How This Kashmiri Home Maker in Her 40s is Living Her Entrepreneurial Dream
Interview done by Sidra Nazir from Gyawun
Tell us about yourself.
I am Irfana. I did my schooling from New Era Public School, +2 from Mallinson Girls Higher Secondary school and Graduated from Govt College for Women MA Road. I always find happiness in creative and artistic endeavours. Cooking, embroidery and painting have been my passion since childhood. In fact all my family members are inclined towards art and creativity. I got married at 19 and completed my studies simultaneously with raising kids. Early marriage enhanced the cook in me.
Tell us about Creative Expressions
Creative Expressions is a place where you learn to love cooking. We make it simple and at the same time exotic. We bake professional cakes without an oven, kebabs without charcoal and naans without tandoor. My aim is to make my students passionate about food and give them an insight of the tricks and small nitty-gritties of cooking food that I have learned for over 20 years in my kitchen. The idea is to eliminate the fear of stepping into the kitchen for my students.
With the positive response, I have also started taking orders for food over Facebook. So anyone can go to our page and order anything they like.
How did you come up with this idea?
Creative Expressions as an idea came to me while pursuing MA English from IGNOU around 4 years back. Studying with girls who were a generation younger to me was a new experience. I always thought that since I cooked good food everyone else is also doing it. But these young girls were an eye opener. Even the simple recipes in my lunch box were relished by the girls and when I tried to share my recipes with them, I got to know that most of them don’t even know basics of cooking. Girls these days are busy in pursuing their careers and rarely venture into the kitchen and once they are married, they are expected to cook like professional chefs. I felt I can bridge the gap and can make a difference by teaching people what I have learnt over years.
I had the idea but now I had to find the guts to execute. When I told my sisters about it, they pushed me to put it into action. Since we don’t have any cooking classes in Srinagar , I didn’t know how to start but my sisters just did all the basic work and my husband provided the financial support. I started to collect all my recipes and reshaped them properly to suit the needs of my students. In about two months’ time I was ready to go. We started the work in a room in my outhouse. Though I was wary that my venture can fail but my family just said that you will never know what will happen without trying. So we started Creative Expressions in December 2013.
We have cooking, hand embroidery, and art classes. For cooking classes we have a recipe list and girls can choose recipes of their own choice to get started. You have Mughlai, Chinese, Punjabi, baking, chocolate making and many more to choose from. We have flexible timings so that even after their busy schedule, girls can take out some time to create wonders in the kitchen.
For embroidery and art we have a basic course and an advanced course. All these are hobby courses where people can come and enjoy their time and learn something that can help them win hearts and spend their time productively. In my opinion, the magic of food is priceless: Smile
Tell us about your team
My sisters and my daughter are my team. Though I mostly take the cooking and embroidery classes myself but my sisters’ fill in whenever I need them. Yes, they are good cooks too!
My daughter, BadruNisa takes the art classes. Gyawun has already done a story on her paintings.
My husband and my family have been always there to support and push me forward. Creative Expressions wouldn’t have been possible without that. In Kashmir, a woman requires family support to excel.
In a society like Kashmir, it is difficult for a woman to start a new venture. Tell us about your experience
I think it is difficult for both men as well as women to start a new venture. You are testing un-tread paths and there is always a risk involved. You never know whether the idea will click or not. But for dreamers like me, a little bit of moral support can do wonders.
I’ve learned, it’s not going to be big in a day. You need to pin your efforts and hard work to make it fly
Social media is a saviour in this era. Women can start their ventures and put them on Facebook and people respond to it. We don’t have to go door to door to promote our ventures. A simple click can do that for us from the safety our homes. When I started uploading the pictures of our food on our Facebook page, reactions started to change and support and appreciation started to pour in. People came to know that we are not just cooking simple food but we are creating restaurant style food with less effort and without special equipment. And we started to grow.
As a woman, what does Creative Expressions mean to you?
Though I have always taken pride in being a homemaker, Creative Expressions has changed my life. I feel more confident about my skills I have acquired over years and happy to share them with my students. It has indeed given me expression. I think I have learned more than I have taught, in these 3 years. My family now includes more than 100 students I have trained in these years and I feel so proud when they send me pictures of food they make and the happiness they spread around. Most of my students are would-be brides who get jitters when they think of cooking at their in-laws place. But I am proud to say that my students have overcome this hurdle and have cooked with confidence and have been appreciated for their efforts and knowledge about cooking.
Also the people who order cakes or food have really appreciated me and that matters the most.
Plus, I am making money from my hobbies now and that too in my forties. Isn’t that amazing?
Is there a difference between cooking at home and teaching the same in kitchen class?
There is a lot of difference actually. Cooking at home is all about being instinctive or what you call to have a perfect ‘andaza’. But when you are teaching in the class the recipes should be well measured. Each and everything has to be precise. Even the method needs to be well planned. I have tried to keep it as professional as possible. From cooking to presentation of food I make all the efforts to keep up to standard. Only then I can teach someone correctly. I keep on updating my knowledge by reading a lot and keep on adding new recipes and new stitches to my courses. I make sure, even if the recipes are not from our Kashmiri cuisine but they are adapted to Kashmiri taste. Though I have hundreds of recipes but only the best and the tested recipes are on my Creative Expressions list.
Embroidery is an art for woman. How far is the statement true for Creative Expressions?
Embroidery has always acted as a stress buster for me. Though Kashmir has rich traditions in embroidery but girls take it as a vocation only and we see that educated girls mostly don’t know how to embroider. I want to change that perception. I want girls to take it up as a hobby. I teach them to make embroidered wall hangings or to embroider motifs here and there on their dresses. I can be just to please themselves and to see what beautiful things they can create on cloth, something they can enjoy in their free time.
I believe all women have beauty filled inside and embroidery paves way for that beauty .
You are providing a new dimension to the ‘casual’ work of a woman. What kind of response do you get from people?
Initially there wasn’t much support because it was altogether a new idea but gradually things have changed over years. My students intake has gradually increased plus I have taught tourists from outside state too, who wanted to know a thing or two about Kashmiri cooking. My work is now appreciated and I am persuaded by many to take up orders for the food I make. Now along with the classes, I have started taking orders for cakes and other food items on my Facebook page.
I am also planning to conduct one day cake workshops, where girls can learn all about the making and decorating cakes .
What kind of bottlenecks do you usually face?
The only bottle neck I faced is the mindset of people ; that cooking will come to you without learning. Though every girl gradually learns to cook but they face lot of difficulties in doing so. My students have shared many anecdotes about their failed experiments in kitchen and how it left them humiliated. They can skip the experimenting part and start cooking good food right away by joining the classes. Times have changed and you may be even cooking good food already but there are many cuisines that have added to the Kashmiri platter over time by the ever growing restaurants and cafes. Your children will demand different food than what you used to cook. So what’s wrong in learning new techniques and trying those recipes at home and enjoying them at your home? You have to keep pace with the changing times. Though we celebrate each occasion with a bakery item but it never occurred to us that we can bake too. We always thought it as something professional. But trust me, baking is so easy and can be done without special equipment.
You’re an inspiration to many. Any message for people out there?
My message would be to keep your dreams alive and to work on them. You may or may not succeed but at the end of the day you won’t have any regrets that you didn’t try. Trying is what ultimately matters in life. Failing doesn’t.
You can get in touch with Creative expressions on Facebook www.facebook.com/createnexpress