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In the 
Driver's Seat: Darlene Ballweg

Meeting the Challenge

A Life of Spice: Huma Siddiqui

The Guardian: Eileen Mershart

Moving Forward

Finding her Voice: Jean Feraca

Generation Molly

The Joy of Being Mona Melms

Shana Martin is Relentless

Deneen Carmichael: Moving forward
Jenny Wimmer: Racing toward
 a goal

Chris Hansen: Embarking on a mission
 A Kindred Spirit: Asia Voight
 As Real As It Gets: Diana Henry
Moving on up: Lisa Madson

 Jennifer Engel Moves Mind, Body And Spirit
The Chancellor is in: Biddy Martin

A Life of Spice

Local chef and entrepreneur Huma Siddiqui reflects on the path to her American Dream

By Judy Frankel

Photographed by David King and David Watkins

Hair and makeup by Caitlin Taylor and Karen Cooke of ANiU Salon Spa

If variety is the spice of life, Huma Siddiqui’s story is certainly a well-seasoned one. 

The titles that follow her name are many: Mother, accountant, entrepreneur, TV cooking show host, philanthropist, author and cultural ambassador are merely a few. But her tale is more than just the story of a busy modern women; hers is a story of courage and conviction, of dreaming big and believing in yourself—a modern day version of the American Dream.

In order to make it, this energetic, spirited and determined 50-year old émigré from Pakistan, who settled in Mount Horeb more than 15 years ago, had to abandon traditional roles and forge a new path that brought her, quite literally, to a life of spice.

Siddiqui’s story begins thousands of miles from here, in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The youngest of three children born to Ekram Siddiqui, a prominent scientist, and Tara Siddiqui, who tragically went blind when she was just 4 years old, Siddiqui grew up living a privileged life. Raised as the only daughter in an affluent family, her childhood was a happy one, filled with memories of a close-knit family and lots of friends.

At the age of 21, Siddiqui followed Pakistani tradition, becoming a young bride in an arranged marriage. A custom some might have a hard time accepting, Siddiqui didn’t challenge tradition. 

“It is what we did,” she says matter-of-factly when asked how she felt about it. Like many brides of her day, she then left her parent’s home for her husband’s.

“In Pakistan, it is typical for most young girls to live with their parents until they are married,” she says.

The couple soon left Pakistan for Tripoli, Libya, where her husband became a professor at Tripoli University. At 22, Siddiqui gave birth to her first child, daughter Sabah. Her son, Samir, was born a few years later.

While her husband worked, Siddiqui tended to the children and in her free time, found a new passion in cooking. It was a skill Siddiqui 
never had to learn, growing up her family home was full of servants and staff to take care of chores like food preparation. But Siddiqui soon found she loved being in the kitchen.

From North Africa, married life took the young mother and her family to England where, in 1984, her husband was accepted into a doctorate program. With an accomplished husband providing for her and their two young children, Siddiqui was living a comfortable life. But she was miserably unhappy in her marriage. Now in the U.K., she sought radical change. 

She hatched a plan, taking a job as a customer service representative at a nearby Safeway for the equivalent of $4 an hour to begin earning money on her own. Knowing she was going to have to support herself and her children, she also leaned on an aptitude for math and began working toward an accounting degree at London’s University of Westminster.

On a summer day in 1995, Siddiqui made the calculated decision to part with her culture’s tradition, which frowns on divorce and separation, and leave a bad marriage to start a new life. Rather than returning to her family in Islamabad, she boldly decided upon a location halfway around the world: Mount Horeb, Wis., where her brother, Nadeem and his Madison-born wife, Catherine, lived. Her other sibling, brother Sohail, who still lived in Pakistan, also supported her decision to leave the marriage and start over in America. 

“My brothers have been very instrumental in my success. Without them, I would never have moved here and started my new life,” she says.

But even with their encouragement, it was Sidiqqui’s own perseverance that led her to find more success and independence in America than she had ever dreamed.

Siddiqui landed in Wisconsin in July of 1995. It was a time in her life that is forever etched in her memory.

“It was a very hot summer, hotter than I had ever felt. Temperatures in Pakistan were much hotter, but it was a dry heat. It was so humid here and the air was very thick,” she remembers.

