Ever since Mohsin and Katlin Kazmi got married in 2014, they’ve been busy fusing their lives, their cultures and even their cuisines.
Those culinary efforts eventually led to a business that features staples like Curry Me Down South, a hearty blend of a tomato-based chicken curry with homemade Southern mashed potatoes topped with a little cilantro chutney.
And then there’s the popular dish they call Tikka My Senses. The chicken for this sandwich is marinated in a blend of more than 15 spices for two days before it’s fried to a golden crisp and topped with crunchy pickles.
These creations might sound a bit exotic, but you won’t find them anywhere other than the pair’s colorful food truck called The Pakalachian, which transports the tasty food to communities and events in Southwest Virginia.
He is Pakistani and grew up in New Jersey after his parents immigrated there in the 1980s. She was raised among extended family in the “heart of Appalachia” in Castlewood.
The two met while attending Virginia Tech. After they married, they took turns cooking dinner, each of them making the comfort foods they grew up with. On the third night, they ate the leftovers together, which sparked the idea for the business.
“Literally, one of the prime examples that came out of that is our main dish, Curry Me Down South. He had leftover chicken curry and I had leftover mashed potatoes. We served them together and everything sort of spiraled from that,” said Katlin.
After sharing the food with friends and family and perfecting the recipes, they opened the food truck in April 2018 to a warm welcome.
Another of the couple’s popular recipes is the Fried Green Tomater Pakoras, which combines the traditional, savory Southern dish with a common Pakistani street snack that’s like a crispy fritter.
Born and Cornbread is a collard and spinach saag served over creamy Southern-style grits with a cumin cornbread crumble.
Saag and bhindi are two of Katlin’s favorite dishes that she said “warm her soul.” Bhindi is fried okra with tomatoes and onions and lots of flavorful spices.
They also serve vegetarian dishes, including chili.
Recently, Mohsin said they’ve gotten a little more creative, such as with their version of kofta. The hearty dish has meatballs made of ground lamb or ground beef served in a rich curry sauce featuring foraged mushrooms and roasted chestnuts grown on their own trees.
The spices that the couple use frequently are garam masala, a blend of ground spices originating in India; turmeric; Pakistani chili powder; black mustard seed; clove; coriander seeds; anardana, which are dried pomegranate seeds; and cinnamon, with the combination of lime, onions, ginger and garlic.
The two countries and cultures would seem to be so different, but there are a lot of similarities, according to Katlin. She is proud to be from Southwest Virginia and said she grew up watching her parents and grandparents work hard every day, and that work ethic was passed on to her.
The same is true for her husband, she said.
“I feel like it’s a very Southwest Virginia mindset to just work hard and that’s all I know and I think Mohsin thinks the same way, if not more, because culturally, that’s what he grew up with. So that’s where I think the two cultures, seemingly opposite in a lot of ways, are more alike than you think.… What we’ve done is really tried to focus in on those similarities and make something that people see value in,” she said.
Both are agriculture-based cultures, and Pakistani and Appalachian food share a surprising number of common ingredients, such as potatoes, onions, tomatoes and greens, all of which the Kazmis use a lot.
All the dishes are made from scratch and the ingredients are fresh, many from their own garden. The produce they don’t grow themselves is sourced locally.
The truck’s menu changes seasonally and from visit to visit, based on the availability of ingredients. Meals are served in environmentally friendly containers and they maintain a “no waste” mentality, composting kitchen waste and recycling empty cans and bottles.
They started with a 1996 step van and built the food truck from the ground up, rewiring it and adding in the equipment themselves. Eventually, a truck artist from Pakistan painted the distinctive and colorful design the truck features today.
The Kazmis depend a lot on their families. Katlin’s grandfather, father and mother are heavily involved with the food truck. They also now have the help of Mohsin’s parents, who moved to Bristol to be near their family.
For a few more weeks, the food truck will remain parked while the busy couple takes a winter break. Both Mohsin and Katlin have full-time jobs, and then some.
He is a conservation photographer and co-owner of Tamandua Expeditions, a company that promotes ecotourism and conservation in the Peruvian Amazon rain forest.
She is an educator who currently is director of the Region 7 Virtual Academy.
They also have a garden and sell plants on Etsy that they grow in a greenhouse, and they have a son, Selva, who will be 2 in March.
Both admit they have a full plate, and Katlin said it requires a lot of organization, communication, time management and the ability to function on little sleep.
“Life is too short, so we’re just trying to suck the marrow out of it,” Mohsin said.
Both describe The Pakalachian as a “labor of love.” In the summer, they try to do two events a week, and they go to two of the larger festivals, including Bristol’s Rhythm & Roots Festival.
In December, The Pakalachin was one of five winners of the SWVA Regional Bristol Casino Pitch Contest held by Virginia Community Capital. Participants submitted 3-minute pitch videos, and the winners each won $10,000 to be used for business expenses.
Mohsin and Katlin plan to use the money to build a kitchen and open a commissary on 6 acres of land they purchased in Abingdon. The couple has had to use the kitchens of other businesses to prep and prepare their food, and they are looking forward to having their own, where they can base the food truck. They also do some catering.
They are big supporters of Southwest Virginia and plan to remain living and working here.
“I love having a business in a region that doesn’t have access to this unique food,” Mohsin said. “You know one of my favorite questions that people ask us is, ‘Why didn’t you start this business in Blacksburg or Radford or Richmond or somewhere further east where there are more people and more diversity?’ My answer and Katlin’s answer is always that the people here deserve this food. …You can really make a community a better place and give people something to be proud of if you do it where they least expect it.”