Malika brings Pakistani Cuisine to South Carolina
Words by Michelle Ferrand
The idea of bringing a piece of Pakistan to Charleston grew from a place of nostalgia for Maryam Ghaznavi and Raheel Gauba, co-owners of Malika, South Carolina’s first Pakistani restaurant. After moving away from their families in Canada, Maryam took up the task of recreating all of their favorite Pakistani meals for themselves and their new friends.
“I was my mom’s chief taste tester,” shared Maryam, Malika’s chef, reflecting on how her love of cooking started. “The spices coming together and the aroma—it would just be so beautiful in the kitchen.”
Fast-forward a few years. At the suggestion of a friend, Maryam and Raheel started a Pakistani food pop-up called Ma’am Saab, which means female boss or girl boss in Urdu. While the pop-up met with exciting success, it was meant to be a side gig for the couple—until the pandemic started.
“We were never thinking that we were going into the restaurant business because Maryam was a school teacher and I had my own photography studio,” explained Raheel. “Then the pandemic hit. We asked ourselves, ‘People are going to need food during a pandemic. Why don’t we try?’”
After working out of a food hall, the couple planned to open a physical location for Ma’am Saab in downtown Charleston. A lease was signed, but due to COVID-related delays, the opening date kept getting pushed back and back. Then another location opened, and it was perfect. They jumped at the opportunity and opened Malika in August 2021.
Malika, which means queen in Urdu, offers quick-service, street-style food—a concept influenced by their experiences growing up in Pakistan. Located street-side in a very active part of town, it’s not uncommon to see lines outside the door. “We created a menu and environment that’s colorful like our culture. The music are songs that we not only grew up with but still listen to,” Raheel said. “This is our life—an extension of our living room.”
According to Maryam, Charleston has welcomed Malika with open arms and given the space nothing but love. Over the holiday season, they were delighted with the volume of orders they received and the overwhelming support from their new community. “Who would’ve thought that, in the deep South, people want Pakistani food for Christmas,” she said.
While popular dishes such as butter chicken or tikka masala can be found on the menu, Maryam incorporated other authentic Pakistani dishes such as Chapli kebab, a ground beef and lentil patty served with basmati rice and naan, and Shakarkandi Chaat, a sweet potato dish she remembers eating at bazaars with her mom and sister. Malika does offer vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free options on its menu, so long as the flavor isn’t being compromised. “If we were in Pakistan, [Malika’s menu] would be 100 percent authentic, without us changing the recipe,” Raheel added.
In Pakistan, there are four provinces, each with its own quintessential dishes. Raheel and Maryam try to encompass each region’s style of cooking at Malika.
“The Lahori Cholay plate represents Punjab where Maryam is from. Chapli kebab is from the Northwest Frontier Province. Biryanis are most known from Sindh. That’s where I’m from,” explained Raheel.
“In keeping the menu as authentic as possible, certain dishes can’t be offered,” Maryam said. Sometimes it’s because she can’t find certain cuts of meat or spices. Other times, a dish may require a style of cooking that is unknown to their team, who don’t have a background in Pakistani cuisine.
“If we’re going to be pioneers in introducing a new cuisine to the city, it’s only fair that we offer something as authentic as possible,” she said. “And that comes down to the presentation, how it’s plated, and how it’s prepared.”
Their first pop-up, Ma’am Saab, hasn’t gone away entirely; it will open at its brick and mortar location sometime in the spring. Unlike its previous iteration, Ma’am Saab will be an elevated experience, with chef-driven seasonal menus and cocktails and the first Pakistani restaurant to offer alcohol.
“Pakistan is a dry country, but we have a different life philosophy where we believe ‘to each their own,’” explained Raheel. “So we’re creating one heck of a cocktail menu that pairs well with all kinds of complex spices. But we will also have a very beautiful mocktail menu that pays homage to our culture.”
Owning the first two Pakistani restaurants in South Carolina is an honor that the couple doesn’t take lightly. “Charlestonians have embraced us as their comfort food, and it gives me so much joy to bring more of my traditional recipes to the menu,” Maryam said. “Pakistani cuisine doesn’t get enough recognition for its wealth and depth of flavors—we are on a mission to help change that.”