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Pioneering Restaurateur Saima Thompson Used Her Cooking to Create Space for Others

Remembering the co-founder of Masala Wala Cafe, who used her platform to build visibility and ownership for women in the Pakistani community

Masala Wala Cafe founder Saima Thompson GirlvsCancer [Official Photo]

On a blustery November afternoon in 2016, Saima Thompson welcomed me at Masala Wala Café, the restaurant she had set up in Brockley with her mother Nabeela Muqadiss a year earlier, for the first time. Until then I had never walked into a restaurant serving Pakistani cuisine as a solo diner, in part, due to the male-dominated culture of curry houses in Britain. But Masala Wala Cafe was decidedly different. It was among the first of its kind — a Pakistani restaurant owned and run by women — in London. The sense of intimacy that Thompson had cultivated in the restaurant was immediately palpable. The aloo gosht (slow cooked lamb and potato) and tadka daal provided much needed warmth and comfort, but it was the conversation with the luminous Thompson that I remember most vividly.

Thompson spoke passionately about diversifying kitchens as key to her vision for setting up the restaurant. She not only wanted to celebrate seasonal Punjabi home cooking but also honour the invisible labour of immigrant women of her mother’s generation, who are excluded both from work and business ownership in the U.K. labour market, despite having decades of valuable experience in the kitchen. Through sheer determination and a can-do attitude, Thompson built and sustained a much lauded restaurant business, which enabled her mother to become financially independent for the first time in her life. But spending time in the kitchen cooking and serving guests also deepened her sense of rootedness as a second generation immigrant, whose memories of her mother’s cooking were entangled in a mesh of nostalgia and being othered. As Thompson expressed in her own words: “Cooking and serving my ancestral food with my mother was liberating. I felt like my true self and a million miles away from the young Pakistani girl I once was, running out of my family kitchen, shouting, ‘Mummy I don’t want to smell like curry at school!’ I felt proud of my British Asian identity and wore my turmeric-stained hands like a badge of honour.”

Thompson passed away on Saturday 27 June at the age of 31, two years after being diagnosed with incurable Stage IV lung cancer. She leaves behind her three sisters, Sanam, Ikra, and Nafeesa, mother Nabeela and husband Gareth.

It was in May 2018, during an interview for a piece on women chefs disrupting the Pakistani curry house model in Britain, that Thompson disclosed her cancer diagnosis. At the age of 29, she was told by doctors that she had only six to 12 months to live. While attempting to articulate a response that might comfort, she carried on the conversation with unbridled optimism brimming with updates about what she planned to do next. A few days later, she welcomed me warmly to Masala Wala again, as we chatted over lunch about how she built the restaurant from the ground up; the sadness of letting go of her dream project of Deptford Esquire, a craft beer and cocktail bar with Pakistani street food that she had opened just a few months back in collaboration with Little Nan’s Bar; and how she envisioned writing a cookbook on Pakistani home cooking.

Thompson’s self-assuredness masked how difficult her path towards becoming a restaurateur had been, with the overlapping axes of race, class and gender stacked against her. As the eldest of four sisters, Thompson had to step up at the age of 12 following her parents’ divorce to become a bedrock for the family. She traced her instincts as a natural leader and problem-solver to these formative years in her life when she learned to overcome the fear of her family falling apart, fear of losing their home and fear of not getting food on the table. She talks about this at length in her blog, Curry and Cancer, that she started in August 2018. In her blog she writes lucidly with remarkable candour about the events that shaped her life until the diagnosis, real-time accounts of losing her sense of taste, dealing with anticipatory grief, and cultural stigma toward illness and death in South Asian communities. While Thompson ruminates on confronting the inevitable, there is no trace of self-pity or despondency. Her posts are a beautiful meditation on how to pursue living each moment with grace and courage.

After her diagnosis, Thompson’s sisters became more actively involved in the day to day running of the business and split her role amongst them. However, she continued to work on the monthly changing menus and support her staff. “I want to ensure that the restaurant my family and I built together to celebrate the food of our heritage has stability and longevity, even if my health doesn’t,” she wrote in early 2019.

Thompson refused to let cancer extinguish her indefatigable spirit. In between her treatment, she organised supperclubs to raise funds for cancer support charities, wrote and spoke regularly on the need to break down taboos and misconceptions on living with cancer as a young woman of colour, set up a BAME cancer support group, and co-hosted a podcast on BBC Asian Network. What shone through all of Thompson’s endeavours was her tremendous fortitude and her innate ability to catalyse conversations, collaborations, and a sense of community. When Masala Wala Café had a second break-in in autumn 2018, the community that her restaurant nourished stepped in to organise a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than £3,500 for repairs in just 15 hours — a testament to how embedded and integral the restaurant had become in the south east London neighbourhood.

The indomitable character and the objectivity with which Thomson approached her fight against cancer was nothing short of inspirational. In her short but extraordinary life, Thompson carved a special place for herself as a trail-blazing restaurateur in an industry where immigrant women chefs running independent restaurants with no PR budgets have limited visibility, access to resources, and opportunities. As a campaigner, she also paved the way for other minorities to break the silence on living with cancer. Her story may have been cut short abruptly, but she continued to narrate it with vigour, on her own terms, until the very end.