Keeping Culinary Traditions Alive In Little Pakistan

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LITTLE PAKISTAN – On Coney Island Avenue, American-Pakistani women are trying to keep their culinary tradition alive in a tax office.

(Mustafa Z. Mirza/BKLYNER)

On weekdays, Bibi Jan Corp, is mostly frequented by South Asian men seeking advice on immigration and taxation, but on the weekends, the same place is converted into a make-shift kitchen.

Busy with women of all ages learning how to cook desi food, the idea behind these gatherings is not only to master South Asian cuisine but also to promote healthy and budget-conscious cooking. The other classes range from religious instruction to sewing to beauty tips.

Classes are made accessible to the wider American-Pakistani community via Facebook Live. (Mustafa Z. Mirza/BKLYNER)

From the outside, these classes may seem regressive, teaching women how to run a home, much the same way Home Economics has traditionally been taught.

However, at the center is founder Bazah Roohi, an enterprising woman with a big personality who wants Pakistani women to become self-reliant and feel a connection with tradition and each other.

An IRS-certified tax preparer by day, Roohi often works six days a week during the height of tax season. In the summer, when things are slower, she organizes these classes through her small public charity, the American Council of Minority Women.

Roohi has created a space for women to come together and feel a sense of community. Ume Kulsoom Butt, a housewife, and mother of four has two daughters who attend the classes and a son who is currently interning at the tax office. Butt says she could teach her daughters these skills herself, but she likes them to learn with others, as she did at home.

Ume Kulsoom’s 14-year-old daughter Zeenat attends the class. (Mustafa Z. Mirza/BKLYNER)

“As I’m growing older I don’t go out as much, I’m more of a Netflix person. I just listen to a lot of music and read books, I’m not that much of an outdoorsy person. But this is the only one place that I’m actually excited to go to because Baza aunty keeps it half American but also half Pakistani. It’s the perfect way to teach us about our culture and the aunties can be fun,” says 14-year-old Zeenat.

Bazah Roohi (right) and Ume Kulsoom share a moment, as 14-year-old Zeenat and her 13-year-old sister Khadija look on. (Mustafa Z. Mirza/BKLYNER)

As tired babies sleep and toddlers play, these classes also provide a safe space for many women, especially those who are new to America.

(Mustafa Z. Mirza/BKLYNER)

Waheeda Chugtai remembers how difficult it was for her to adapt to her new surroundings with her broken English. Her husband filed his taxes at Bibi Jan and told Roohi about his wife’s troubles. She was reluctant to come to class but stayed when she understood these other women could help her adjust.

Today, Chugtai is the head chef for the cooking classes.

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