The mother-daughter duo putting Bangladesh on the US culinary map

March 1, 2024

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Nur-E Gulshan was shortlisted for the James Beard Awards 2024 in the United States. She and her daughter Nur-E Farhana –co-owners of Korai Kitchen – talk about the nook and crannies of setting up an ‘authentic’ Bangladeshi cuisine business in New Jersey.

On 24 January, Nur-E Gulshan Rahman had cereal for dinner. Earlier in the day, she woke up to her daughter’s phone call. “She was crying, and I immediately thought something bad had happened. I panicked,” recounted Gulshan.

But they were tears of joy. Her youngest daughter, Nur-E Farhana Rahman, called to tell her mother – co-owner and sole chef of New Jersey’s Korai Kitchen – that she had been announced as a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard 2024 awards.

Disbelief swooned at first, “because when I first received the congratulatory text message, I remember thinking it must be a mistake,” Farhana recently said on a Zoom call, sitting by her mother. However, the text was not a mistake, she started to receive a ton.

Farhana, Korai Kitchen’s co-owner, hopped on the James Beard website and scurried to spot her mother’s name. “And there it was!”

That Wednesday, and the following weeks, proved to be chaotic for the duo, “but in the best way,” said Farhana.

Korai Kitchen, which turned six years old this February, had the good fortune, according to the co-owners, of being featured earlier in its career in reputable outlets such as The New York Times and HBO’s Take Out with Lisa Ling.

The restaurant offers home-style cooked food and a warm, homely ambience. PHOTOS: COURTESY/Amanda Suarez

It also earned a reputation as an “authentic” Bangladeshi cuisine brand in New Jersey and this alone could be pegged as the crux of its success. The James Beard Award shortlist perhaps further proves the point.

Established in 1990 (with the first awards given in 1991), the James Beard Awards are among America’s most prestigious honours recognising leaders in the culinary and food media industries, and those in the broader food systems. For many, it’s the Oscars in the culinary world.

The authentic brand, a dynamic duo and a stern determination to take up space in the “brutal” industry seem to be this mother-daughter partnership’s way to put Bangladesh on the culinary map in the US tri-state area.

“We were wiped out on the day the [award] announcements came out,” said Farhana, “I mean Amma had cereal for dinner. I think this also goes to show how people in the culinary or hospitality industry think of ourselves last; feed everyone and make do with whatever we have. We take care of others first.”

‘We focused on two things: product and people’

Interestingly, both of the co-owners come from non-food backgrounds. “We do not come from the industry,” said Farhana – meaning, there hasn’t been any formal training or education in the culinary arts.

“My mother always wanted to open a restaurant,” said Farhana, who fondly recalls watching Chef’s Table on Netflix with her mother, “and we would say, someday! I was proud of her for taking this on at the age of 61 [in 2018].”

Gulshan migrated to New Jersey from Dhaka in 1986. “My parents’ story is that of an immigrant one,” said Farhana. Her father worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet and subsequently when the couple settled, they opened their own small business – a small gift shop.

Nur-E Gulshan and her daughter Nur-E Farhana are co-owners of Korai Kitchen in New Jersey. Photo: Jenny Huang

“My mother had an entrepreneurial spirit even back in the 1980s,” said Farhana, whose father passed away in 2021 due to heart complications.

Gulshan began her own business making handmade knots for home decor and fashion in the late 1980s. Essentially, the couple propped up a variety of small businesses in New Jersey over the decades. “My parents had a convenience store in North Bergen, (but) that didn’t happen until 2003,” said Farhana.

Gulshan also has two other children, one settled in California and the other in New York City. Farhana lives in New Jersey, closest to Gulshan. “My siblings are excellent cooks as well. I think even my father cooked well, right Amma?” said Farhana, turning to her mother. She chuckled, “But I don’t, at all.” 

To run a business, a successful one at that, in the food industry is no walk in the park. “In the beginning, we opened with a bang because we had a special promo. That weekend was super full,” recalled Farhana.

“And then it was crickets. I thought: What have we done?”

While Farhana describes herself as risk-averse because “I am the person who says let’s see that spreadsheet again,” Gulshan, according to her daughter, is a risk taker. Although the first month of operation was hard and challenging, “I was having a good time. I was cooking food and listening to music,” said Gulshan.

