Can you imagine going to your dream college 7000 miles from home?
My guest today is New York University sophomore Amin Ali and he did just that. I met Amin last year on dorm move in day, he had the privilege–or maybe the bad luck–to bunk right next to my son. I followed Amin’s freshman year story, was fascinated by his journey, and–as a mama–I wanted to know more about him.
Amin and I connected over love of authentic middle eastern food (4:38), he told me about growing up in his native Pakistan (7:04), how his sister–Top Chef alum Fatima Ali–fell in love with cooking (14:51), his decision to move to New York for school (19:09), how Fatima inspired him to follow his dreams at NYU (20:50), how he shares his culture with Americans (23:28), Amin told me about some of the foods he misses from home (26:28), why he’s obsessed with NYC halall carts (27:40), we discuss his potential plans to return to Pakistan after college (28:43), and how his relationship with his siblings has evolved over time (29:54).
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I’m a lifelong Southerner married to an Indian man who grew up in South Africa during apartheid and I am fiercely proud of both. If you don’t like that Well bless your heart. I’m Sheryl Prabhoo and this is southern life Indian wife.
Can you imagine going to your dream college 7000 miles from home?
That plane ride is undoubtedly going to land you in a different country and probably a little bit of culture shock. My guest today is New York University sophomore Amin Ali and he did just that. I met Amin last year on dorm move in day. He had the privilege or maybe the bad luck to bunk right next to my son through my son’s stories of his new college friends. I followed Amin’s freshman year story and I was fascinated by his journey and as a mama I wanted to know more about him. The first thing I learned about him from my son was that he turned him on to cheap halal Street Food in Manhattan. I mean what bonds 19 year old boys more than food right? Amin is from Lahore, Pakistan. And instead of going into law like his father and two of his older siblings he’s a 3D artist and studies programming and economics at NYU. Even at the young age of 19 he’s no stranger to travel and meeting people of other cultures. He attended an international school in Islamabad and when his father served as Pakistan’s attorney general he had the opportunity to travel with him to Russia among other places with him. So Amin’s a lucky guy. Oh and did I tell you he loves food. He and I talked about what food means in his life and it’s more than just what fills his belly. Food anchors Amin to his culture to his family. The youngest of four, he grew up around people passionate about food. His father is an avid cook and his big sister Fatima, who passed away from cancer early this year was an internationally renowned chef and used to make special foods for him on her visits home. He and I talk about connections between Pakistani food and family exploring and sharing his cultural identity with his friends in New York following his sister’s footsteps of walking an exciting path in his life. That’s right for him his descriptions of the spicy foods back home made me hungry and maybe even a little willing to try some foods I never thought that I would. And now here’s Amin Ali .
I mean thank you so much for joining me on a Saturday.
I appreciate it very much.
No not at all. I’m sure you can hear my morning voice.
Yeah well it’s noon so I guess for a college student it’s morning right that’ll be it. Well I know that we tried to get together to talk for a long time. But you spent the summer in Pakistan. So how was that. Did you have a good summer.
There was a good summer. It was a lot of fun. I interned for two months at this company similar to BuzzFeed called Mango buzz huh.
That was very good. I went to Karachi but just met some friends. That was great. Spent a lot of time a good summer.
That’s wonderful. So now that you’re back in New York is it a little bit of a culture change culture shock to be away from family and home. No.
I’ve always loved New York.
Fairly used to it I think. OK well good.
Good. Well so you know that’s kind of one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about because when we met it move in day in the dorms last year I just thought this this kid’s really interesting because he’s from Pakistan. He doesn’t have his parents with them. And you know I didn’t know anything about you how much time you had spent in New York or in the U.S. and I just love getting to know people. So I wanted to ask you sort of like do you live sort of a double life you know separate your family you know your family time your Pakistani life with American life. And I wanted to also get to know you know what connects you to both sides of your world and food. You mentioned that you absolutely love to eat food which you know I love that most guys your age do you know what connection does food have with your culture and how do you share it with your friends and how does it all mix up together.
I mean I think like the biggest thing about food especially in my family I was even telling my roommate last night that we just love really really spicy. Aha. OK. So from a young age like my mom’s side of the family it’s like notoriously spicy food. OK. Whenever I have friends over there always like sweating spicy it’s always fun to see that I guess but it’s also really delicious for all of us.
Yeah yeah. So is this Pakistani food similar to Indian food. I’ve I’ve never had it.
