“Communities of Hope” features Detroiters from communities of color who have been looking for ways to persevere during the pandemic.
In the early months of the pandemic, Sadya Chowdhury lost her job. Initially, she buckled down like everyone else during the COVID-19 lockdown. But over time she found a way to pursue a dream she’s had for a very long time: cooking for others.
Chowdhury was born in Bangladesh but moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 16 years old. One of her first jobs was working as a food server at a nursing home.
“I love it!I feel like a boss lady … coming from all the way from Bangladesh and becoming something and people know me as Zafreen’s Kitchen.” –Sadya Chowdhury
Chowdhury says she’s been cooking since she was a child.
“In Bangladesh … I used to be with my mom … all the time whenever she’s cooking. So I always have like different affection for food … So I’m always around the food. Always eating, cooking. Always like hosting people with food.”
Chowdhury lived in Maryland for five years, then Virginia, and finally settled in Michigan in 2018 to live closer to her younger sister and Metro Detroit’s Bangladeshi community.
Two years ago Chowdhury was working at Greektown as a server. She was laid off due to the pandemic in March 2020. Her husband had to work double shifts at Greektown and pick up Uber customers to pay the bills and make up for the loss of income.
But losing her job led to another opportunity: cooking.
From 1 Customer to 1,000 Instagram Followers
Chowdhury is in her kitchen in Sterling Heights. She’s preparing dishes to serve at a local pop-up event called Festive Bazaar at Kabob House in Hamtramck showcasing small businesses selling food, clothes and jewelry.
She adds fenugreek seeds to hot vegetable oil in a frying pan until they pop. Then she adds red onions and gives it a good mix before adding the other ingredients: cabbage and carrots.
“I finished making naga shingara so now I started with veggie roll for the mela we are having on Saturday, Sunday.”
Chowdhury has come a long way since cooking for her first customer, a friend’s friend who contracted the virus and wasn’t able to cook.
“So I literally had one customer for three months. He took food for three months because he was really sick. Then I got a second customer, then slowly you know, it started growing and [customers] got more and more connected with,” she says.
She says people were still ordering takeout and because of the pandemic, she now had time to cook while caring for her family.
“Then I thought of why not I start it because this is a one actual opportunity … And if I do good like to be able to love it, like if I pour my heart and soul into it, I’m inshallah [God willing] I’m pretty sure people will love it,” Chowdhury says.
Chowdhury launched her Instagram page in October 2020 with just her family and friends. It blossomed to 1,000 followers within three months. She’s now completed nearly 400 orders, on average five a week, sometimes cooking for 200 people at a time. Her business Zafreen’s Kitchen comes from her nickname, Zafreen, and honors the place where these meals are created, right in her small kitchen.
The business is so successful that her husband no longer has to work double shifts, and her income is supporting the family.
“Once people started tagging me that’s how other people knew about it and I think Instagram was a big part of my journey,” she says.
Her meals are made up of Bangladeshi staple foods like party-style chicken roast and pulao, or khala buna, a beef curry, with some of her own mixes like naga chicken wings flavored by habanero peppers. She’s been adding pasta and fusion foods to her menu upon request.
But what makes her food different from the other Bangladeshi foods? Chowdhury says it’s in the way she mixes spices. “I make my own spice … not everything, but in some extra special spices,” she says.
It’s a skill she learned from her mom. She wants her food to give off a homey feeling.
“I want them to like my food or appreciate … not just make money,” she says.
Balancing Family Responsibilities and Passion Projects
A few days later Chowdhury is at the pop-up bazaar selling her dishes: naga wings, beef haleem and jhal muri — popular Bangladeshi snacks. “We’re celebrating end of the summer, celebrating together. We have the Zafreen’s Kitchen, festive essential Armario collection,” says Chowdhury.
Her husband, Naheyan Chowdhury, is by her side serving guests.
“I’m supporting my wife’s brand. I’m really proud of her that she’s wherever … come to this far … so hope to continue and go far as much as possible,” he says.
Farija Rashmin is from Warren. She became a customer last year and continues to order meals from Zafreen’s Kitchen.
“Well I been her customer since last year, beginning of last year. From rolls to naga wings, I love her naga wings, by the way, I got my sister-in-law, my sister, everybody hooked to that,” Rashmin says.
Chowdhury says as a minority she’s had to learn the ropes of business by herself. That includes everything from launching an online presence to helping create her logo to figuring out business best practices.
For many Bangladeshi women, opening their own business is challenging. But some have found ways to put their families first by working in their homes, while keeping their passion projects alive.
“A couple of times actually … people ditch me last minute after we’ve been cooking the food so that I was very naive I’d say first, like first when I started,” she says.
But that hasn’t deterred her from her goal to keep cooking.
Chowdhury says she’s happy she has been able to make a name for herself.
“I love it!I feel like a boss lady … coming from all the way from Bangladesh and becoming something and people know me as Zafreen’s Kitchen,” she says.
Chowdhury was a working mom who pivoted to a stay-at-home caretaker for her family. Despite the unknown during the pandemic, she leaned into doing something positive — cooking for her family and others — to get through the tough times. She hopes someday she can take the next step and open a restaurant.
Listen: Inside Sadya Chowdhury’s Sterling Heights kitchen.