Farhana – who has a background in management consulting and international development – was helping Gulshan, at the time, only temporarily for the first few weeks. “Until she gets a general manager really,” but ultimately stayed on.

The crickets left, however. Word of mouth spread the news of the Korai Kitchen’s food. And its home-style cooked Bangladeshi food gradually captured New Jersey’s imagination.

It did not stop there, “we have had guests who would choose to fly into Newark airport rather than JFK so that they can pick up some Korai food. We also have guests who drive in from DC,” said Farhana.

Guests, not customers, and a restaurant which “never asked guests to leave a review. So what you see online, and what we have received, are genuine feedback,” said Farhana.

By the time the pandemic came around, Korai Kitchen was a full-time dine-in restaurant with takeout and catering services. “There were 2.5-hour-long waits over the weekends,” recalled Farhana.

The pandemic changed business operations for Korai Kitchen as it did across America. However, after the pandemic restrictions were lifted, the duo decided to stay primarily a takeout restaurant.

On 8 February this year, Korai Kitchen announced its return to dine-in services. “We are excited. We made a few changes to the setup but only slight changes. We are starting off only over the weekend – and calling it Amma’s dawat,” added Farhana.

On social media accounts, Farhana opts to market or make Korai Kitchen announcements (which never had PR or budget for marketing campaigns) as Amma this and Amma that — “many [in the neighbourhood] actually call me Amma,” said Gulshan.

This seems to work well with the restaurant’s brand: home-style cooked food, homely ambience, the co-owners and chef speak to guests as though they are friends, Bangla songs and all of which is nestled within Bangla pop culture posters and photos.

On Summit Avenue near Journal Square, Korai Kitchen offers a little bit of “authentic” Bangladesh to everyone.

Of identity and recognition

“It’s true that without the ‘Indian’ restaurants in the 1970s or 1980s in the tri-state area, there won’t be any Korai Kitchen,” explained Farhana. She was referring to how a sleuth of Indian restaurants in New York and New Jersey are run and owned by Bangladeshis.

However, back in the day, America did not quite know much about Bangladesh. And these restaurant owners took the economic strategic decision to market its product. “But if in 2023 or now, you are to follow the same footsteps, then that’s a different story,” said Farhana.

These ‘Indian’ restaurants tend to offer heavy curry, naan, chicken tikka and masala primarily. “There was a time when we were on social media with the hashtag no chicken tikka,” chuckled Farhana.

On the other hand, Korai Kitchen’s food is different. From the chingri dopiaza, roast, beef with coconut to assorted bhorta including shutki, and much more in between – it seems to have guests keep coming back for more.

Unsurprisingly, there are still non-Bangladeshis who walk in “and ask where the country is, how many people we have, etc,” said Gulshan, “but the number of the people lowered, I would say.”

Gulshan and Farhana took it up with Uber Eats to include a Bangladeshi category on the app. The company was forthcoming and cooperative to add in the category, but it was something that had to be pointed out, according to the co-owners.

“Same with Yelp. In fact, my next call is with Ressy [a reservation app] to include a Bangladeshi category,” Farhana said on the zoom call in early February.

Even with food media outlets, there still remain instances when Korai Kitchen is placed with an Indian curry hashtag or SEO. “And I really have to address that, point it out for clarification,” said Farhana.

On 3 April, the finalists for the James Beard Award 2024 will be announced while the winners will be announced in May. Nur-E-Gulshan was shortlisted as a semifinalist under the Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic category, “whatever happens, even if we do not make progress, my mother will always be a James Beard nominated chef,” said Farhana.

“I am grateful for the shortlist and all the support we have received from the community,” said Gulshan – who believes there’s a cook in everyone and if she can do it, so can anyone.

The chef shared how she never cooked before the early 1970s when she got married.
“I remember my mother did not want me in the kitchen [in an attempt to push Gulshan out of traditional women’s roles], but my father, Mokhlesur Rahman Bandari, always said ‘learn everything, you never know when you are going to need it [the skill].”

“From the person who served black-ish egg curry to my father-in-law as a newlywed, which frankly, was inedible (but he still ate to keep my heart) —- to here; anyone can be a cook, I say.”

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