• Emily McDonnell

#4: Mama Shabz

This week’s adventure made my tummy very happy. I headed down to one of my favourite eateries to find out the story behind the food (and to drink a lot of Chai…)

Shabz’s eyes light up as I ask about her about Pakistan. “The reason I keep going back is the people,” she tells me. “Last time I was there for my cousin’s wedding. A whole group of us ended up crammed in the back a car at 4am - totally sober - being chauffeured through a McDonalds’ drive-thru. We’d eaten like kings for the whole day, but after hours of dancing, we just needed that Maccy Ds hit! The order - and the situation - was so ridiculous that I cry-laugh just thinking about it.”

But perhaps more absurd is what happened the following morning. “We were shouted awake and excitedly ordered to come outside. Bleary-eyed, I made my way out, still dressed in PJs, and was confronted by a helicopter and another cousin grinning from ear to ear. My cousin is the Prime Minister’s helicopter driver, and the chopper was free for a bit so we all got a tour over Islamabad. Don’t tell my other cousin, but it was better than the wedding! It’s these weird and wonderful moments, with incredible people, that keeps me going back time and time again.”

It’s this love she feels towards her ancestral home that shines through at cafe Mama Shabz on Berlin’s Reichenberger Straße. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to visit since it opened in October 2019 after having tasted her food at Fusion Festival.

Like me, a Berlin-based Brit, when she moved to Germany’s capital, Shabz was really disappointed by the Pakistani food she found on offer. As a former social worker, opening a restaurant was the last thing she imagined doing, especially given that she’d never been taught how to cook. “My Mum (aka, Mama Shabz) was always in the kitchen, but she never showed me to create staple Pakistani dishes. Everything I know about her cooking I had to learn from watching her - with her hair tied up under a scarf to stop it absorbing the smell of the masala - as she whizzed about the kitchen folding samosas and stirring pots of dhal.”

Shabz - after complaining about the state of Pakistani food on offer - was goaded into cooking a picnic for friends, and the rest - they say - is history. Soon she found herself spending her Saturday’s at food markets, where people - from fellow Desi’s to full-on Berliners - simply couldn’t get enough of her buttery parathas and rich curries. The restaurant was inevitable.

Mama Shabz is perhaps one of the most beautiful - and certainly most colourful - spaces in Berlin. But its blue-tiled walls, splashes of pink, yellow tables and custom pop-art have nothing to do with Instagrammability. “In hindsight, I designed this space as my home. It’s a celebration of all the things I love: the strong women in my life, the warmth of somewhere familiar and the excitement of discovering something new. Ultimately, I want people to leave having had their fill of the home-cooked food I grew up eating.”

When I ask what she’s proudest of, Shabz - rightfully so - tells me: “all of it.” And does the real Mama Shabz approve? “Since my feature on a national Pakistani news channel, my Mum is thoroughly impressed! For a while, I think my parents were waiting for me to take a more ‘traditional’ path, like getting married or becoming a lawyer or a doctor. But I’ve had the seal of approval on my cooking. I even think my Dad is jealous of the fact that the restaurant is named after Mum, but the restaurant is a celebration of her home cooking, so, of course, I couldn’t have named it anything else. My Dad cooks a mean omelette, so perhaps next on the roadmap is an omelette joint called Baba Shabz!”

Meeting Shabz was such a treat, and sipping chai sharing stories with the behind-the-scenes mastermind helped to amplified my enjoyment and appreciation of what I was eating. I won’t go on about my richly spiced chai, my fresh and spicy chana chaat or the melt-in-your-mouth samosas, because it’ll make you hungry. I’d simply urge you to go and try it for yourself.

What’s the story behind your favourite food joint?

Behind every meal you order, there’s someone who had to conceptualise the dish, test the recipes and put themselves out there. Do you know who they are?

I’d been following Shabz on Instagram after trying her food at the market. I reached out to her and found myself swapping stories over caffeine.

Finding out the human story is inspiring; I can’t recommend it enough.

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