Siddiqui had traveled widely, yet the transition to life in America was not easy. Her brother and his wife welcomed and supported Siddiqui and her two children, but it was a challenge to acclimate to their new home.

“It was like starting from scratch again—all the things that you did in your daily life goes out the window. The way you shop, dress, the way you talk, your children’s schooling, every little aspect of your life has been changed and you have to learn how to survive,” she recalls.

“I thought I knew English, but then there was all this slang. Learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road was also a bit of a challenge,” she adds, laughing lightly.

Once settled in Mount Horeb, Siddiqui returned to her plan, finishing her accounting degree in 1996 at Madison’s Lakeland College. By 2001, she had completed additional studies and passed a certification exam to become a Certified Public Accountant. Working full time as a CPA, she had found a niche in the business world she loved, but Siddiqui longed for a different role. Knowing she could help build a bridge between Pakistani and American culture, she turned to something else entirely: Food.

Siddiqui’s culinary prowess was well-known among friends she had made in both Libya and England. Even today, she sees food as one of the easiest ways to connect with people.

“[Cooking] is a great way to make friends,” she admits, laughing.

Self-taught in the kitchen, Siddiqui credits her mother for not necessarily handing down recipes or tried-and-true techniques, but for teaching her the power of food.

To Siddiqui, her culture could be wrapped up in the warmth and flavors of particular foods. Acutely aware that the transition to life in the U.S. was particularly hard on her children, Samir and Sabah, who were just 9 and 13 when they first arrived, she clung fiercely to her traditional values and worked hard to instill these same values in her children.

Despite working two jobs and attending school in the evenings, Siddiqui had a home cooked meal on the table for her family every night. Mealtime was not just an important ritual, “it is the anchor for family,” she says. 

Armed with the belief that traditions, customs and family rituals are crucial to life, she was intent on introducing her beloved Pakistani culture to America.

When Siddiqui first arrived in Wisconsin, it wasn’t just the culture of brats and cheese curds that surprised her. She was struck by the absence of spices in the foods she ate.

Longing to recreate the warmth she felt when preparing and serving the dishes of her homeland, she began to teach hands-on Pakistani cooking classes as a hobby.

Her first stops were Madison-area food stores such as Orange Tree Imports and Whole Foods, where she instructed eager cooks on how to create her country’s specialty dishes—think samosas served with creamy raita, sajji chicken with fire-roasted tomatoes and garlic, and rasmalai, a traditional dessert made with ricotta cheese, milk and almonds.

“I realized a lot of people like spices and flavor,” Siddiqui says. “They just don’t know how to use them.” 

Her years of cooking for family and friends gave her the confidence to take her passion for sharing Pakistani cuisine in exciting new directions.

In 2004, while still working full time as a CPA, she founded White Jasmine, a catalog and online company that sells traditional spices in addition to Siddiqui’s own signature spice blends of Garam Masala, Tandoori Masala and Sajji Masala, alongside teas, jewelry and accessories.

“Our mission is to infuse every kitchen and every home with wonderful warm flavors and great home-cooked meals. Our goal is to spread knowledge about simple cooking to show the versatility and simplicity of all our spices,” she says.

Working, raising her children and starting a new company presented a demanding schedule.

“I didn’t sleep a lot,” Siddiqui admits when asked how she managed those first years of her business.

Even nowadays, she admits to sleeping only a few hours a night. With her seemingly endless supply of energy is a strong spirit that keeps her moving; creativity is her caffeine. White Jasmine, and cooking, were the ideal outlets for her passion, her energy and her love of food.

White Jasmine flourished both online and in retail establishments.

As her company grew, Siddiqui looked for new ways to build on her momentum. She had long wanted to create a television cooking show, recognizing the power of the medium to bring her message of easy, healthy and flavorful recipes to a wider audience. With that goal in mind, she arranged for meetings with executives at various local TV stations.

“They were skeptical at first,” she remembers, her brown eyes sparkling as she retells the story. “They would say: Are you a chef? And I would say ‘No, I am an accountant.’”

