The home chef popularising Memoni cuisine

Nida Sumar’s The Table Project is an endeavour to acquaint our taste buds with the finest culinary offerings from the ethnic group hailing from the Indian subcontinent



by

Nasreen Abdulla

Published: Thu 5 May 2022, 7:22 PM

In 2018, when Nida Sumar hosted a dinner table for 10 of her friends and family, she had no way of knowing that as an early entrant into the supper clubs of Dubai, she would set a trend. A trained chef from Le Cordon Bleu and Rouxbe, Nida had just sold her food technology startup when the idea of a dinner table hatched in her mind. “The journey of building a startup was very lonely,” she says. “I was working 14-16 hours to make my startup work and ended up getting alienated from a lot of close people. Once I sold my business, I wanted a change. I wanted to do something that involved connecting with people and working with my fingers. That is when I decided to do a supper table for my friends and family,” she says. “I also wanted to showcase and elevate traditional Pakistani cuisine and honour the recipes of my grandmother and mother.”

Sumar is a Memon, an ethnic group hailing from the Indian subcontinent. Memons are traditionally traders who travelled all over the world for trade. The Memoni cuisine reflects these travels and combines several global cuisines. There are items like Khao Suey, a noodle soup made of egg noodles and curried beef or chicken with coconut milk, served with a variety of contrasting condiments and Dhokray, a seasonal vegetable stew with pearl millet dumplings and side of fried fish enjoyed with your hands sitting on the dastarkhwan, the Pakistani version of a majlis/floor seating.

The beginnings

At her first two tables, she served her friends and family. By the time she set up her third table, Nida was serving random strangers. “Word got around pretty quick,” she says. “From my friends and family, a lot of people heard about the supper table, and they wanted to sign up for it too. That is how The Table Project was born.”

Nida did not simply want to serve food. She wanted to tell a story. “I wanted the food to be interspersed with the history of my people,” she says. “I told them stories about Memoni and Pakistani culture, their history of travel and also about the cooking process. I tried to make it as engaging as possible”

And her perseverance paid off. What started as one table a month quickly grew to four tables a week. “It was like a gift that kept on giving,” says Nida. “The tables kept getting bigger and bigger. The minute I posted about a table; it would get sold out in like an hour. I started to have long waiting lists. I couldn’t believe what a movement I had set in motion. Currently, I have served over 6,000 people of over 121 nationalities.”

The cooking process

For Nida, cooking is a labour of love. “I am very particular about my cooking,” she says. “Now that the tables have grown this big, I have assistants who help me chop things. But other than that, I do it on my own. Even the simplest of items that I use in my cooking, like my homemade sauces and pickles, take about 1.5 days to a few months to make. I believe in slow cooking my meals, really infusing the flavour and taking my time with every single recipe. I didn’t want to make large batches and freeze like in a restaurant. When people come and eat at my table, I want them to feel the soul of the food. Some of my recipes, like the traditional achar (pickle), takes eight months to ferment, the paya is simmered for close to 36 hours. My haleem takes 72 hours to make. Even my Kashmiri nun chai takes seven hours to make. I want people to experience my food like a warm hug and for them to remember their mother’s or grandmother’s cooking.”

The pandemic

From operating four tables a week, The Table Project came to a grinding halt, pretty much like the rest of the world, during the Covid-19 pandemic. “On the back of the success of The Table Project here, I had been invited to host a table in New York when the pandemic struck,” says Nida. “So, there I was stuck in NY with no way to get back to Dubai. It was a bit of an uneasy experience.”

Once she reached Dubai, true to her nature, Nida continued to give back to the society. “Giving back has always been a central part of my being,” she says. “When I reached Dubai, I started cooking to feed people. Embassies gave us a list of people who had lost their jobs. These were people who had respectable careers but had lost their means of living due to the pandemic and needed to feed their families. We gave them cooked meals. We also started distributing groceries for those who needed it. There were so many people who were struggling to stay afloat, and we were doing everything to help them.”

“This is also the period when I started food takeout for the first time. I didn’t believe in meal deliveries because I think food is an experience. But during the pandemic, I had no option. I also started selling some of my sauces and chutneys at this time. Everything took off pretty well and at one point during the pandemic, I was cooking for over 100 people a day.”

The community

One of the things Nida is most thankful for is the community she has created with The Table Project. “Most of the people who came to us, kept coming back,” she says. “The guests really enjoyed the intimate conversation, the family-like setting and the close-knit community. Many people live here without their families, and this became their family. I have watched some amazing things come out of The Table Project community. Business ideas and businesses have been born and lifelong friendships have been created.”

Even when she was stuck in New York at the beginning of the pandemic, people would send her funds for groceries so that she could cook food for frontline workers in New York and Covid patients. “No matter what the need was, my community always rose to the occasion,” she says. “The one that made my heart happiest is when our tables played cupid for two couples. Four people met their soulmates at our tables. That felt incredibly rewarding.” She adds that social media has played a vital role in expanding her business and community. “I first started The Table Project through Instagram and that is where it grew. It was only much later I launched my website for bookings.”

Family support

“Whatever crazy idea I have, my family has got my back,” laughs Nida. “Whether it is lugging 30 kilo sacks of onions or giving up the entire kitchen, my mom and dad have wholeheartedly supported me. My younger sisters and brother are incredibly proud of what I do.”

When she was doing her startup, her parents didn’t necessarily understand what Nida had set out to do. “But now they know that I cook and feed people. And they love it. They are sometimes in awe of the kind of response I get on social media.”

TTP and beyond

After cooking for four tables a week followed by the food drives during Covid, Nida felt drained. “I wanted to give back to the society, but I didn’t have it in me to personally cook for 100 people on a daily basis,” she says. “That is how I came up with the idea of 60 Day Startups. Combining my 18 years of expertise in food, finance, and entrepreneurship, I came up with an accelerator that helps female business owners.”

“What sets 60 Day Startups apart from the rest is that it concentrates on sustainable business practices and shifts the focus from becoming investment-ready to becoming revenue-generating. I hope to help more women to become financially stable and build successful businesses from the ground up.”

Even with her hands full, Nida Sumar is in no mood to stop. “There is so much to do and such little time.”

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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