I know the spiciness is common in many ways like there’s a lot of like overlap. I think there’s a bunch of principle differences at the same time not the best sauce. I was just asking my mom a recipe how to make a single point and which is like a take on scrambled eggs except my family just puts all this like bread chili in there.
So I don’t know there’s just a lot of spices in that knows craving it last night. So I ask her for the recipe.
That’s nice. It’s nice that you can call her up and get that from her. Yeah. When I married my husband the breakfast thing was the biggest shocker for me because I’m sure Adam told you you were from the south and you know everything is so bland here. And when his mom first made a spicy breakfast I almost died. We’re so not used to that here.
Sir you need a nap after those breakfasts we had to answer your question. I think there’s a lot of differences and similarities and at the same time I think Karachi has more similar food but again not the best sauce.
Yeah. Gotcha yeah. Now how old are you are you. 19 20. I’m 19. You’re 19. OK. So you’ve been around a lot but you still have a lot of places to go and lots of different things to try. You have a long time ahead of you.
Yeah I definitely started learning how to cook better food.
Well do you have a kitchen now in your place. I do. Good good. So you don’t have to eat at the NYU dining hall anymore.
I actually miss it sometimes it’s just so convenient.
Yeah you’ll have to learn how to feed yourself. That’s tough. Let’s talk a little bit about what it was like for you growing up in Pakistan. So you how many siblings do you have.
So I had three other siblings. OK. So it goes all this is Mohammed is Mohammed. He’s 34. He’s going to start studying law very soon. Oh good for him. My sister was Fatima. She was 29. Mm hmm. And she was a chef. She was amazing. And then there’s Zahra who’s 22 who is also studying law. OK. I don’t tell her this often but she cooks pretty good food too.
Yeah but you don’t want to give her a big head about it. No that’s funny. Your brother do that. No of course not. And you’re the baby of the family. So are you totally spoiled.
I think so.
Yes yes yes. So when you were growing up you had a lot of siblings around. I guess he was.
No it was mostly just means OK Bahamas had gone to college but I was like three years old. Mm hmm. Autumn I was gone when I was seven. Oh yeah. So they would just come every winter they would stay upstairs and we’d all decided like a really good time. That’s awesome. Or to winter one one of them or both of them would come and be amazing. But I would come all this delicious food mode bringing all these presents like that.
Yeah that’s great. So like big fun family time. So you didn’t have to worry about those two being the mean older brother and sister because they weren’t there.
My brother is 15 years older and 14 I was eleven years older than me. So I think like I mean bully older brother. Thing was I don’t know I think that’s happens when there’s a smaller age gap.
Yeah definitely. I’m sure Adam told you about him and his twin brother how they got along and they did not get along. I’m always curious about this because I grew up in the US when McDonald’s was on the rise and we had frozen dinners and that was just sort of our culture. My mom was not a big cook but did your mom cook. Was it like a huge family deal for you.
My mom does not know how to cook anything. She gave me one recipe that’s awesome.
I love her already because I hate to cook.
My dad cooks all the time. It makes Chinese food makes great food and makes Pakistani food. And he’s pretty good. That’s his way to wind down after work.
I think Wow I’m impressed that that’s a way to find out because for me that’s kind of a stress that’s just not my thing. So I love that I wish my husband knew how to cook. You’re very lucky. Yeah. So like the holidays when you were there. Well first of all I had to just establish you are Muslim correct.
OK so what are your big holidays that revolve around food. Because I know here we have Christmas and turkey and Thanksgiving and all the American stuff. So what kinds of things did you guys have there.
Well I guess the bigger ones would be eat or eat.
There’s Eid where you sit there and there’s another I’m giving up one of the Eids there just on the kids or getting money huh. All the older people we call it. Huh. So that would be exciting and then we would post lunches every year. So we cook a lot of food on the fridge still believe there’s three days of eat kind of a we get up in the morning we go read our prayer is like a big space with everyone and then right next to where we pray would be my grandmother’s house and then my entire family would get together there we’d have a big breakfast and probably be like 20 25 different things on the table. Oh my goodness. When we just demolish all of it today five different people and then around 2:00 3:00 everyone started rolling in for lunch. Lots of food there. And then on the second DVD there’d be a dinner. My cousin’s house so I’d go there. So that’s one of the aides Second it is would you sacrifice either a camel cow or it’s just a it’s a it’s a whole you’ve sacrificed an animal and then you eat it.
