SGAG writer and stand-up comedian Siraj Aziz and wife Syirah Parveen, a teacher, are the antithesis of “two peas in a pod”, and would occasionally bicker — as most couples do — during our hour-long interview with them.
We could almost hear them stepping on each other’s toes through the phone.
But that did not stop this seemingly at odds couple from launching a home-based business together, called Mahmud’s Tandoor, earlier this year.
“I always joke that since I’m Indian and my wife’s Pakistani, our child will be Kashmir,” Siraj jokes in a deadpan voice. We heard a scoff from Syirah, who has likely heard the joke a million times before.
[Editor’s note: We kept the joke in for you, Siraj!]
That same unabashed, self-deprecating humour continues to weave in and out of our conversation and underscores the kind of relationship the young couple has, in both their business and personal lives.
Established 2002…sort of
Mahmud’s Tandoor is part of a new wave of home-based businesses opening despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, whilst the couple may have made their first sale in May, Mahmud’s Tandoor has its beginnings almost two decades ago.
In 2002, while Syirah was still attending polytechnic, her father Mr. Mahmud was running a food stall in a primary school canteen.
He sold pasta, pizza, chicken nuggets, and pancakes amongst other things.
But tandoori chicken was what he was known for.
“I would help him occasionally after school,” Syirah recalls, “and at the back of my mind, I always hoped to carry on his tandoori legacy in some way.”
During the Circuit Breaker (CB), both Syirah and Siraj were working from home.
Like most people, the couple views working from home as a silver lining of the pandemic. They get to save on commute time and fees, and generally spend more time with each other.
On the flip side, CB also enabled them to have a lot of idle time.
The couple, who got married just two years ago, decided to get off their couch and pursue the tandoori business that they had put at the backseat.
“We thought that it was a good time to start and see what’s the response. Especially since the Ramadan bazaars and food events are cancelled or have moved online,” Siraj says.
“If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll just continue watching Netflix.”
So they went ahead, cooked tandoori chicken and posted “a terribly worded post with terrible pictures” on Instagram.
No one clicked on it. They persisted anyway.
Support from friends and family
The duo then tapped into their network of friends and family who became their initial customers.
Coincidentally, some of Siraj’s co-workers are popular online personalities and they helped to share news about his business through their social platforms.
“All of a sudden, the orders started to come in hard and fast,” Siraj recalls. “I think during CB, people were looking for alternative food which could be sent to them.”
CB was also an unprecedented time for the F&B industry in the sense that it was an equal playing field for the businesses: go online or risk going bust.
“Big or small, all businesses need to go where their customers are: online,” Siraj says.
Once they found their second wind, Siraj and Syirah decided to press on with Mahmud’s Tandoor.
Winner winner (tandoori) chicken dinner
Baked tandoori wings are the first item on Mahmud’s Tandoor menu.
The wings’ recipe has its origins from Mahmud senior himself, and Syirah attests that they still retain his indelible touch.
However, to cater to the ever-changing palates of today’s customers, the second-generation entrepreneur had to make some tweaks.
For instance, the chicken wings are more buffalo-style in that they are baked and then doused in a homemade sauce.
This makes them moist and ultra flavourful, a stark contrast to traditional tandoori chicken that typically drys out, especially if improperly cooked.
A mint dip was also introduced for people who “need that extra tarty kick to your tandoori.”
Their rendition of tandoori wings was so popular, it even surprised them.
“We have a large pool of Chinese customers, a large pool of Malay customers and Indian customers too,” says Syirah. “We feel that that is an accomplishment to us, being able to appeal to various races and palates. We were very surprised by this too!”
Riding on the popularity of their tandoori chicken wings, the couple launched a second item that immediately became a hit.
Lord of the wings
In August, Mahmud’s Tandoor introduced the Tandoori Burger.
Sandwiched between fluffy brioche buns is a whole thigh meat marinated in flavourful tandoori spices, baked to a juicy crisp, and smothered with mint sauce.
Customers had the option to add a side of premium masala fries and Harissa infused mayo to top off the saliva-inducing meal.
In many ways, the Tandoori Burger completes the fellowship of Mahmud’s Tandoor.
We have not mentioned it yet, but another notable item on the menu is the Tandoori rice set made of Persian dill rice (Syirah’s mum’s recipe), raita (Siraj’s mum’s recipe), dhal, and of course, the tandoori chicken itself.
According to the couple, the items on the menu are rotated regularly, depending on their capability and availability during the week.
Wing it till you make it
For now, the young business owners are still figuring things out as they go along.
Whilst they may have made a breakthrough during CB, they are aware that sustaining the business long term is more important.
“Demand during circuit breaker was more out of desperation, in the sense that people are desperate for new flavours, options,” Siraj says.
“But right now, people are actually seeking us. They are making a conscious choice to choose us over other options out there that are equally good, if not better.”
Despite that, the couple believes in not letting a little success go to their head.
They are also grateful for remaining gainfully employed during these tough times.
Giving back to the community is also core to the couple’s values. Till today, Mahmud’s Tandoor gives 100 percent of their delivery fees to the riders to relieve the plight of people affected by the pandemic.
When asked about what they have learnt from running a business, they cited better organisation and time management as top lessons.
Siraj says, “When we started, we were a little too excited, a little too gung-ho…so much so that we let the business spill over into our personal lives. It was affecting our work, family life and other commitments.”
“But now that we’ve gotten the hang of it, we are able to demarcate the line. We now know our limits for the week, so we only do that much. This allows us not only to control the quantity that we put out, but also the quality at the same time.”
What’s next for the tandoori team?
Siraj is not intending to stop writing or cracking jokes on stage just yet. Syirah is also back in school, teaching face-to-face instead of conducting home-based lessons.
“We do like where we are in our professional careers right now,” Siraj says. “But having Mahmud’s Tandoor as a backup plan provides us with a sense of relief knowing that we can lean on it for extra income if a storm comes.”
Syirah adds, “But till then, we will still continue to do R&D and come up with new ideas, not only to keep customers excited but for us as well.”
To place an order, fill up the order form on @mahmudstandoor. Take note that orders are for weekends only.
Photos by Mahmud’s Tandoor.