As the child of immigrant parents from Pakistan, Maryam Khan was basically raised in the family’s video store.
Located near 8 Mile & Middlebelt, Umang Music sold Bollywood films out front and housed her musician father’s jam space, while her aunt ran a little bakery business out of the back.
“We grew up wrapping DVDs in cellophane with a heat gun,” Khan fondly recalls. “All of our family friends, everyone was always at the shop. My dad had friends whose kids would move here from Pakistan and India and he would hire them. It’s cool that all these people that flooded into the country would come into this store and it was this bridge for all these people.”
Though the store is no longer, Khan continues her family’s tradition of building cultural bridges with Khana Detroit, an irreverent Pakistani-inspired food pop-up she founded with Carlos Parisi in 2018. (Parisi, who is known for his Aunt Nee’s line of chips and salsas, left Khana at the beginning of 2022.)
Like so many third-culture kids, Khan felt the oppositional forces of American life and her family’s home life pulling at each other. The family ate only halal meat and her mom’s traditional Pakistani cooking was a source of shame for young Maryam.
“More than anything, when I was young I wanted to be a white American girl and this food is what held me back most,” she says. “If I ever brought this to school, no one would let me live. I wanted McDonald’s fries all the time. I was mad that we only ate halal meat. I grew up eating a lot of tuna because we couldn’t get a hamburger anywhere. I resented my culture as a kid, because I felt like it held me back.”
Things changed after she moved out of her parents’ house. Khan found herself longing for her mother’s cooking and the feeling of home it represented for her. And with her newfound adult independence, she fell into a friend group that actually appreciated her cultural perspective.
“I started to miss my own food, and when I would come home and eat, I just loved it,” she says. “It was just baby steps from there that just led me to realizing that this food is so rich and rooted in culture and history and steeped in tradition and it’s so shitty of me having resented it all my life.”
While her adolescence was geared toward the life of the theater, the stage proved elusive. She dropped out after studying film for one semester at a community college and instead fell into restaurant work to make ends meet, bouncing from place to place as a server or food runner — always in the front of the house.
In the summer of 2018, Khan expressed an interest to her friend Carlos Parisi in doing a one-off food pop-up that represented her bifurcated culture. In September, the pair launched Khana Detroit with a sellout service at The Kiesling in Detroit, slinging butter chicken nachos and shrimp masala sliders inspired by Khan’s nights coming home stoned to heat up her mom’s leftovers and slapping them on a bun.
“We didn’t anticipate it being so huge,” Khan says of that first pop-up. “I made a Facebook event for it and blasted everyone with these invites and somehow word got around. All of these random-ass people showed up and a lot of them were from the Desi culture that I’d never met. And my parents were there and they were approached by these people who were like, ‘You used to run Umang Music!’ That was a full circle moment.”
From there, Khana Detroit hit the ground running with pop-ups at bars around town.
Not long after beginning a weekly residency at the Elephant Room, the COVID-19 pandemic killed Khana’s momentum.
Eventually, things began opening up again and Khana was offered another weekly residency, this time at Batch Brewing in Corktown, where they presided over Tuesday nights for a full year. That consistent weekly service drew more fans, and in January 2022, Khana became one of the first residencies at the newly rechristened FRAMEbar, taking over the front space for five-day-a-week dinner service for a full month.
The success of that month — sparked in part by Khan’s stellar lamb chops with “chimichutney” and a delectable butter chicken “sandoori” sandwich — spurred a residency in 2022 out of Frame’s newest space, the BIG TOP tent.
But for Khan, the deeply personal project is about more than just food. Khana is an attempt to bridge the gap between culture and personal identity for both herself and others who don’t necessarily feel comfortable exposing themselves in that way.
“I know it’s just a food pop-up, but I think it speaks to people as more than just that,” Khan says. “I come from a culture where women are still incredibly oppressed and have horrible expectations placed on them. I want to continue to be part of and support this wave of people taking charge of themselves and throwing it back in the faces of people who created those expectations.
“I’m representing a part of my past that I really struggled with and hopefully am making it easier for a little brown girl that wants to do something different but feels alone and lost. Just know you’re not alone.”
Follow Khana Detroit on Instagram @khanadetroit.