OK. Is that something like individual families will do so you can either.
Like no other services to do it for you so you just give them money to do it and then you meet in the sun and meet wherever you want like charity or leg to people or like a village where you can have it done in your house.
What did you guys do.
We would. So my family would like my immediate family we would do it at my uncle’s base. OK but whenever we’d be doing it it would be after morning prayers during breakfast. Like right before breakfast on the day we’d step outside. I always hated watching it. I still can’t watch it. That would be hard. I’ve had to do it once with my cousin. Yeah well I was kind of scary like it but I just love this is like what we eat for once that meets all cleaned up process whatever. Then it goes in the kitchen gets cooked like it’s for lunches or dinners. Oh yeah.
The that’s really cool that it’s such a traditional get together for family. Everybody does it together enjoys it together. I love that because we don’t really have that so much here.
Our families are not really sort of funded as much I guess would be similar to Thanksgiving in the sense that huh. There’s a big turkey. Everyone gets together to eat you know. Yeah in that sense maybe.
Yeah. It sounds like it. Yeah I think every every people around the world have just have to at least have one big thing that they spend their time together with family. We we get our turkey frozen from the grocery store. I don’t know if I could ever slaughter something.
Oh yeah it can be intimidating. I’m definitely committed by it.
Yeah but it’s it’s just one of those things it’s part of. It’s how you grew up. Yeah. And that’s OK.
I know my husband grew up in South Africa in a community that had it was predominantly South Asians and there were Muslims that were his neighbors. And he said that they would slaughter their animal in the yard. And he thought it was pretty cool. But their perspective is these are all a bunch of vegetarian Indians. So I can’t imagine what it’s like for them to see that because I mean we cook meat in my house. And that was hard for them to get used to and they never saw it get killed. So but it’s interesting how people can observe other people’s traditions and you know hey it’s ok it’s what you do.
We all get along. You know. Absolutely. So your sister Fatima was gone when you were young your older brother was gone. Fatima was a chef. So did she learn her love of cooking from I guess not your mom because she didn’t cook but how does she learn the love of cooking.
I think she picked a lot of it up for my dad and then. OK I think she’s just been cooking since she was like a 6 year old. Now your own. Yeah. Yeah. Oh always doing it.
Did she cook for you.
Were you the little brother that she doted on whenever she would come widely bother her. What I thought was really late at night I’ll be like 10:00 11:00 p.m. I would be like making a bus that she’d make like the same pass that every time it would be delicious. Oh. And then a couple years ago in Islamabad she made the fish. I don’t remember which one I was too busy day and everyone got one piece and I had to because it was just way too good. Whatever she was there and something was happening you can cook and everyone.
Oh that’s amazing. That’s such a blessing and I haven’t said it. Yes but I have to give you my condolences for her passing I know she passed in January correct. Yeah yeah. So I’m very sorry about that and I know I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable or if it’s hard for you to talk about so you just let me know. So you went to high school in Islamabad to an international school.
Yes. In Lahore I was in Lahore American school. I think disclose five hundred people as well as probably around 40 45 and then in Islamabad it’s a school that I think 250 people. And then each class I think we had a big class we had like 17 18 people were in the school with international students or was it. I was like OK there they’re people from all over Canada. A lot of a lot of people from different countries in Europe. There was some student from China it was predominately brown people no Pakistani people. Huh. And my 10th grade my sophomore year there were three four Indians in my class. OK but like obviously because the Pakistan India tensions that to go back the next year.
Yeah. I can’t even imagine what that was like.
It was just like people leaving from your school like you knew the reasons why. Like there was some raw agents tons in our school stuff like that. So I don’t know it was just a lot of politics. They were like I’m still in touch with them they’re good people they’re good friends.
You grew up kind of getting to know people just for who the person is and not because they’re Hindu in Europe. European. No. And your dad is a pretty high profile attorney there in the country so did that help you to be exposed to more different people than maybe you would have if I traveled with him.
And she was in the government. So I met a lot of like when I went to Russia then I was that was a cool. I know the other word for it. That’s a really cool people really really educated people. Translator had a page D. Wow this was very cool. But in Pakistan. Not so much. Only when I traveled with him.
OK. Yeah. OK. So you really had a good opportunity to be exposed to the world before you even set foot in New York for college right.
