The ‘Tsunami Prawns’ inspired by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf are fried in batter and sesame seeds with Bhut Jholokia spice, one of the hottest peppers in the world. The three chutneys – red, green and white – happen to be the colours of Muttahida Qaumi Movement. And in keeping with the political flavours, the prices at Biryani of the Seas are awami-style low.
“It’s for every segment of society, from the richest to the poorest. We have a plate of fish kebabs for Rs70, which someone can have with a roti. The biryani is Rs150. Anyone can eat here.”
These are the words of Syed Ali Raza Abidi – the affable 40-year-old owner of Biryani of the Seas who puts his mouth where the money is. He decided that BOTS, as the 20-something crowd refers to it as, will never be a “fine dining experience” with a large price tag attached to it. He wants it to be an ‘awami’ dhaba that aims to introduce seafood to the city at large.
The biryani – in prawn, chicken and fish – is among the cheapest items on the menu, which Abidi uses to offset the higher prices of other seafood items.
In the past year, BOTS has become a sensational success. It is located right next to PSO House on the left of Clifton bridge. On weekend nights, the once-sleepy lane that was just home to the officers of Frere police station has turned into a veritable carnival site, as tables of diners tuck into succulent prawn biryani, grilled fish and a Goan curry that makes your palate sing.
Of the customers the BOTS owner never expected were the men with “Prados and guards” who are now a regular sight, along with the vice-presidents of banks and politicians. “Everyone has eaten here,” Abidi says confidently. He has also been as confident with the liberal spices on the menu, which he owes to his Punjabi side of the family. “I used to have customers who said ‘you’ve triggered my migraine’ with the spices,” he recalls, before shrugging, “But this is dhaba-level food.” While seafood at roadside restaurants generally means fried fish or finger fish, the Biryani of the Seas menu offers a mix of Chinese, Pakistani and fast food options, mostly featuring seafood.
The restaurant emerged from a frozen seafood shop. Abidi’s family has run a seafood processing business since the 1980s, and process around 25 to 30 tonnes every day, which is exported to Asian and Gulf countries. The family opened up a store called Al Samak off Clifton Bridge. In November 2010, Abidi decided he wanted to experiment with food, and he and his cook made deghs of biryani in their kitchen at home. He actually didn’t train as a cook, having studied management at Boston University – but he spent the six years there cooking for himself and friends. “It has always been a passion,” says Abidi. “People don’t really know about seafood, and even fewer know how to cook seafood. So we started off with prawn and fish biryani.”
The biryani sales went so well that they decided to experiment more by introducing fried fish and shrimp and later on, Chinese food. “The food sales went up, and the frozen items sales went down!”
Then opportunity presented itself last July when a restaurant called Chef’s Cuisine opened up in the area to serve barbecued chicken. But it didn’t make much of a mark, and Abidi took the plunge to buy it out and take its entire staff. Other stores were rented too and Biryani of the Seas with its kitschy red Chinese lanterns (a gift from a friend who bought them from Thailand) was born.
Abidi used Facebook and Twitter to promote the restaurant, and later on bought banner space at a number of news websites. (Abidi works with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s social media wing as well). But the real boost also came from the nearby PSO House and Shell House staffers, who spread word of the eatery in the neighbourhood.
Setting up Biryani of the Seas was easier for Abidi because of the seafood courtesy the family business comes at subsidised prices. That subsidy trickles down to the customer as a result. As the restaurant ratcheted up the sales, Abidi was surprised that items such as squid and crabs turned out to be so popular, given that it’s not very easily available. The most popular orders remain for the biryani, followed by the handis and the Chinese items. There’s also a selection of fast food, “for that one guy in the group who just won’t eat seafood” and for children.
The second branch of Biryani of the Seas, in Karachi Administration Employees Cooperative Housing Society, serves the district and the offices on Shahrae Faisal. His employees are provided lodging in apartments above, as well as better salaries than the market rate and transportation, and he has brought in staff and cooks from other restaurants as well. The staff learns about the kinds of fish being served and how they have been prepared.
Abidi cites the neighbourhood as being a huge support, from the cops down the street to the residents of the apartments and the nearby shops. “Everyone thanks us, because of the business we’ve brought in and the traffic. We buy vegetables from the shop next door, and there’s now a guy selling Limca here, as well as another stall selling chaat.”
The masala dosas are made by a police officer’s relative, who used to cook for a woman who sold dosas at Boat Basin.
The next move for BOTS will be North Nazimabad or Gulshan-e-Iqbal, where a huge number of delivery orders come from. After that, Lahore’s the destination.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2012.