Arts, Business, Central New York, Community, food

Pakistani chef creates home away from home through catering business

Tune in to find out more about Sarah Robin’s catering business and why she started it.

By Saniya More SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) —There are two things in life that make Sarah Robin very happy: vibrant spices and full tummies. 

When Sarah first came to the United States as a refugee in 2012 from Pakistan, though, she couldn’t find food that made her mouth water and her taste buds sing. There were few restaurants that served the authentic Pakistani food she missed so much.

As a Christian woman in a predominantly Muslim country, her life was in danger due to family conflicts, thus she had to leave her hometown in Punjab. 

“I think the only thing which I really loved about my country is the food,” Sarah said.

Sarah now runs Punjabi Girl, a catering business in Syracuse. She mainly cooks Pakistani food, but with a twist: she comes up with her own take on traditional recipes. Sarah says her mother often called her crazy for doing so.

“I just made my own recipes and my mom said, ‘Oh my God, you are destroying our traditions, you will never succeed.’ Tera deemakh kharab hain, like you don’t have a mind; you just lost your mind,” she said, with a laugh.

One of Sarah’s favorite dishes to cook is papri chaat, a popular South Asian snack made with a variety of ingredients and a ton of spices. Her eyes lit up as she described the dish.

“Making chaat is so much fun, with the colors, with different kinds of sauces in it, with pomegranate. So when you have a bite of pomegranate in your mouth, it just bursts in your mouth and gives you really good texture and the flavor,” she said. 

Sarah started her catering business after meeting Adam Sudmann, who runs the Onondaga Community College teaching school and restaurant, With Love. Every six months, the restaurant chooses one country’s cuisine on which it bases its menu. When it first began, it was called With Love, Pakistan. Sarah was the school’s first entrepreneur-in-residence– she taught students to cook Pakistani dishes while working closely with Adam.  

Sudmann says Sarah’s roots have greatly influenced the way she cooks food and carries herself.

“So immediately with Sarah, there was a real guardedness to her,” he said at the With Love restaurant. “She’s not coming from a place where women were public, where she hasn’t been told by a lot of people, you have agency, you should be determining your own course.”

When asked what she misses the most about home, Sarah’s answer was instant: her mother’s food. It has been over eight years since she last saw her family, but Sudmann says they have always been by her side, even from Sri Lanka, where they live now.

“We did an event last year where she spoke to 200 people, and it’s kinda cool because in the back of the event was a laptop facing her, and on her laptop was her mom watching from Skype,” Sudmann said. 

Despite missing her family, Sarah says she has found comfort and support in her co-workers, particularly with Venus Likulumbi, who works at With Love.

“A baby girl, that’s who she is. She’s my little sister,” Likulumbi said when asked about her relationship with Sarah.

According to Likulumbi, Sarah initially struggled to communicate with Americans about her food and culture. Coming to this country as a refugee was just an additional obstacle Sarah had to and has overcome, Likulumbi said. 

“I mean, I’m a refugee as far as I’m concerned. So, I told her, I said, hun, I’m new here too. No, no, no, you’re born here. That don’t mean nothing! Just because you’re born here don’t mean you have the right to judge. So, she understands that now,” Likulumbi said. 

According to Sudmann, one of Sarah’s greatest strengths is her determination.

“When she wants things to be a certain way, she’s like, finding her voice. And I’ll be like, no, we’re not going to do it that way. And that’s good, and tricky to work with, but ultimately, a really good thing,” he said. 

While working for the With Love restaurant, Sarah often clashed with her co-workers over many cultural things, like cooking the right amount of food. According to Likulumbi, Sarah would always want to cook more food than needed– a move with risky financial consequences. 

“Let me tell you something– that if no one gets fed or somebody doesn’t get to eat, she gets upset. She’s like, Venus, no, no, no, no, no– customers, they gotta eat. I don’t wanna be leaving nobody in here hungry, I don’t wanna be leaving nobody with no food,” Likulumbi said. 

But cooking extra is something Sarah has always been taught to do.

“My mother used to make big, big dishes of food. And she said that we have to make always extra food because we have neighbors, there are some beggars, and guests can always show up. So always cook extra,” Sarah said. 

Despite their cultural differences, Sarah’s coworkers greatly admire her passion and resilience for cooking.

“Once you get to know her just a little bit and you hear her voice, and you hear her standards for her cooking, her pleasure in being the host, and in welcoming in strangers… that’s delightful, that’s really something,” Sudmann said. 

Sarah said her catering business has given her a sense of independence, one she never had in Pakistan. After passing her American citizenship exam earlier this month, Sarah said she has found a sense of place she didn’t have in her home country. “I really wanted to see my country change, I wanted to see-not the country, the country is good– but the people in the country. They need to learn how to respect women. When we came here, we started knowing about our rights, and about freedom,” she said.

Although Punjabi Girl is a catering business, Sarah hopes to expand it and start her own restaurant someday.

Till then, Sarah Robin will continue to follow her golden rule when it comes to cooking: Everything is better with a little spice.