You know we sent Adam up there to New York and we live in a very suburban ninety nine percent white community it’s actually pretty rural. So Adam’s dad is probably the brown US guy in the area. And then Adam was you know half brown and when he moved up to New York he said he felt like the whitest guy around which was interesting to me because there’s so many different diverse people in New York. And it was a great thing in my mind for him to be exposed to that to broaden horizons so yeah for you I guess it was just sort of the same old thing you’re just used to being immersed in lots of different kinds of people.
But New York is like a whole different level though.
Yeah. So what made you decide to attend NYU. Because you probably could have gone to many many other places.
It was the best school I got into. It’s been my dream school for a couple of years. My cousins went here and I just grew up hearing about them going and what you created is there in New York. All that kind of stuff.
Yeah yeah. NYU is pretty darn great.
Yeah. And I’m pretty lucky to be here. It’s just where I’ve always pictured myself being OK. I applied to need probably six schools in New York City. This is where I wanted to be.
Well congratulations for achieving that goal. That’s pretty incredible. Thank you. Do you plan on staying in New York. Are you gonna go back to Pakistan when you graduate.
I think I’d like to work in California somewhere.
What is your major your Econ major.
My second major is in economics. I got him. We’re single Interactive Media Arts and School of Arts. Mm hmm.
So that folks around like VR a lot of programming. I’m mostly going to programming stuff but you’re required to take design courses of all video courses things like that. I think I’m trying to prepare myself like the startup space as soon as I’m out like even a junior senior year.
Wow fantastic. So you have a father who’s an attorney and then two siblings that are gonna be attorneys. So what did your parents say when you and Fatima decided not to go in that direction is it cool with them or would they prefer you know sort of the same now. Is that the way forward.
No honors she said that I’m doing this.
I want to be the best doing that like the best person added and that’s what that let me do it right.
She promised him that if you delivered and ever really happen and I don’t think I would be sitting here speaking to you if it wasn’t for her doing that her bravery. Gosh that’s making me tear up my main argument was five miles doing it. I can’t. Yeah. How can your parents say no to that. I think my dad wanted me to go to law school. I went in as an animation major. That’s what I’ve been doing for two years so I packed up a bunch of wide schools NYU and Northeastern in Boston. We’re like the two schools that weren’t art schools. Mm hmm. And a couple of the U.S. schools where I applied for computer science but my parents are pretty easy going with this kind of stuff. They’re pretty liberal they’re open minded about studying things but you want to study. That’s lucky. By the end it’s like the entire college process. When I go all like the decisions back. My dad was like All right this is like your decision. You have to study this is your life your study. You love it. It’s gonna be your day in day out routine right.
Well you yeah. You’ve got great parents that give you that opportunity to have that freedom. So you’re very blessed because of that yeah. So what was it like. Your leaving home to live in New York. Your parents. Are they still in Pakistan. Most of the time all of the time they live there.
But my mom tends to travel a lot huh. But they’re mostly in Pakistan.
OK so was that hard for you being away from home and they weren’t too new.
Because of my situation my parents were there my entire first semester. OK. They were just living across the Hudson in Jersey City. Oh OK well that’s all I would see them like four times a week five times a week at the hospital.
So it’s good that you were able to be with them. I was sorry about the circumstances. That’s yeah.
I’m so sorry they were there so like the first year wasn’t too bad in terms of homesickness.
Yeah. That’s wonderful. I mean it’s wonderful that you were able to be together. Yeah at that time for your sister. But this year you’ve got a fresh start. You’re living in a new apartment. Things are different. How do you relate to the kids that you go to school with. So I’m assuming you’re not there with just you know regular run of the mill American kids all the time but your identity as a Pakistani as a Muslim is that something that ever comes up. Do you share with them. Do you learn about their cultures.
Yeah like one of my really good friends who is with Adam. It’s just a bunch of us who were living together. Three girls who were just down the hall last year. We Sharma. Sabrina. There was Abby. Like they’re just a bunch of us. We’d all like chill together in our room because we had a big room and I think a lot of the big bases of my jokes was just like things I would we would see in Pakistan. The way we see them like a lot of my jokes come from my heritage I guess they like to poke fun at it or yeah like it.
Yeah. OK. Do you know the comedian Russell Peters. I do. OK so I love him because he pokes fun at every body he published. And it’s great. It’s like an equal opportunity offender. Yeah and I love it because you know we have a multicultural family I just think it’s amazing that you can get to know people by laughing at each other. And I have an Indian friend who doesn’t like him because she’s very offended by the things that he says that she feels like he’s making fun of her and her culture. But I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like you see things that way either.
