SAINT JOHN – Tabraze Sheikh grew up in Texas with a Pakistani father and Mexican mother, a great cook who mixed the flavours of both food cultures into their meals. Her cooking is an inspiration for the new City Market food stall called Naan-ya Business that Sheikh will soon open with his wife, Robin.
“Most of my life I’ve eaten fusion food,” says Tabraze in a recent interview at the site of the new business he plans to open in early July. “I’m half Pakistani, half Mexican, and my mother just mixed both of the spices together. It wasn’t fusion for us. It was every-day food.”
Tabraze says he will serve food that’s a blend of Pakistani, Mexican and Canadian influences, but the core offerings will be popular Pakistani “streets foods” – naan bread cooked with meats and cheese and an assortment of seasoned and spiced kebabs.
“We plan on 15 different flavours of naan bread – the standard beef, cheese, Nutella, butter chicken, just to name a few,” he says.
“Mainly we’re focusing on the stuffed naan bread but we’ll also serve chicken and beef kebabs. The flavours will range from barbecue to tandoor, all the way to Seekh kebabs [made with Pakistani spices].”
Born in Texas, Tabraze moved with his family to Maine in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001.
“Being Muslim in Texas wasn’t the greatest thing at that time, so my father made the decision to move,” says Tabraze.
The family first went to Maine and then moved to Saint John. His parents have since moved back to Texas because “the climate has calmed down,” he says.
Tabraze stayed in Saint John and five years ago married Robin, who is from the area.
In time, she has grown accustomed to the spicy nature of Pakistani cuisine.
“It used to be that I couldn’t handle it, but now I eat the same amount [of spice] as him, no problem,” she says. “We’ve been married five years, so I’ve gotten used to it.”
That said, Tabraze and Robin will vary the amount of spice in the food to cater to different tolerance levels.
“We’re customizing the flavour so everyone can eat here comfortably, whether you like very spicy food or whether you like it very mild,” says Tabraze.
The centrepiece of their kitchen will be the tandoor oven, which he says produces tandoori-style food that is far superior to what you could make at home.
“You can buy the spices in the store but it’s not the same as having it cooked in the tandoor oven. That oven reaches close to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Food cooks so rapidly in there,” he says.
If you cook meat it’ll form a nice crust but inside will remain juicy. Bread cooks almost instantly because of the heat of the oven, so imagine getting food within a minute or two of ordering. It’s that fast.”
Tabraze is travelling to Pakistan to get extra training in tandoor cooking.
“I can already cook. My mother taught me everything I know,” he says.” She says that I cook better than her but I’m a loyal son, so I’m like, ‘no, no.’ I always love mom’s cooking.
“But with tandoor cooking, it’s a little more intense, so I want to make sure I have a good mastery of that before we open up the business.”
Tabraze and Robin are entrepreneurial people. Robin is a real estate agent, and the pair operate another business called Tabraze & Robin: The Modern Mind Readers. They’ve done shows for years in the region and are planning a U.S. tour later this year that will include Boston, New York and Chicago.
They know they will have to spend a week away from Naan-ya Business at times, so they plan to have highly trained staff that can operate the restaurant in their absence.
“We’re training everyone to do everything,” says Tabraze. “We’re still going to be hands-on, that is our plan. But we want to make sure that whoever is here, at any time of day, you get good quality food all the time.”
Tabraze and Robin are very busy people. “We’re always on the go,” he says. “We sleep maybe four hours a day.”
Robin says they want Naan-Ya Business to suit people who have similar lifestyles.
“That’s why we love the idea of this naan bread,” she says. “It’s ready in a minute, two minutes. You can take it and go, you don’t have to sit down. People are always on the go and in a rush. If you don’t have time to sit down for a meal, it’s a wonderful thing to take with you, and be on your way.”
Tabraze says people will be served quickly, but the product will be high quality.
“It will be the best, most authentic naan in Saint John because it will be coming from a tandoor [oven],” he says. “It won’t be made on a stove or ordered from a factory.”
Tabraze says they also chose the best possible location.
“It represents Saint John,” he says. “If you look around, it’s not just Canadian food. You see food from other cultures here. [There’s no] better place than the market.”