When Sohaila Humayon moved to Kansas City from the Bay Area in 2010, she had a dream to open a restaurant serving her traditional recipes from her home in Pakistan. It wasn’t an easy journey, but at the age of 62, Sohaila’s dream finally became a reality.
Sohaila’s Kitchen is a humble food stand inside the Lenexa Public Market, and is open four days a week for guests to try her Biryani, Chapli Kabobs, Samosas, and a very non-traditional crowd pleaser, Butter Chicken. We sat down with Sohaila’s daughter, Amna Humayon, to learn more about her family and the charming eatery, Sohaila’s Kitchen.
The first thing I noticed when I visited Sohaila’s Kitchen for the first time is how it’s really a family affair. Who from your family is involved in the restaurant operations?
Yes, everyone in the family has a different and really important role to play. My mom, Sohaila, is the chef. I helped start up the business and I enjoy doing all of the logistics. I have an older brother, Ahmad, and he’s here two or three days a week, serving and talking to customers. My sister Ayesha’s biggest job is making the butter chicken sauce. My sister somehow perfected this recipe. I don’t know how she did it, but it is the most perfect butter chicken I’ve ever tasted in my life. She makes about 60 to 70 pounds of sauce a week.
My dad does whatever my mom needs him to do like running to Restaurant Depot or the grocery store, which takes all day. And then he sits at the shop with a cup of coffee and admires my mom and her business.
Your parents have the cutest relationship I have ever seen. How did they meet?
My parents have a really special relationship. They had an arranged marriage and they met on their wedding night. My dad was already in America working as an engineer. My mom was in Lahore, and it was your typical arranged marriage in the 80s. They met on their wedding night, which is still hard for me to grasp, but 34 years later they are still together.
They have a lot of love for each other. They’re there for each other, and that’s just not something you see these days anymore.
What was your mom’s childhood like, growing up in Pakistan?
Her childhood is both tragic and privileged and happy, all in one. My grandpa was in Kuwait and he worked in the oil industry. She had a really privileged upbringing, her dad did really well, and they had a very close knit family. They sent her away to boarding school in Pakistan because the schools weren’t good in Kuwait, especially for Pakistani citizens. At that time, you could be educated and doing well for yourself, but if you lived in that country and were not a citizen, you weren’t treated the same.
So her parents made a really big decision and sent her to boarding school in Lahore, and I think she is unlike anyone else I have ever met in our culture because of her boarding school experience. That’s where she developed a real tomboy fierce personality, fending for herself. She made friends wherever she went, and she was the life of the party.
So if she grew up mostly in a boarding school, how did food become such a big part of her life?
Food was always a big part of her family. But in boarding school, she hated the food there. Imagine coming from a home where you get fresh cooked meals every day and then you go to boarding school and the food is just horrible. So she actually started teaching herself how to cook in boarding school and she would host these cute little tea parties for her friends. That’s really where she learned how to cook. She was self-taught because she wasn’t around her mom long enough for one period of time to want to learn how to cook.
I think it’s really admirable that your mom was able to pursue her dream of opening a restaurant later in life. Why now, at the age of 62, did your mom finally take the leap?
Eleven months into moving to Kansas City, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was such a blow. I remember getting the call, the nurse said, ‘the biopsy came back positive, it’s stage three.’ And I just felt my world collapsing. So the first few years of living here were probably the worst that any of us had ever experienced.
When my mom was going through chemotherapy, she was constantly hospitalized, it wasn’t an easy journey for her. Her mom actually died at 62 and she had breast cancer, and we believe her grandmother had breast cancer, as well. So it wasn’t a huge surprise, but it still hurt so bad–and that why turning 62 and opening a restaurant at the age of 62 is so symbolic to her.
What kind of experience do you hope people will have when they come and eat at Sohaila’s Kitchen?
A goal of mine is to allow people to see that we’re just like any other family out there. With the political climate that we are living in today, with so much hate against Muslims in America, I want people to see that we are just like their family. We are not different, we just have a different faith and way of practicing our faith.
People have their judgements, and it takes one person to connect us to things that we are not even part of. So it was really important for me to show people that we are your average American family, with an American dream, just like them. We want to make a living and we want to provide customers with something that’s important to us: food. And, you know, what American can’t appreciate that?
Address: 8750 Penrose Ln, Lenexa, KS 66219
To hear more of Sohaila and her family’s story, check out Episode Four of the Open Belly podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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