If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a smell or a taste may be worth a million. Like any homesick person seeking the comforts of their favorite foods, many of Sadia Bukhari’s customers come to her for a taste of home.
They are among the tens of thousands of King County residents who emigrated here from Pakistan, India or other parts of South Asia — in many cases to work for local tech companies. Seven-thousand miles away from family and the flavors of home — ground spices, stewed meats and pan-seared roti — Sadia Bukhari’s food delivery service, Turmeric ‘n More, offers to satiate their nostalgia.
“You know how your mom has a style of cooking? It’s become like that for us — the way mom cooks,” says Priyanka Wadhawan, a general manager at Amazon. She came to the U.S. from New Delhi in 2004 for graduate school, then moved to Seattle two years later with her husband, also an Indian immigrant who works at Everett-based Fortive.
They order meals from Turmeric ‘n More each week, introducing the flavors they grew up with to their two children. As meal delivery services like Blue Apron and Munchery take off, the idea of outsourcing the kitchen has become more common — even essential, Wadhawan says.
“Otherwise, we’d be on mac-and-cheese and pizza,” she jokes. “As two working parents, the ability to come back home and cook food is generally diminished unless I take away from the quality time I could spend with my kids.”
Not all of Bukhari’s customers are South-Asian immigrants, but many of them prefer the home-cooked flavor of the service over dishes at Indian restaurants. Bukhari doesn’t use any butter and cream, drawing from her background in nutritional science to develop well-rounded and healthy meals. Her menu includes options for vegetarians and vegans, she only uses Halal meat and she prefers cooking with vegetables that have a low-glycemic index.
“I try to make sure it is a balanced diet, that the vegetarian customers are getting the protein they need so they are full of positive energy,” she says.
Bukhari’s recalls collecting recipes as a little girl, learning to cook from friends and family and professional chefs in Karachi, Pakistan, where she lived until 1999. But she didn’t cook professionally until she moved to Seattle.
“I had a craving to listen to people’s recipes and to adapt and develop them. I never realized it was a talent,” she says.
In 2005, after a brief stint teaching cooking classes at Lake City Community Center and shortly after her two sons graduated from high school, Bukhari started Turmeric ‘n More. The 61-year-entrepreneur has been working hard ever since.
She took a rare break last year, closing down shop for six weeks to visit relatives in Pakistan. While there, she cooked alongside chefs to refine and add to her recipes. Bukhari says she tries not to repeat any of the dishes her service offers for at least four weeks, but it’s often longer before some items return to the menu.
Bukhari does all of her cooking in a shared, professional kitchen near her home in North Seattle, beginning food prep on Thursdays to have the meals delivered by Sunday. A driver makes deliveries and two assistants help in the kitchen. They cut and saute 50 pounds of onions each week, but Bukhari does most of the cooking herself —sometimes leaving the kitchen at 2:00 a.m.
Many of her customers have never met “Mrs. Bukhari,” her nom de guerre, but she is a vital member of the support system that makes their households run. When a customer is expecting a baby, Bukhari often sends over chicken broth and other nourishing foods.
Victoria Khemani recalls receiving nutritional advice from Bukhari when breastfeeding her first child. She and her husband Vishesh, originally from Calcutta, have ordered Turmeric ‘n More meals for eight years and rarely miss a week. They haven’t met Bukhari, but the entire family knows her name.
“Sometimes, we have leftovers from restaurant and the kids will ask, ‘Is that Mrs. Bukhari’s paneer,’ because that’s the one they prefer,” Vishesh says.
The wide-ranging palate of Bukhari’s customers requires flexibility. From the meat-heavy cuisine of Pakistan in the west to the vegetarian fare south of India and fish-dominant Bangladesh in the east, her customers’ preferences span a wide variety of cultures — and that can come with strong opinions about which cooking techniques are best.
Gohar Kanungo, a Turmeric ‘n More customer of four years, notes that although he and his wife are both from Mumbai, their families cook very differently.
“It’s very different, what my mom makes at home versus what my mother-in-law would make,” Kanungo, a Microsoft engineer, says.
While Bukhari’s food reminds him of his own mother’s cooking, he and his wife, a program manager at Expedia, like the meals mainly because of their simplicity, remarking on the “un-Indian-ness” of many local Indian restaurants, which he says can overstimulate the senses.
Offering dishes from all parts South Asia, Bukhari is open to changing her recipes when customers request it. She used to make an eggplant curry, baingan bharta, without any tomatoes. When a customer asked her to add tomatoes because that is how his mother made it, she tried it and has cooked the dish that way ever since.
“Some steps, I’ll never change,” Bukhari says, “but if it makes it taste better, I’ll always do it.”
Ambreen Ali is a freelance writer and mother of two based in Seattle. She worked as a congressional reporter for five years at CQ Roll Call, has covered the White House for Bloomberg and written about politics for The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She is also an editor of digital media news for SmartBrief.More stories by Ambreen Ali