two decided to open a full-fledged Pakistani restaurant.

In 1998, they opened the Copper Kettle Express on East Lemon Street and, by 2002, Khalid was running the restaurant on her own.

For 10 years, business was good. Then her landlord filed for bankruptcy and Khalid was told she had to be out in two weeks.

It was a shock, she says, but she was determined to find a new place, and she wanted it to be close to ASU. “I wanted to be in the Tempe area,” she says. “ASU students have been coming to my restaurant; it’s a feeling of home.”

What she found was a former “hookah place” on Apache Boulevard, not far from her first restaurant. Within two months, she had renovated the space and opened a new restaurant with a new name — Curry Corner.

She worried about whether she had made a good choice. “I thought … maybe people will come back or maybe people won’t come,” she says. “But when people saw my face and tasted the same food, they says, ‘Oh my God, you are the same people.’”

In 2013, Khalid expanded the dining area from 20 seats to 60 and installed new gold-tinged lighting. She had the walls painted a vivid shade of orange.

In an episode of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” in 2013, Fieri, the celebrity chef, featured Khalid making goat karahi. Karahi is an Urdu word for a wok and hence the name of the meat cooked in it.

She also made tandoori chicken tikka (tandoori is a clay cylindrical oven, and tikka are marinated pieces of meat) and naan bread. In the episode, her hands seem to move impossibly fast as she throws spices and ingredients into bowls.

Fieri found out about Curry Corner from an article in a local publication. He was interested in knowing more, so he decided to pay a visit and bring a signed poster with him.

“It was a surprise for us, and we were lucky that he visited,” Khalid says. “He is a top-notch celebrity in the food network. Wherever he visits, it gives a boost to your business.”

Everything about Curry Corner is reminiscent of Pakistan. Diners listen to Bollywood/Lollywood music while they eat, with lyrics in Hindi or Urdu. Photos lining the walls include one of former prime minister and Pakistani cricket team captain Imran Khan holding a 1992 cricket World Cup trophy.

When she’s not busy in the kitchen, Khalid makes her way around the dining room, greeting guests.

“America is a land of opportunities. If you work hard and stay dedicated, you can achieve anything,” she says.

One of the first dishes Khalid cooked for her customers was Nihari, a slow-cooked stew from the subcontinent, rich in gravy. That was followed by biryani and chicken tikka.

At the time, most of her customers were Arabic, she says, and they “loved the biryani (a dish of rice with a choice of meat, mostly chicken, made in spices),” she says. The dish also was popular with ASU students, who would come for a lunch of biryani and chicken tikka masala.

In 2006, the menu and the staff grew when Khalid hired Gul e Rana as the cook.

“Pakistani women are very hardworking,” Khalid says as she introduced Rana, who was scuttling to get orders ready in the kitchen.

When Khalid first hired her, she says she didn’t even know how to cook. “Farah baji (sister) helped me learn. So I am working as a chef now.”

The first dish she learned to make was chicken curry, which was easy, she says. “Then I learned chicken tikka masala and many more.”

“I make sure students who have left their homes don’t feel that they are away from their parents,” Rana says. “So I ask them about food and offer it to them since I have a son myself and I know how it feels.”

Khalid wants to open a new branch of Curry Corner in Gilbert or Scottsdale in the future. She says the most important lesson she has learned during her years in the restaurant business is a simple one:

“If your dil (heart) and niyat (intentions) are pure and you dedicate yourself, then you will be successful.”

Curry Corner

1212 E. Apache Boulevard, Tempe

480-894-1276, currycornertempe.com


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