Parveen Ashraf is a chef and director of her own catering company - called Parveen The Spice Queen - and many readers will know her from her columns which have appeared in the Peterborough Telegraph over the last year or so.
She has been a regular demonstrator on the Hochanda shopping channel, and next month you will see her on prime time TV when she makes guest appearances on James Martin’s Saturday morning show.
Where did it all begin - how did you get into the business?
I started my catering company 10 years ago after leaving the corporate world. I was an Ofsted inspector, but the pressures of a demanding work schedule, raising three children and supporting my husband with his career, took its toll. I was diagnosed with a tumour and four operations later, I realised that something had to change. So, I decided to follow my passion for cooking and set up my own company as a private chef and cooking tutor. I began catering for corporate events, private parties and taught Indian cooking at City College Peterborough, the Regional College and a couple of catering colleges in East Anglia.
What were your ambitions then - and now?
Growing up as a woman in the Asian community, I had no real ambitions other than to get married, have a beautiful home and become a mum. That may sound very basic, but that was how it was. Also, when I was at school in the late 70s and early 80s the careers advice for girls wasn’t brilliant. You either became a nurse or secretary, and I didn’t want to do either.
The prospect of owning a business was never an option. However - on a positive, I DID fulfil my ambition; I married my soul mate, have a beautiful home and three amazing children. My home is my safe haven, which is important when you have a busy life, it’s always warm and welcoming with good food in the fridge. My children have nearly all left home now, which gives me chance to focus on the next chapter of my life and pursue my TV career. So, from very little aspiration, I now find myself being extremely ambitious and I don’t mind telling you, I am aiming high!
Who have been your influences?
My biggest influences in terms of my cooking was my late mother. She was such a passionate cook and everything she made tasted amazing; from a full-on Indian banquet to something as simple as a cup of tea or an egg on toast. Mum always told me the secret to cooking good food was the energy that goes into it. As a young woman, I thought it was mumbo jumbo and my mum was one sandwich short of a picnic - food pun intended! I now believe this philosophy wholeheartedly and follow it avidly.
How did you come to be in Peterborough?
We moved to Peterborough in 1997 when my husband was relocated as technical director of Hampton. Many wives follow their husbands around with their career, I was no different, at all his work events, I was his wife - Mrs Ashraf. How the tables have turned! He now introduces himself as Parveen, The Spice Queen’s husband - so there is justice in the world, ladies!
What can people expect from your style of catering?
My food is a Kashmiri- style cuisine, it’s less creamy and usually has a tomato based sauce.
One idiosyncrasy is that we cook a meat with a vegetable; so, for example, our readers may have had a chicken masala with saag (spinach) aloo. I amalgamate the two and make chicken with spinach - one of my husband’s favourites! The other thing people can expect is that my food is truly authentic; the food I cook for my clients is exactly the same as the food I cook for my family and friends. For me it’s about cooking with the freshest ingredients, the right spices and copious amounts of love.
What is the biggest misconception about Indian food?
Curries! There is so much more to our cuisine that just a curry.
People believe that Indian food is meant to be really spicy, in fact most authentic food is not too spicy, just spicy enough.
There is a huge range of spices; cumin, coriander, fennel, cinnamon, bay leaves etc.. none of which have any heat which comes from red chilli powder and a little from black pepper. A good dish contains an equal balance of spice and heat.
Like I always say, “it’s a party in your mouth, not a rave!”
What next for Parveen The Spice Queen?
I am currently working on my next cook book and a new spice range. I have been filming for The James Martin show, which is due to air in September. So, I have been busy but I still make time to cook for my family. They are my biggest fans but also my harshest critics - but they always come back for more so that’s ok.