From Hosted to Hosts

Local Afghan émigrés ring in the Solar New Year with Nau-Rouz

Khyber Pass Café
1571 Grand Ave.
St. Paul
651.690.0505

Da Afghan
929 W. 80th St.
Bloomington
952.888.5824

Being a guest is nice, but eventualy it starts to wear on a person. It helps to be polite and appropriately grateful, but no matter how welcoming your hosts, there always comes a time when it feels like your suitcase is taking up too much space in the spare room and it's time to roll up the futon and go.

When you immigrate to a new country, it can take years to stop feeling like a guest. You have to send down roots deep enough to build a home of your own before you can return the favor and host the people who've hosted you for so many years.

That's more or less how Emel Sherzad felt. Sherzad was born in Afghanistan and lived there until 1978 when his family was forced into exile in Europe. He first came to Minnesota in 1985 to attend Macalester College in St. Paul.

Sherzad hadn't been in St. Paul long when he heard that a new Afghan restaurant had opened up nearby, on St. Clair Avenue. It was named Khyber Pass Café, after the treacherous mountain pass that that connects his country with Pakistan. Hungry for food that reminded him of home, he went to the new restaurant and ordered a meal.

"It was perfect," recalls Sherzad, who'd been disappointed by the other "Middle Eastern" food he'd eaten in the city. "It tasted just the way Afghani food was supposed to taste."

It was also perfect that in this restaurant Sherzad was among Afghan people. Not only could he eat food that reminded him of home, he was with others who spoke his language and shared his culture. Eventually, he got a job working in the restaurant, and became friends with the owners' son. He also became friends with the owners' daughter, and in 1991, they married.

"Masooda was my waitress that first time I came to the restaurant," he recalls. "As soon as I saw her, I knew this was a real Afghani restaurant because she carried herself with such pride."

That pride, Sherzad understood, came from being able to share Afghan cuisine and culture with American diners. He longed to do the same thing one day, to share the traditions of the country he'd been forced to leave so many years ago.

Not long after they married, the couple bought the restaurant from Masooda's family, and for nearly 15 years, they've served as St. Paul's unofficial representatives of Afghan culture. It's a role Sherzad relishes. He, Masooda, and their two children have made St. Paul their home, and since the restaurant feels like an extension of their own dining room, they get the pleasure of hosting people every day.

"Home is where your friends are," Sherzad says. "From the beginning, St. Paul has been a very welcoming place to me. I also like to be a welcoming person, and this restaurant gives me the opportunity to do that. I feel like through this job I can give back a little to this city that has been so welcoming to me. Afghans are a hospitable people. We might be a poor country, but we are generous."

One Afghan tradition Sherzad particularly enjoys sharing with his customers is Nau-Rouz, or Afghan New Year. In Afghanistan, the new year begins in late March, around the vernal equinox. Nau-Rouz (or Nau Ruz) is an ancient spring celebration of renewal celebrated in much of the Mideast, featuring outdoor egg games, music, dancing, and food.

"It's the best holiday," Sherzad says. "It has struggled to survive in modern times because it has pagan roots. In Iran, when the religious people came to power, they banned it. The Taliban in Afghanistan banned it, too. I like it because it's a celebration of the sun. It transcends religion. It makes so much sense to me to celebrate the renewal of nature, to celebrate spring, to let go of the old and celebrate new life." This year, the Sherzad family and Khyber Pass will host a Nau-Rouz celebration March 17 and 18.

Beyond regular menu items--such as the four mini-dish vegetarian plate or the organic lamb stewed with spinach--the restaurant will feature several traditional Nau-Rouz delicacies, including a sweet soup called haft mewa. "Haft mewa means seven fruits," Sherzad explains. "We take seven different dried fruits and nuts, soak them in water for a couple of days, and then add rosewater so the fruits release their own sugar." It's delicious, he adds, sort of like Scandinavian fruit soup.

Other traditional dishes Sherzad plans to serve at this year's Nau-Rouz celebration include qubeli pilau, a savory treat of brown rice cooked in stock and combined with caramelized onions, julienned carrots, raisins, almonds, and pistachios; and kadu borani, a warm, mellow dish of stewed butternut squash.

Kadu Borani isn't a traditional Nau-Rouz dish, but Sherzad likes to serve it at this time of year because it reminds him of home. "It's an old family recipe, a particular favorite of mine," he says. "Because you start with whole squash, it's really very labor intensive to prepare."

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