An Interview with Nasir Zubair of Karachi Cowboys

An Interview with Nasir Zubair of Karachi Cowboys

Nasir Zubair is a Seattle-based cook hailing from Houston, Texas. The roots of Karachi Cowboys are in the Pakistani home cooking of his father’s family and the food his African-American maternal grandparents made when they’d visit on Sundays. Nas’ food is flavorful and soulful. His dishes honor tradition ​and​ creatively bend the rules with inspiration and techniques from the Middle East, Pacific Northwest, Texas BBQ, India, and Pakistan. Follow @karachicowboys on Instagram for the latest news on where to enjoy a tasty meal and good company. 

Image credit to Kyle Johnson @kjphotos1022

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Where did your journey with food begin? 

Nas: I grew up watching my parents cook. My mom grew up in Seattle. My dad grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. They met in Houston, Texas in the 70’s. My mom is African-American and converted to Islam after being a part of the Black Panthers Party when she was in high school. My mom’s parents also lived in Houston and were a big influence on me growing up—my grandpa, especially. 

When my parents got married my dad’s mom came over from Pakistan and stayed for a month to teach my mom everything about Pakistani cooking. Somehow they managed to do this even though my grandmother did not speak English and my mom was still very much in her study of Urdu.  

My mom cooked Pakistani food for utility—to feed us during the week. I watched her all the time. She created tasks for my siblings and me—like washing the serrano peppers and pushing the button on the food processor to help make green masala. 

I was invested in green masala (a paste made from ginger, garlic, and serrano peppers) because it was the base for Kheema. Kheema was my favorite dish as a little guy—except for the peas. A lot of me being in trouble was because I would hide, smooch, or use other antics to avoid eating peas. 

My dad would take over the kitchen on the weekends and cook super weird, experimental stuff. He would do all the grocery shopping on Saturdays at the Asian and Pakistani markets. He would bring home a lot of unique and random fruits and vegetables that were not traditionally a part of Pakistani food, but prepare them using traditional methods and spices. That has had a big influence on me. 

My mom’s dad was also a significant figure for me. He was my bud. Grandpa would cook barbecue and a lot of snacks. For BBQ his thing was beef brisket. For snacks one of his favorites was popcorn. He popped it in a classic Orville Redenbacher popcorn popper. He would make a giant amount, put it in a brown paper grocery bag, pour salt and butter over it, and shake it up. Then we would watch Westerns, or “shoot-em-ups,” as he called them. He also loved to eat sardines and saltine crackers with Tabasco hot sauce.

“We were always told that men aren’t supposed to cook or be in the kitchen. But, both my dad and my grandpa did a lot of the cooking growing up. I loved being a part of that and it never felt strange to me.”

How did Karachi Cowboys come to fruition? 

Nas: I studied to be a graphic designer. I worked in the field for several years, but often had a job in coffee on the side. I enjoyed the process. I could focus on the technique. The tedious aspect was really good for me—dialing in the grind, knowing how much pressure to apply to create the perfect tasting shot of espresso. I was able to apply the same attention to detail I learned in design to coffee.

In 2014 I was considering a job transition and I ran into Rachel Marshall of Rachel’s Ginger Beer while I was on a soul-searching walk. I let her know some of what I was thinking about and she offered me a job in RGB’s production facility. I was a part of processing, production, and delivery. I learned a lot and I was really inspired by Rachel’s success. I knew her when she was a server at Delancey and was just dabbling with making her own ginger beer. It was really powerful to witness her grow her business from an idea to a farmer’s market hit to several successful bars. 

My passion for the food industry was taking root and I was exploring going to culinary school. The cost and the time was a barrier for me, so I sought out an opportunity to learn on the job. I was lucky enough to find that at the London Plane. It was a privilege to work under Chef Ricardo Valdes (Raiz, El Xolo). During my time at London Plane I started to dig deeper into Pakistani food and I knew I wanted to gain more experience in Middle Eastern food, which led me to work with Chef Carrie Mashaney and the crew at Mamnoon.

It was trial by fire on the line, but it was during that season that the vision of Karachi Cowboys began to take shape. I felt a strong passion to create delicious, traditional Pakistani food and interest in experimenting with the flavors of my Texan roots. My best friend, Kyle Johnson, and I have been grilling and smoking meats for years. We started experimenting. I developed a spice rub using Pakistani spices and other primary ingredients and we tried it on a brisket. It was delicious. We kept experimenting and eventually connected with Brandon Pettit to see if we could pop up at Delancey. We debuted in March 2019 and had the opportunity to build on that momentum with pop-ups at Mean Sandwich and Holy Mountain Brewing.

Meanwhile, I transitioned to cooking at B~Side Foods. I had watched Danny Harlon and Tim’s coffee shop, Analog Coffee, grow into a neighborhood institution and expand to encompass a cafe with a cult following. I was a regular myself and wanted to be a part of it. Danny and Tim were also open to me popping up in their space during off-hours, which was huge. This allowed me to launch a weekly pop-up, which we’ve been running every Sunday since August 2019. 

Karachi Cowboy spread

What's one of your favorite memories surrounding food and community?

Nas: Giant dinner parties are a big part of Pakistani culture. All of the cousins (that weren’t really our cousins) would come over and we would play for hours while our parents talked into the night.

Dinner parties were one of the things Kyle and I bonded around, too. We loved to have people over and prepare food for everyone. That’s also something that my wife, Nicole, and I share. We both love to create a beautiful space and beautiful food to share with our friends and family. 

A special moment for me was the dinner party Nicole and I threw the night before we got married. Some of our oldest, dearest friends and our family came together. It was hectic and the A/C wasn’t working, but it was really powerful to see our community in one room, enjoying each other and the food we had worked hard to prepare. For us, it was a way to honor and express gratitude. 

Nicole and Nas at Dinner

What does kinship in the context of food mean to you? How has food served as a connector for you? 

Nas: I love the way food brings people together. The restaurant scene is impacted by capitalism and classism, but still, a lot can be leveled around the table. One place I experienced kinship was in the concept of “family meal”. 

Family meal was really big at Mamnoon. Two members of the kitchen staff prepared a family meal alongside our duties for the day. It was an extreme challenge to get everything done, but the best part was the servers and kitchen staff eating together. Even though there is such a divide between the front and back of the house, at that moment we were all at the same table. 

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We are such big fans of Nas and his pop-up Karachi Cowboys. Be sure to check out @karachicowboys on instagram to find out about his upcoming pop-ups!


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