Sikh Sisters Behind The Punjabi Women's Kitchen


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Ladies who launch: the Sikh sisters behind the Punjabi women’s kitchen

It’s the pale orange blush roses on the counter that you notice first.

Their petals washed with peach like watercolour on canvas, they stand out like bright orbiting suns against the white backdrop of the room.

There’s not much in the way of Michelin star decor in Punjab'n De Rasoi.

Its bare chairs and tables are not draped with satin white linen. Its plates are not fine porcelain nor its glasses made of the finest crystal.

But any chef worth his salt would eat his white hat for even one hour in its kitchen with the doyennes of dining who reside there.

“It used to be full of cracked cement and rubble,” laughs Ashan Singh merrily as she looks around the cafe.

“It had no floors, it had holes in the walls but it was the home we needed. So we negotiated a price and started work. It took almost a year and a half to get it going.”

Ashan is dressed like the flowers, in brilliant persimmon with flurries of gold.

At 60 years old, she is one of the founders of the community cafe which has been feeding local Leithers now for almost three years.

“Everyone comes in because everyone loves a curry,” smiles Ashan, as she walks in from the cafe’s kitchen.

“Everything is cooked from fresh in the morning. Nothing is cooked the night before. We make it like we do from home - from scratch.”

And this, quite simply, is the secret of the Punjabi’s success.

From its white netted window curtains down to its little ceramic door chime, walking into the cafe feels like walking into your auntie’s home, knowing the kettle is already on the boil for you and that some good old fashioned home cooking is heating on the stove.

“We marinade the fish, chop all the potatoes and prepare the chicken from fresh every morning,” insists Ashan. “We don’t reheat.”

Punjab'n De Rasoi is a women’s kitchen, set up to support the local ladies of Leith by recruiting them and taking on volunteers to help locals develop extra experience and skills.

“It was a general idea that we all kind of had,” explains Ashan. “We wanted to help women get out and about, particularly Sikh women who were not integrating as much and were feeling isolated.

“Women were very homebound, just watching Eastenders and Corrie. I think they thought that that was how Edinburgh was – like the soaps - they thought that was how people really lived and didn’t want their daughters to experience that.

“It’s completely untrue of course so we wanted a way to encourage them to blend with the community.

“We tried to look at what we were good at and what we could do. We’re all good at cooking so that seemed a good way to go. In India they have these ladies only carriages on the trains where women can go to relax and that sparked an idea too.

“We got together as a group, my sisters and I. I’m one of seven so I have a lot of sisters,” she laughs.

“My younger sister Trishna went off and sourced somewhere where we could try our idea out – our idea to start up a women’s kitchen with the local women helping to run it.

“Steve, at the Dr Bells family centre said they were quiet on a Wednesday and we were welcome to try it then.

“Five or six of us took it on, sisters and local women, and we enjoyed it and more importantly, the customers seemed to enjoy it too.”

Their trial complete, the group of women applied and were granted a £70,000 sum from the Scottish Government’s Third Sector Enterprise Fund to get their idea moving forward.

“We were looking everywhere – all we knew was that we wanted it in Leith near our homes and our community, a place of our own,” explains Ashan.

“This place had been lying empty for quite a long time. I think it used to be a fish shop but had been empty for ten years. We made it over and opened the doors.

“At first we were only open a couple of days but then we took it from there and all our regulars built up. Now we’re opening evenings and weekends too.”

Originally from Glasgow, Ashan and her sisters put down their success to the support that has come from the people of Leith and to people’s passion for food.

“I think our own passion for food comes from home,” explains Ashan. “Our kids are weaned on curries, rice and daal.

“Their wee eyes water but they still want more,” she laughs. “In my day we started cooking at the age of 10, helping mum roll out the chapattis. By the time you’re 16 you’re a pretty good cook.

“We don’t have any scales in the cafe at all, the measuring just comes automatically. And because each lady here has their own style of cooking, each day you come here the dishes will taste different.

“We sometimes add a bit of inventiveness but we know, after having lived in Edinburgh over the last 40 years, which recipes are the best.”

The ladies haggis pakora has become a local favourite and it’s the mix of culture that Ashan and those at the cafe love.

“This is my country,” says Ashan simply. “I was born here. I’ve been to India but home is home.

“There’re still loads of the family in Glasgow but I got married here in Edinburgh, as did all my sisters. My mum loved that we moved over here together. She wanted all of us sisters to be together.

“My sister Trishna is the main director here at the cafe and she has done amazing things, I’m so proud of her. She’s brought up her family, did her degree, run this place and organised her daughter’s wedding all at the same time. She’s dynamite. And she keeps pushing us now to get out there and use our brains. She cajoles you into all sorts of things.

“I’m an interpreter for council and a lay advisor for Lothian and Borders Police,” she adds. “And that’s all down to her, encouraging us and pushing us.”

Ashan and her sisters are now familiar faces in Leith and are proud to call the area their home.

“We’ve always been part of Leith,” she smiles. “In 1958 my father-in-law came here. There’s been Sikhs in Edinburgh since the 50s but they like to keep themselves to themselves.

“They like to earn an honest living and share what they’ve got. The sharing of food is how we were brought up. All guests must eat something before they leave your house.

“Last September we did the Mela which meant feeding about 600 people,” she says grinning. “But the whole community came together to help us. All the ladies came in for the two days to help out.

“You just cook for 300 and double it, you know. We do it every weekend - our Sikh temple in Leith is an open kitchen so anyone can come in. One family sponsors the meal every Sunday so their family members do the cooking and 400-500 people will come in to be fed.

“Anything that is left goes to the Salvation Army or to the nurses homes.

“In India in the Golden Temple there’s 3000 people fed every day. It’s not so much religion as much as a way of life.

“As our Guru’s say, if you’re sitting there with a rumbling tummy you’re listening to that and not to your head or your heart.”

“This cafe is like our take on life. It’s not for our family or just for Sikhs, or even just for women. It’s is for Edinburgh, for Leith and for the whole community - it belongs to everybody.

“We’ve had people from Glasgow and Birmingham already asking questions about whether it could open up there,” Ashan adds shyly. “It could mean spreading our idea even further, but you never know.

“So one can dream.

“But in the mean time if you want an authentic Punjabi curry you’ll come here and once you do come you’ll never go anywhere else.”

The women of Punjab'n De Rasoi are now also running food masterclasses and are soon to undergo a revamp in the Spring.