Family photos fill Ghaznavi’s gray-walled home office to give a comfortable, warm feel. | Photo by Raheel Gauba

If you visit Maryam Ghaznavi’s comfortable home in Mount Pleasant, don’t mess with any of the fountain pens.

“I’m obsessed with fountain pens,” she admits, adding there are containers of fountain pens and scissors in just about every room of the house because SOMEONE (hint — husband or two children or a friendly ghost) keeps moving them. With a jar of pens in every room, she figures she should be able to find one when she needs it.

Photo by Andy Brack

Ink color: Black. But other colors are OK, too. Anything is better than the ubiquitous ballpoint pens found across the United States. This infatuation with fountain pens comes from her time in school in Saudi Arabia. 

“When we grew up, we had to use a fountain pen,” she recalled. “Ball point pens were never allowed. And we always had to write in cursive.”

A Pakistani-born daughter of an international banker, she and other students were required to write only with fountain pens from middle school on. When Ghaznavi returned to her birthplace, Lahore, Pakistan, for college, she continued to use fountain pens as she studied for a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Today, she and her husband, Raheel Gauba, are co-owners of Malika, which they describe as a canteen-style eatery of bright, pungently spiced Pakistani street food. In just a few months, they’ll reopen Ma’am Saab, which gained local acclaim for its creative use of spices while it was housed in Workshop on upper King Street. The new restaurant, which will feature southern Asian food in a more formal setting, will open in the first quarter of 2022 in the space formerly occupied by Jestine’s Kitchen at the corner of Meeting and Wentworth streets.

Loves sharing her cuisine

As we talked on a recent Saturday, Ghaznavi’s passion for sharing the tastes and culture of her Pakistani heritage wafted like perfume across the couple’s Mount Pleasant home with rich brown floors and a neutral furniture palette.

“I enjoy cooking my cuisine the most,” she said. “It’s full of flavor. I love the way I can layer and play with the very basics of the spices and give each of the recipes a personality. There are dimensions with this cuisine.”

She said she strives to cook satisfying food that’s also cravable — meaning people want to come back for more after experiencing a spice profile they might not have encountered. 

“When a customer walks in the door and they are brave enough to try a new cuisine — it needs to satisfy them.”

Example: The Chapli Kabab Plate ($18) is described as “ground beef patties with traditional spices. A truck stop favorite. Served with basmati rice, raita and naan.”

When it arrived, it looked like two char-grilled hamburgers on rice. But tucking into it filled the mouth with unexpected warmth and tang. Yes, heat from peppers punctuated the dish, but there also were subtle layers of onion, garlic, cilantro and something else that highlighted how ground beef could be a platform for much more than the traditional American hamburger. 

To better understand the Indian and Pakistani food of southern Asia, it’s important to get beyond geographic boundaries. The countries once were one under British rule, but were divided in 1947 into two nations. Hinduism is dominant in India which has 966 million Hindus, or about 80 percent of the country, and 172 million Muslims, or 14 percent of the country. Meanwhile, Pakistan has about 200 million Muslims, who make up 96 percent of the nation’s population. Hindus account for about 2 percent of Pakistanis.

The cuisine in both cultures is based on similar use of spices, vegetables, rice and breads. But Hindus don’t eat beef and many are vegetarian-only. Muslims eat beef, but not pork. The differences in proteins create different recipes that evolved from a similar tomato-onion base.

Sun shines on a Turkish coffee set near a window. | Photo by Andy Brack

Gauba summarized: “If Indian food and Middle Eastern food got together and had a baby, it would end up being Pakistani food.”

Ghaznavi noted the way she flavors her Pakistani dishes is by using spices to highlight, not overpower, proteins like beef or chicken. “The main ingredient really shines.” There’s also often less of a use of curry than in traditional Indian dishes.

In Charleston since 2006

Ghaznavi met her husband in 1999 soon after her family emigrated to Toronto, Canada. 

“It was an Eid (holiday) party and she came in with her family and I fell in love with her smile,” said Gauba, a member of the band playing to more than 300 people in the banquet hall. 

Ghaznavi got more education to be able to do accounting work. By 2002, she and Gauba were engaged and got married two years later with parties in Toronto and Pakistan. (At one, they remember around 700 people attending!)

Soon they moved to Minneapolis where Gauba was a key tech employee in a start-up company.  In 2006, Blackbaud recruited Gauba. The couple visited on one dreary, hot weekend without much time to look around.

“I had to find it (Charleston) on the map,” Ghaznavi said. 

At first, Charleston posed difficulties for the couple. There wasn’t any family here. There wasn’t even much of a Pakistani community. And Charleston wasn’t the “big city” that they encountered in Ghaznavi’s Lahore (11 million), Gauba’s native Karachi (15 million) or even Toronto (3 million). 

But they endured. The opportunity was great. And it wasn’t cold, like in Minneapolis and Toronto. Soon came two children and Ghaznavi then got work at a local Montessori school. 

Family members collect figurines from popular movies and culture. | Photo by Raheel Gauba

By 2019, with encouragement from Michael Shemtov (Butcher & Bee, The Daily) she started cooking for others, first as a pop-up and then at Workshop. Then came the pandemic, which caused challenges. In May 2021, Workshop closed and the couple shifted to open the canteen-style eatery at Mount Pleasant Towne Center by August.

These days, it’s busy. They look forward to revealing the tastes of the food they grew up with to people in the Lowcountry and beyond — they get weekend visitors from Georgia and North Carolina who come just to eat Ghaznavi’s food.

She says she also wants to give back to the community here. 

“I would like more opportunities to do some community work,” she said. “My heroes are people who typically do a lot of good work for the community. My take on community is (doing) more for the lives of underprivileged kids, underrepresented women and youngsters struggling to find positive things to do.”