When Amna Ahmed immigrated to Canada from Pakistan, she brought with her a most prized possession — her diary of family recipes.
Its pages held the secrets to her family’s coveted recipes, passed from generation to generation.
That recipe diary has enabled Ahmed to write a new chapter in her life as she, along with her mother, brother and cousin, opened Spezia House restaurant last October, blending their passion and love of authentic Pakistani cooking.
The fledgling family venture in the food court in the 300-block of Victoria Street downtown had no sooner opened when increased pandemic--related restrictions were thrust upon them.
Now, with restrictions lifted, the business is getting back to regular hours of operation and is looking to a brighter future.
Recently, Ahmed was told by a friend about a family recipe contest Global BC was organizing — the Favourite Family Recipe contest.
Contestants vie for the top prize of $3,000 toward the purchase of a kitchen appliance from the contest’s sponsor, Trail Appliances.
Ahmed learned of the contest after browsing Facebook and realized it was the last week to send in her entry.
She submitted her story and recipe with the encouragement of family and friends.
Entering the contest was a needed bright spot for Ahmed and her family, following the previous tough months, though she didn’t think much would come of it.
Weeks later, Ahmed was contacted with the surprising news she had been shortlisted for the top 50 recipes.
Global BC then contacted Ahmed to ask how the recipe came to be and why it was special to her. Ahmed shared with them the reason why the family’s chicken biryani recipe meant so much to her.
“Biryani is my go-to dish,” Ahmed explained.
“You know how turkey is to Thanksgiving? That’s how Biryani is to every festivity.
“It’s like a happy festivity dish, a sad one,” Ahmed said.
“If somebody dies, you’ll find biryani there. If somebody’s getting married, you’re gonna find biryani there. A child is born, — biryani. You know, our special religious occasions — biryani.”
Three weeks later, Ahmed received news the recipe was a top five finalist.
“I remember that I screamed so bad,” she said. “Everybody in the kitchen got so scared.”
Ahmed then got to prepare her dish alongside well-known executive chef Wayne Sych of Joe Fortes restaurant in a virtual kitchen setting, due to COVID-19.
The live cooking process took just over two hours.
Eventually, Ahmed learned her recipe had earned top prize. She recalls going numb for more than two minutes, thinking to herself, ‘Did they really say my name?’
It would be affirmation of a path Ahmed had begun much earlier in life, when, as a very young girl, she would see her elders cooking up great dishes in the kitchen.
“I would be there admiring it all — at times, being asked to hand them a spoon or to taste something,” she said.
From the age of 13, Ahmed began learning to make many of the recipes that were a staple on the menus of many of her great-grandfather’s restaurants.
Prior to the partition of India, Ahmed’s great-grandfather, Amjad Ali, had owned a chain of seven restaurants in Kolkota called Amjadia Hotel.
It’s recipes like those, created a half-century earlier, that are preserved on the pages of Ahmed’s recipe diary and have now made their way into the culinary offerings available to Kamloops diners.
“I try to keep the flavours as authentic as possible, just because I want to introduce that culture,” she said.
“People think Pakistani food is very similar to Indian food. They’ll look alike, the spices that are used at the core are alike. But then there’s certain spices that completely change how each of the cuisine tasted,” Ahmed said.
“In a comparison of the same dish — one made with an Indian recipe, the other Pakistani — the flavour profile is going to be completely different. We try to keep that in mind, to always stay very authentic and true to our roots.”
Ahmed said she has plans to one day open a full-sized restaurant in the city, expanding their offerings to the community and having greater connections with diners.
You can visit Spezia House at 100B-300 Victoria St. Information on the restaurant can also be found online on Facebook and Instagram.