HONG KONG - For Bilal Aamir Roxas Khan, eating chicken inasal was a passion. The Hong Kong-based Filipino-Pakistani said he used to go home to the Philippines regularly just so he could eat inasal at the country's most popular restaurant chain that serves the Filipino chicken barbecue delicacy.
"I have been going to the Philippines just for eating Mang Inasal. I bring my friends and my family," Aamir tells ABS-CBN News.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted global travel, he had to put on hold his weekend visits to the Philippines to eat Mang Inasal.
Instead of waiting for travel to resume, he came up with his own recipe for inasal, and built a business around it.
Aamir, whose mother is from Antipolo, is a hospitality and basic aviation graduate of the now-closed Royal Brisbane International College Hong Kong campus. He said he was 22 when a friend introduced him to Mang Inasal, and ever since then, he was hooked.
"So inisip ko everytime umuuwi ako dito (So I thought, everytime I come home to Hong Kong), I miss Mang Inasal. I want to create something in Hong Kong para people like me don't have to fly all the way to the Philippines just to eat Mang Inasal," said Aamir.
Aamir said he does not cook. And he has only learned how to cook inasal for the business. With the support of his mother, Aamir came up with a recipe that was slightly different from his long-cherished brand.
"Chi-Khan" is a portmanteau of chicken and Aamir's last name, Khan. The chicken he sells is Halal, opening up the Pinoy-cooked dish to the Muslim and other communities.
As Hong Kong is an international city, Aamir said Filipino food has to have a bigger presence in HK.
"I also want the other communities to see this and try this food. So it will expand and bring traffic to the Philippines when traveling is ok again," said Aamir. "So they have to know that the Philippines has good food as well," he added.
The 27-year-old Catholic's entrepreneurial journey did not start from there. During his time in school, Aamir recalls splitting his time between studying and his bartender job being raised by a single mother.
Aamir's father left him and his brother at a young age and like many ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, they were not spared from a difficult life.
"Growing up with a single mother was tough and we didn't really have much money. I had to rely on studying hard and working part-time to make ends meet," recalled Aamir. "
As a Filipino Pakistani, there will be traces of racism because I cannot speak Chinese," said Aamir who is fluent in Filipino, but knows no Urdu.
Aamir recalled working for a Chinese company that seemingly had a "work until you die" mentality.
"I do hard work, but to a certain extent that I want to have a work-life balance," said Aamir.
The Mang Inasal fan shares that his entrepreneurial journey began in mid-March, when Hong Kong was entering its initial COVID-19 wave, marked by his failure to sell 10 portions of leche flan one Sunday at Central's Statue Square where many Filipino migrant workers congregate.
"I was walking around Central carrying two bags of leche flan. It was really, really hard to sell actually because I realized the demand for leche flan is not very high," said Aamir.
"I was telling all the OFWs: 'Hello po. Gusto niyo ng leche flan?' And they just ignored me. It was really, really embarrassing," recalled Aamir.
From leche flan, Khan turned his energies to inasal. With the help of friends and family, he set up Chi-Khan Inasal.
To date, Chi-Khan Inasal's Facebook has almost 4,000 fans. With demand steadily growing, Aamir partnered with Sobremesa Tapas Bar and Restaurant on Elgin Street in Soho, Central, which is owned by his former bar and restaurant manager Kul Didi (which means big sister in Hindi).
The Spanish restaurant added Chi-Khan Inasal into its menu for HK$68, and customers can choose to replace rice with fries or salad. They can also call in for delivery or takeaway.
"A Filipino inasal is not how it looks. It's how it is made behind the scenes," said Aamir.
"The Filipino food, they're made with their heart. People's hearts. So, it's made with passion and love. And they try to tell a story with their food."
Business is hectic during the weekends. They receive some 50 to 80 orders during weekends, mostly from overseas Filipino workers. Aamir personally delivers the orders to his OFW clients.
Aamir's soft spot for the OFWs can be traced to his time at Jardine Aviation Services where he worked as a Cebu Pacific ground crew at the check-in counter. He recalls joking with them, especially with a handful of baggage, and loved hearing their stories about their children graduating, getting married, and so forth.
"It's just very nice hearing their stories. And I always try to help them. Sometimes, I'd try to give them tips on how to buy cheaper baggage (deals) online. So, that's where, you could say, it all started. Why I want to help OFWs," said Aamir.
Aamir almost gave up on Chi-Khan Inasal, but his mother kept pushing him not to give up.
Someday, Aamir hopes to open a restaurant of his own, possibly in Wanchai or Central where many Filipinos are, with an expanded menu and market.
"If you have a plan, execute it. Just do it because it's better to know the results rather than just wondering if it's going to happen," said Aamir.
"Just give it a go because it's a much nicer feeling to know that you've failed rather than you've never tried."