Maryam Ghaznavi of Charleston's new Pakistani pop-up Ma'am Saab never intended to join the food industry. In fact, it all just happened by chance, but when the opportunity came, she couldn't ignore her deep love of cooking.
Ghaznavi was never formally trained, but cooking has always been a large part of her life at home. "I remember one of my earliest memories of coming back from school and going to sit at the kitchen and seeing my mom start a curry," Ghaznavi recalls. "That used to be my favorite part because after she finished sauteing the onions and spices, I had to taste it before she added any meats or vegetables."
These childhood memories turned into a passion for Ghaznavi, a full-time teacher at East Cooper Montessori Charter School in Mt. Pleasant. Prior to her first Ma'am Saab pop-up in August 2019, Ghaznavi was enjoying her summer break, hosting backyard dinners and gatherings. Many friends, including Michael Shemtov of Butcher & Bee, enjoyed her home-cooked Pakistani food, knowing it wasn't available anywhere else in the area.
"Michael asked me one day over the phone in July, 'Do you want to do a pop-up at The Daily?' Ghaznavi remembers. "My jaw dropped, and I said, 'I will never say no to you about anything from now on. You don't have to ask me. Yes, of course I'll do a pop-up!'"
Over the course of the 14 days Ghaznavi had to prepare, Ma'am Saab was born. The name, Ma'am Saab, was chosen to represent Charleston's incredible hospitality and its similarities to Pakistani culture. Coming from Pakistan and growing up in Saudi Arabia, Ghaznavi and her family were delighted to find that Charleston was "a perfect environment to encourage ethnicity."
"I wanted to make sure that my name captured that respect and etiquette of Pakistan and Charleston," Ghaznavi says. To do this, Ghaznavi and her husband Raheel chose the phrase "ma'am saab," incorporating honorifics from English and Urdu. "Ma'am" typically refers to women in English, while "saab" is the Urdu equivalent of "mister." Together, the phrase "ma'am saab" is used in Pakistan to respectfully address white-skinned females. According to Raheel, it can also mean "boss lady."
With just two weeks to build a brand, menu, and staff from scratch, there were, understandably, a few worries.
"Before I opened, I was worried people wouldn't be okay with a 'non-chef' serving food because Charleston has such a beautiful food scene, especially local. I kept wondering, 'how are people going to respond to this?'"
Since then, followers have responded with lines around the block and Ghaznavi has repeated appearances at The Daily and elsewhere. But with many kitchens closed, Ghaznavi knew she would have to change course.
"I knew I wouldn't be able to just sit here and stop moving," says Ghaznavi. Preparing meals out of the kitchen at Workshop, Ma'am Saab has started delivering.
"Looking back after that first week of delivery, the whole concept of why I started Ma'am Saab was to make home cooked meals and comfort food for other people," Ghaznavi says. Still, pivoting from pop-ups during a crisis like this hasn't been easy.
"It's a very labor intensive process," Ghaznavi says. Because I can't hire someone else right now, I'm trying to make sure that I'm the only person who does the groceries, preps, cooks, and packs. Raheel doesn't even touch the food until it's in the bag."
Ghaznavi also had to change the way she prepared the food. Instead of making dishes to be served immediately, she now thinks about how the preparations transfer to your home kitchen. To compensate, some menu items require heating or quick preparation. (Instructions on how to fry samosas are included, for instance.) To make things even more exciting, the menu changes daily.
Check out Ma'am Saab's Instagram for the daily menu and head to maamsaabchs.com to order home-cooked Pakistani meals for you and your family. New menus are posted each morning (Sun.-Thurs.) for delivery the following day.
Ma'am Saab is also partnering with Feeding Our Heroes. Customers have the option pay for discounted meals for first responders and medical staff when they place their orders.