"We want it to smell like a Delhi street food market". Edinburgh's popular Punjabi pop-up, SABZI, is opening a permanent restaurant this June
Soon, you won’t have to queue for their vibrant dishes
As restrictions gradually lift, the question for a lot of lockdown start-ups is, what next?
For SABZI (pronounced sub-zee), who launched their Punjabi street food weekend pop-up during the pandemic, and operated it from their eight-year-old Leith cafe, Coffee & Cream, it’s time to make things permanent. Owners, the Singh family, are transforming the cafe into a restaurant, with a lick of bright paint, a name change and a whole new menu. Its doors will be opening at the end of June.
The new rainbow-coloured mural, which has just been painted at the back of the emerging restaurant, is a good metaphor for the positivity the family feels about the next stage of their venture. They won’t be too sad to say goodbye to the old place, as it was on the cusp of going under, even before covid times.
“Coffee & Cream is a million miles away from where we’re at now, mentally and physically. Although we’re grateful for the time we had, we had to make the change. We were only a couple weeks away from shutting up shop because of how the business was struggling,” says Stevie Singh, 37. “For us, there was no real connection to serving bacon rolls and fry ups, but with SABZI, you’re getting our childhood experiences and our family holidays to India through our food, so we’re buzzing to get open for sit in”.
Now, it seems that people can’t get enough of their grub, which is cooked by mother and son team Paula, 58, and Ryan Singh, 36, with social media support from the eldest Singh brother and photographer, Stevie, who originally came up with the idea at the beginning of 2020.
Soon you’ll be able to sit in at the aubergine-coloured premises, at 162 Ferry Road - a stretch where, unlike other areas nearby, there’s not a huge amount of competition on the food front.
“It’s going to be your getaway to India, but here in Leith, where we grew up”, says Stevie. “It’ll be vibrant – a burst of colour and flavour, serving home-cooked recipes. We want it to smell like you’ve just landed in the street food markets in Delhi”.
Along the same lines as the pop-up, they’ll change the menu weekly, to “keep customers on their toes”, and the options will be similar to those they’ve served up and tested out on willing guinea pigs over the last year. Their Instagram page has been the ideal promotional tool, with Stevie’s professional pictures of perfectly styled dishes in their eco-friendly Vegware boxes. These creations have included golden paneer pakora, dahi bhalla (soft lentil fritters) and Bombay tikki balls, as well as their best-selling chicken kati rolls, chole bhature and keema toastie - “we sold out twice on separate days for those three dishes”.
As the caption beside the picture of the toastie says; “As kids, we’d come home from school and mum would have these ready for us to eat”. Oh to be a child in the Singh family. Their grown-up version features minced lamb, cheddar and is served with a side of masala ketchup and crisps.
During lockdown, these goodies have prompted queues along Ferry Road, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
“The overall reaction to what we’ve been doing as a small family business has been mind-blowing. We never expected it to do so well”, Stevie says. “Letting customers into our little world of Punjabi food heaven was a vulnerable process, as we didn’t know how people would respond but it’s the best thing we’ve ever done! We feel seen and heard”.
To cope with their popularity, the rest of the family have got involved.
Dad, Gary, 60, who owns a nearby greengrocers, now looks after the accounts and stock, youngest brother, Sonny, 32, writes the menus, and Stevie’s sisters-in-law, Rakhi (Ryan’s wife), 34, and Kiran (Sonny’s wife), 33, have been roped into helping with prep.
Sonny’s two small children, aged five and one, don’t have a job to do, as yet.
Owning a thriving family business has created an interesting dynamic, which could be difficult for some.
“Working together has its pros and cons, it’s a roller-coaster”, says Stevie. “Seeing mum thrive in the kitchen and putting all her knowledge and experience into these dishes we ate growing up is priceless. As a whole, watching each other in a fast paced and pressured environment was an eye opener for us all. We learned very quickly where we needed to improve. The hardest thing is to be honest with each other when something doesn’t go to plan, to voice that in a way where we’re not putting each other down”.
As well as staying diplomatic, they’ve all had to work harder than they’d imagined, as it transpired that other people like Stevie, Ryan and Sonny’s mum’s recipes as much as he and his brothers did.
“As a family, we’re very proud to be serving the food we’ve grown up around. Mum would always make sure we were fed, from traditional food to turkey dinosaurs, pasta and stir-fries”, he says. “Dad would always provide for us, working 15 hour days, 7 days a week, but we’d always try our best to meet around the dinner table, as food is one of the many things that unites us. We want to be able to give our diners a chance to experience that togetherness and it’s exactly what we’ll be aiming to do at SABZI”.