From Hosted to Hosts
Khyber Pass Café
1571 Grand Ave.
929 W. 80th St.
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."
There will also be live music, though probably not Afghan music, maybe even flamenco guitar. Sherzad's tastes reflect his cosmopolitan childhood and notable linguistic skills (he speaks six languages). For the last 10 years he has hosted KFAI's weekly show International Jazz Conspiracy, which airs on Wednesdays from 10:30 p.m. to midnight. "I would rather have good music of any kind than mediocre music that would fit a stereotype," he says. "Music is the world language. It is my religion."
A few years ago, the family moved Khyber Pass from its original St. Clair Avenue location to the corner of Grand and Snelling avenues. The new spot, once home to the short-lived Spudzza Pizza and the Kosher mainstay Old City Café, demands higher rent, but Sherzad says he's happy with the more visible location.
"More people walk by, so more come in," he says. "The shortest way to someone's heart is through their stomach. This restaurant enables me to be appreciated as an Afghan and that is priceless. I'm not in this business for the money. If I were, I'd have closed this place up years ago."
In Afghanistan, Borhanuddin Haffas was a college professor, so he's chosen to take an educational approach to his new role as owner of Da Afghan, Bloomington's venerable Afghan restaurant.
"We try to use food to educate our diners about Afghanistan, about our culture," Haffas says. "My goal is to create a dining experience that it is both educational and pleasant. We want people to come here and leave with good feelings in their hearts about Afghanistan and the people who live there."
In January, Haffas took over the restaurant when his brother-in-law, Ghafar Lakanwal, stepped aside to devote more time to his job as executive director of the Minnesota Cultural Diversity Center. Running a restaurant may seem like an unlikely job for a former academic, but Haffas, much like Sherzad of Khyber Pass, sees it as his opportunity--maybe even his duty--to give back to a country that he feels has given so much to him.
"One can serve society in different ways," Haffas says. "My wife and I have chosen to do it this way. We are both working here in the restaurant. I am the host and my wife is working back in the kitchen preparing the food. So this is a family restaurant. And it is our family's gift to the community."
Haffas sees his first Nau-Rouz in the restaurant business as yet another opportunity to educate his customers about Afghan culture. On Tuesday, March 21, the restaurant will offer a New Year's-themed menu.
"We will serve lamb and a little bit of sweet desserts," he explains. "I haven't set the menu yet, but we will prepare special food that is usually served during Nau-Rouz." There will also be Afghan music and a belly dancer.
"Belly dancing is common in much of the Arab world, but it's not done in Afghanistan," explains Haffas. "Still, people like to see it. It adds to the festive air on a special occasion. Nau-Rouz is a special occasion in our country and we welcome our American friends who want to know more about our traditions. Maybe after coming here and enjoying our celebration, Nau-Rouz will become a new tradition for them, too."
Dara Moskowitz is on vacation and will be back next week.
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