Initially, they passed on the idea of a cooking show. Taking matters into her own hands, Siddiqui found a way to see her dream through.

“I just decided to do it myself,” she says firmly.

For the past two-and-a-half years, she has been producing and starring in her weekly cooking show, “White Jasmine Everyday Cooking,” filmed locally at Allen Kitchen and Bath on Madison’s south side. As frank and humorous on-camera as she is off, Siddiqui’s fragrant cooking show can now be seen on WKOW 27 on Sundays at 6:30 a.m.

And she hasn’t stopped there. Always on the lookout for new adventures, White Jasmine added a line of cheeses to its signature spice blends last spring.

Siddiqui partnered with Meister Cheese Company in Muscoda, Wis., to create three different types of rBGH-free (hormone-free) specialty cheeses infused with White Jasmine signature spices: cumin Gouda, tandoori Gouda and sajji BBQ Gouda. For Siddiqui, it was a natural fit to mix the fine cheeses made in her adopted home of Wisconsin with the flavorful spices from her native land.

“We tried different cheeses to taste how the spices held to the different flavors and styles,” she explains. “Gouda became our favorite right away because it is so creamy; it has a subtle taste, and it melts very well, making it great for cooking.”

The reaction to the cheese has been amazing.

“We were at a demo recently at a Whole Foods store in Chicago. We were supposed to be there for two days but we sold out in three hours. We sold out of the cumin Gouda in an hour. We really couldn’t believe it. The store was caught off-guard too, not having enough,” she says proudly.

White Jasmine Gouda Cheese line is now available in seven states—quite an accomplishment for a new product line launched only 10 months ago. And the business continues to thrive.

In early 2011, White Jasmine products were sold at a total of 92 stores, including 31 Whole Foods stores in the Midwest and locally at Metcalfe’s Market. White Jasmine was a featured vendor on the local products website this past Christmas season, and each day more inquiries come in about her growing product line.

As the face of White Jasmine, Siddiqui appears at food and wine shows across the country touting the virtues of her products, not only for its wonderful taste but for their health benefits, too. Siddiqui is proud to boast that her products are completely natural, citing a distaste for preservatives and chemical additives in food.

“I’ve been offered many times to make my food into a line of frozen products, but you have to add chemicals in order to do that, and all kinds of preservatives and sodium. That’s not healthy cooking to me, so until the process can change, you won’t find any White Jasmine frozen dinners in the freezer section,” she explains.

And besides, Siddiqui already has her hands full. At any one time, she could be dashing off to a taping of her cooking show or teaching a cooking class. She could be off to Chicago or the Twin Cities to demo one of White Jasmine’s well-received products at an ever-expanding list of retailers and fine grocery stores, or having a meeting about future plans for the business. Rarely, is she still.

And while her life has certainly kept up at a hectic pace, she couldn’t be happier.

For Siddiqui, arriving at this point has been a long time in the making. The journey was a bumpy one. But her life lessons have taught her well, and she has forged a life that was inconceivable when she was a young girl growing up in Pakistan. She had turned her traditional culture on its head, divorcing to find personal fulfillment and moving to America to make her own way.

Despite having to make the painful decision to uproot her family and move her children across the world, Siddiqui says if she could give advice to her younger self, she wouldn’t change a thing. 

“Follow your heart,” she advises.

Her laundry list of personal achievements is admirable, a direct by-product of a lifetime of hard work and a resilient personal disposition coupled with an unwavering conviction to stay true to her beliefs.

She faced challenges head on, sometimes in ways that were quite unorthodox from her traditional background. 

But Siddiqui is proud to be living her version of the American Dream. Her business continues to move forward. Her children have thrived. Daughter Sabah is a successful journalist working for the Associated Press in Orlando, Fla. Her son Samir works alongside 
Siddiqui at White Jasmine. A business school student, he co-produces and films her television show. Siddiqui hints at a future where Samir will run White Jasmine.

While Siddiqui is wistful that her parents are not around to see her success, she knows they would be happy for her. She hopes to return to Pakistan for the first time since she left decades ago to see her brother and extended family. As for her family in Madison, she knows she can always tempt them to her home with the promise of food, especially her tandoori meatballs.


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