Find Maryam Ghaznavi at Malika in Mount Pleasant until Ma'am Saab opens downtown this Spring | Photo by Ruta Smith

Heating Up

M aryam Ghaznavi was a school teacher less than two years ago. Today, she’s preparing to open Ma’am Saab, her flagship Pakistani restaurant downtown, while also running Malika, a fast-service restaurant in Mount Pleasant.

Maryam Ghaznavi and husband Raheel Gauba started Ma’am Saab in 2019

With husband Raheel Gauba, the couple started Ma’am Saab pop-ups in 2019, hustled food all over Charleston for pandemic-times delivery and then followed that with a residency at the now-closed Workshop food hall. At the start of 2021, it was announced Ma’am Saab would move to a brick-and-mortar location, taking over the landmark Jestine’s Kitchen, which closed in June 2020. In the midst of the renovations for Ma’am Saab, Malika opened in Mount Pleasant Towne Center.

Fast forward to the new year, and plans for Ma’am Saab’s long-awaited opening are penciled in for the end of March, Ghaznavi told the City Paper. 

“The goal is to have the building ready, hopefully by the end of January or February, then start hiring and training,” she said. “We’re looking toward the end of quarter one.”

Malika is slated to remain open after the opening of Ma’am Saab. The restaurants will have two different dining styles, with Malika’s counter service and Ma’am Saab’s planned restaurant format. 

As prep for Ma’am Saab continues, Ghaznavi reflects on the colder months and how to approach preparing the Pakistani cuisine she grew up on for Charleston diners during what could be a slow time.

“We had only one past winter of Ma’am Saab being [open], and I remember we were told that ‘Winter’s coming and business will go down,’ and we were expecting that,” Ghaznavi said. “We realized that business and sales numbers would change, but there was still a large interest in our cuisine, so we didn’t really see a huge dip during winter and that really confirmed how I feel about my cuisine – that it is comforting … It is satisfying.”

“With the cold temperature outside, there’s a need for coziness and comfort,” she added. “You just want to go home and drink tea or coffee and wrap up in a blanket, and I think people sort of gravitate toward food that fulfills those same senses.”

Pakistani dishes like the curries found in butter chicken or tikka masala, there’s plenty of spice and heat to stimulate those senses. Ghaznavi estimates “almost 99%” of her food is always hot — no shortage of satisfaction as you tuck into plates of chicken biryani.

“Most of my cuisine is warm and comfort-friendly,” she said. “We saw a rise of interest in butter chicken, for example, because it is very homey and comforting. Like for me, if I’m looking for something different in the winter time, I’ll get a bowl of pho – that hot, nice broth with chicken. It’s the same with our butter chicken.”

But food can be more than just a physical experience, according to Ghaznavi. It’s an emotional one, too. 

“If your food can somehow take anybody, from any culture or any region, and take them back to some memory that they had — that right there is comfort,” she said. “It’s a memory and everything related to it.”

As a chef, she wants to introduce dishes from her youth to recreate that feeling of nostalgia, but as a business owner, there’s a risk that a dish won’t sell. To combat that, Malika’s occasional specials help “bring in a flavor and get [customers] comfortable.”

“Quite a few things we’ve done as specials, people have come back and asked for. They say, ‘When are you doing that again?’” she said. “So slowly, we are kind of building those comfort dishes for people.”

But some guests can’t quite put a finger on why Ghaznavi’s dishes are different, she said.

“Other times, when people come in, they say, ‘I don’t know what that was, but it felt like somebody’s grandma made it.’ And that right there means they have some connection.”