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Neighborhood Tours

Make Bread, Not War

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Qudratullah Syed, proprietor of Bhabi's Kitchen, on Oakley near Devon, is on a mission.

"I am from southern India; my wife is from the Punjab, on the Pakistani side. So I want to bring the two flavors, the two sides, together," he says. "I am taking people back to their roots, before the separation of India and Pakistan. From that age and before, for hundreds of years, we shared the same food, and it was one country."

Unifying India and Pakistan is a pretty tall order for a humble 24-seat cafe. When Bhabi's Kitchen opened for business in mid-February of 2002, artillery fire was raging in Kashmir and Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf was asking for U.S. mediation. But Syed had a focus that was closer to home: he wanted his restaurant to be a catalyst for unity in the local Indo-Pak community, which suffers from a division not always visible to outsiders.

"Look at my sign--it says 'Sub-Continental,'" he points out. "You'll notice I didn't put 'Indian food,' or 'Pakistani food,' or even 'Indo-Pak,'" as do other storefronts along Devon. Here diners are not shy about sharing food or sitting across from complete strangers. The regulars--mainly Pakistanis, but also Indians, Afghans, and Iranians--are eager to tempt the occasional Western customer with a favorite dish, pushing forward platters of nan and encouraging a new friend to dip into their bowls of chicken korma (grilled chicken in a yogurt sauce) or nehari (a long-simmered beef stew).

Syed's wife, Qaisera Qureshi--affectionately referred to as Bhabi, or "sister-in-law," by friends and family--handles all the cooking by herself, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Her husband helps bake the restaurant's bread, making 15 varieties (including pistachio and garlic) from six kinds of flour: sorghum, millet, corn, chickpea, wheat, and plain old white. "I do not think you will find another restaurant that serves so many kinds," he says.

Their food attracts customers from miles around: one makes the trip from Madison, calling ahead for frozen dishes to eat for the entire week. A couple in Milwaukee insisted that Syed deliver a vanful of food to their wedding last summer. And every Saturday, industrial parts salesman Asif Sherif drives the nearly four hours round-trip from Rockford with his 72-year-old mother, Naseema.

Sherif came to the United States from Pakistan as a boy of 14; his mother moved here four years ago. "We don't do a lot of strolling around Devon Avenue, we just come here," he said on a recent Saturday, sipping a cup of chai. Their favorite dishes include the spicy catfish fillets, the yellow lentils, bihari kabob (flattened, ground beef grilled in the tandoor oven), sarsoo saag (ground broccoli rabe with hot pepper and roasted garlic), lamb paya (a savory broth flavored with lamb's ankles), and aloo paratha (double-layered, ghee-soaked flatbread filled with potato). They take the ample leftovers home to enjoy on Sunday.

It's not just the food that attracts regulars like Sherif and his mother. Many of Bhabi's customers come for the welcoming atmosphere and the chance to chat in Urdu. "It's lonely [in Rockford]," Naseema says. On slow days Syed recalls his glory days as a gold and currency trader in Saudi Arabia. In the early 80s he made a small fortune riding the unprecedented spike in gold prices when the Shah of Iran was overthrown. In 1984 he cashed in his chips and moved to Chicago. For the next decade he was a co-owner of Bombay Fashion, a high-end sari shop that hosted expensive fashion shows. But Syed's days hobnobbing with runway models and Saudi businessmen are history.

Now he spends most of his time baking nan, waiting tables, and planning for an expansion into a neighboring storefront in October. As he and Bhabi watch rising prices cut into their already slim profit margin, their pride in their food and their love for their customers keep them going. "There are so many restaurants between here and Rockford," he says. "So when [Asif and Naseema] come all that way just to eat our food, I really feel special."

Bhabi's Kitchen is at 6352 N. Oakley, 773-764-7007.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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