No. Are you familiar with Husain Minaj.
Yes I love him.
Yeah. So huge. He does the same things that he makes fun of brown people. And I enjoys his sense of humor. Like the things. Russell Peters and like I said Minaj make fun of. Like if you lived in like a Brown family you know exactly what they’re doing. Yes. Well they may make those jokes. That’s why I think it works.
Yeah I agree. And I think you know non brown people benefit from hearing that because you know if I hadn’t married my Indian husband I wouldn’t know anything about South Asian people. Anybody from outside of the Western world because I’m just not exposed to it. So I think that hearing comedians like that gives other people a really good sense of who South Asians are because some people will look at brown people and say well you’re not like me so I don’t like you and I don’t want to know you.
And it also puts it in like a very relaxed light like you can make you’re watching this standup comedian make fun of their own culture. I don’t know anything bad about laughing with them.
Yeah I think humor is the key to survival in this life. If you can’t laugh at yourself and at other people then it’s dismal. So is there any particular food that you miss from home or any special food that you’ve fallen in love with in New York that you can’t live without.
Probably the biggest thing I’d miss from Pakistan is the single mothers. It’s like good brain and what. Yeah it’s good. There you have it. With the non it’s go to brain like tomato sauce except like an expiry. You’re in there.
How. What’s the texture. I’m not opposed to eating different.
So it’s honestly like scrambled eggs like scrambled egg whites slightly firmer can you. It’s delicious. Yeah. I could do that. It sounds really really gross but it’s amazing.
All right. I think I think I could do that and you have to have your parents invite me over for dinner and I’ll try it.
My dad would make it for me every Sunday.
Very cool. So what have you fallen in love with in New York. Is there anything that you had hadn’t had before. You can get there now.
It’s not something I haven’t had before but like your son can confirm this. I really really I’m obsessed with the hello carts. Oh yes right. So the Lamb of rice.
Yeah. You’ve turned him on to that too. I heard about was Hello. Hello. Hello.
It’s cheap food. You get a lot of bread. I think it’s one of the reasons I moved to New York.
Street food. Yeah. Is their street food in the play. OK.
Huge. It’s probably majority like how the where the Blackstone eats.
Wow. So when I passed by a hill cart in New York I see flies and that kind of makes me squeamish. So I haven’t tried it yet. Is that a concern.
For six bucks. Nope. Spoken like a true college student.
Yeah. It’s so much food. It’s like a good amount of money huh. And it tastes so good. I’m probably in get some later today.
That’s funny. So what are your future plans. You’re gonna graduate from NYU and do you want to stay in California permanently or do you think you would ever want to go back to Pakistan to live.
I think I’d want to make a little bit of money. Figure out how stuff works over here and try not to get out of there. Startup culture is just about to take off over there and I think I’d like to give it a shot.
Yeah OK well good for you. Good for you. I’ve been absolutely amazed. I have followed things on social media and the outpouring of love that your sister was given by the world. I mean how did that make you feel.
Was that just absolutely wonderful to see that Joe was really nice to see a real in reaching out offering their support and love and prayers. I think for everyone it was overall pretty positive to have all of these people just expressing all their love and support to you.
Yeah that’s wonderful. Now are you. Are you closer to your siblings now or are you just kind of doing your thing in New York and living your life.
I think I’m definitely closer to my brothers aren’t I. We lived in the same house for ever. Muhammad was off to college you lived in Australia and moved to L.A. last year. I’ve never lived with him but now that he has like a little bit of free time and we spend like a summer together in Buxton I think we’re in I in our closeness of relationship.
Good. Good. Well look I really appreciate you taking out time on a Saturday morning to talk to me because I know you’ve probably got a million and one things that you’d rather be doing hanging out with friends. So yeah. Thank you so much for the conversation and I really think that you know people listening are going to love your story because people are interested and other people’s experiences and I think you have a lot of really good insight and experiences and just 19 years which is pretty amazing to me. So I wish you the very best.
Thank you. It was really really good speaking to you. I hope to hear from you soon through Adam.
Oh definitely definitely.
And maybe I’ll see you the next time we come up there. Yeah for sure. OK. We’ll take care and enjoy the rest of your weekend.
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