Dubai: At the age of 20, Iman Nazemi was working in her aunt’s camp being overseen by Red Crescent Society in Afghanistan, when she found her calling for food. Twelve years later, she runs a successful Afghan Gourmet kitchen – Kishmish, which means raisins, in the heart of Dubai.
In the year 1979, Nazemi’s family left Afghanistan and moved to London, where she was born and raised.
Growing up in London, Iman recalls how her house was ‘a little Afghanistan’. Her nanny was from a rural village in Afghanistan, who would wear a traditional ensemble made of hundred pleats along with a head scarf and cooked Afghani meals. They grew up speaking Pashto and Dari at home, which are the two widely spoken languages of the landlocked mountainous country.
As a child, Nazemi would be intrigued by the spices, herbs and flavours in the pantry and would often accompany her nanny and resident cook to the kitchen. She would sit on the kitchen counter and observe them cook. “I firmly believe that I learnt how to cook, this way. Everyone asks me how do you cook all these traditional dishes, and I say, "I don’t know, no one taught me.” It must have been those early years of watching them cook in the kitchen that remained with her.
Nazemi fondly remembers eating a crispy fried dish made from finely chopped okras, tomatoes, onions, coriander and chillies. “We would either eat it as is or with bread. If we were having it for breakfast, we would crack eggs on top of it and let it cook. It was so simple yet so delicious.” She kept this recipe with her and this childhood dish – Bamiya or fried okra - has also become a part of the food menu at her restaurant.
The most commonly consumed bread by Afghans is – naan, made with leavened dough and cooked in a tandoor or clay oven. But it was not something Iman’s family could easily cook at home. “Having a tandoor is not common in a London household, so instead we would buy Iranian bread and sprinkle it with kalonji or nigella seeds. This tasted close to the traditional Afghanistan naan [flatbreads].”
Speaking of kalonji or nigella seeds and its uses in Afghan cooking, Nazemi said: “I think we got this ingredient from India; it is beneficial for health and we try to use black seeds where we can.” A naan can either be plain, filled with cheese or meat and topped with butter. Another type of bread – paratha is popular in some parts of the country and is usually had for breakfast.
The first trip home: A road trip from to Afghanistan
It was in the year 2001, on her first trip to Afghanistan at the age of 13 when she felt a sense of belonging in a country that she had never been to. Nazemi said: “We didn’t fly there, we flew from London to Pakistan and drove to Afghanistan and the first stop was where my grandfather grew up – Jalalabad. We went to our ancestral home, which is very beautiful, in a valley, surrounded by mountains but looks tropical.” Looking at the palms trees, flowers and clear blue skies, Iman felt she was home. “I had never been there before but the feeling of belonging was so strong, especially for someone so young, I felt that it was my country.” People, food and the culture she grew up hearing about were finally coming to life with this trip.
The thought of culinary school and fighting cultural prejudices
Nazemi would always cook at home for fun, because she enjoyed cooking for her family and friends. But what made it even more fulfilling for her was watching other people enjoy the dishes and see their reactions. “For me if they are happy and looked happy while eating, it was gratification.” Her love for cooking made Nazemi want to go to a culinary school and she found herself in the middle of cultural prejudices. “In our culture, if you tell your dad you want to go to a culinary school they will be like, why? Why not study medicine. You already know how to cook, what you are going to learn.”
The closest she could be to her creative pursuit was to study textiles. “But then I ended up jumping from university to university because I was trying to find something that would give me the same feeling as when I would cook.” And no subject she studied gave her the same feeling. Iman thinks of cooking as creating art, where the hands, mind and heart are involved in creating a dish.
Finally, she enrolled into developmental studies. “My mother studied sociology and always worked very closely with displaced Afghans and rehabilitation camps and that was kind of deeprooted in us too.” As a child, Iman and her siblings would often visit displaced Afghan camps and be shown how fortunate they were for the life they led. However, Nazemi discontinued her studies eventually, which she thought were way too theoretical.
Fed up with her indecisiveness, her parents suggested, “Move to Afghanistan and maybe you will find your calling there.”
Food as therapy
At the age of 20, she went to Afghanistan and started working with her aunt, who headed the Afghan Red Crescent Society, a volunteer humanitarian organisation. In the camp which was spread over a large land, there were displaced families, orphans, mental wards, rehabilitation centres and vocational training. Nazemi volunteered and later used art therapy to help the people at the mental health ward for a year. At the same time, she was also working with women who had come out of prison, after being convicted for drug addiction, to teach them how to cook. This marked a turning point in her career.
Nazemi said: “A lot of people from villages had to be reintegrated into the developing society and did not know things like cooking on a stovetop because they were used to cooking on a wood fire.” No matter how she was trying to bring cooking back into her practice. It was also very important for the displaced Afghans to understand food as something more than eating. “Food is comfort you come together with your family, talk about your day, it’s about sharing, not feeling lonely, which is a form of therapy in itself,” she said.
This was a practice that Nazemi’s grandmother followed and made sure their family ate at least one meal together, a day. “I think a lot of the stories we would hear about Afghanistan and its people was over food. My grandmother would tell us stories about her youth, how she grew up and my mother used to tell us about hers.” Having food together as a family meant more than just eating, it was more of a story time for the young girl. And she tried to cultivate this practice amongst the displaced Afghans at the camp.
It also turned out be an educational camp where Nazemi would teach them to use less oil while cooking. “In Afghanistan, people use a lot of ghee or clarified butter and oil to cook food in, which is not very healthy and I was trying to teach them how you can cook good food with less oil, and they would laugh at me. Half the time they would look at me as if I was a crazy person.” They would wonder how the food would taste with less oil because to them a naan would only taste good after soaking up oil from a dish.
Nazemi continued going back and forth to London until she finally decided to take a break and visit her sister and cousins in Dubai.
An impromptu food truck idea in Dubai
On the impromptu trip to Dubai, Nazemi discovered that there were no restaurants that served authentic Afghani food. There are many restaurants in the UAE that claimed to serve Afghan food but usually ended up having food with different influences, said Nazemi.
Discussing this with her cousin, they came up with an idea to start a food truck that would serve traditional Afghan street food. At this point, Nazemi was open to ideas because she did not have any commitments to go back to. This idea seemed feasible and Nazemi and her cousin started discussing it with their friends to get feedback.
One day, they met with a friend and started discussing the food truck idea, who happened to be equally interested in the food business. But she was keener on opening a restaurant. It sounded exciting, but with no experience in running a commercial kitchen, Nazemi, her cousin and their friend were unsure how to go about it, especially when it came to investments.
The first round of investment and their business model
They took a leap of faith and started with a feasibility study and meeting investors. Luckily for Nazemi, her aunt had always supported her passion for cooking. This also helped convince Nazemi’s father to invest in his daughter’s maiden entrepreneurial venture, who was otherwise sceptical.
Later, they came across a system where they were provided with a space and platform usually given to start-ups to run their concepts. It was a revenue-sharing model, wherein they did not have to pay monthly rentals, instead, they had to share a certain percentage of their revenue. “Initially it helped a lot, but later as overheads increased it became a challenge to part with the revenue percentage, but things worked out.”
Being a food entrepreneur means doing everything that comes your way. When they started off in 2018, Nazemi and her partners would clear tables, seat customers, take orders and do everything to ensure a pleasant experience. “People used to be curious and would come to visit the restaurant also to see how three women were on their toes, doing everything. I think this grabbed a lot of attention.”
In a few years, their partnership came to an end. But Nazemi continued to sail through the pandemic and now successfully runs Kishmish as the sole owner.
Here is a guide to making a traditional hot soup – aash from Iman Nazemi.
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