Did you grow up cooking?
Iman: Yes, growing up in London, I used to watch the cook who worked for us (who fled Afghanistan with my mom’s family) from a young age. His father and grandfather were cooks in our household back home, so he was working with recipes that had been passed down the generations. I think I learnt how to cook by just hanging out. He would do everything so instinctively and with such passion. My mom also cooked liked that.
Homaira: Because our family was living in the UK, away from Afghanistan, we were all very close, and would get together to eat Afghan food as often as we could. Maybe we’d have the odd roast on a Sunday but even that was served with rice – we have to have rice with everything! Our grandmother was the matriarch, and she would stand next to the cook, and tell him what he’d miss – even though she never cooked herself. She’d also make sure our favourite dishes were prepared, whenever any of us returned from a trip overseas.
Fatima: Although I was born in Afghanistan, we left too and I grew up in Pakistan and the UAE. I properly learnt how to cook when I was studying my masters in London, as I didn’t have anyone around to do it for me. Afghan food was what I knew, so I experimented and it was trial and error. But I found it therapeutic.
How did Kishmish come into being?
Iman: Homaira and I were interested in doing an Afghan food truck in Dubai and at the same time, Fatima wanted to open a restaurant. She knew the owner of One Third and approached him as he was looking for home-grown concepts. Everything fell into place very quickly – it was as if it was all meant to be.
Fatima and Homaira: There was a gap in the UAE market for an authentic Afghan restaurant. We couldn’t find food that tasted like home, and we wanted to do our cuisine justice as well as share it with others.
Are you all in the kitchen at Kishmish?
Homaira: No! I don’t even think I’m allowed in the kitchen. I am the hostess. Fatima is mainly front of house and Iman looks after back of house. Although we’re all involved in coming up with recipes – all of which are from our families.
You’ve shared recipes for bolani, baked aubergine and ashak. Tell us about these.
Iman: Bolani is perhaps one of Afghanistan’s most famous street foods. It’s made of a thin dough that's stuffed with leek or potato and they’re usually drenched in a chutney, yoghurt or chilli sauce. Everyone has their own way of making them. When I was living in London, I could never be bothered to make the dough for this dish from scratch, so I’d use tortilla breads or pre-bought puff pastry instead. Everything still tastes just as good as the traditional version, but the bolani can be made much faster. The baked aubergine is basically aubergine cooked in a light tomato sauce that is topped with yoghurt and dried mint. We serve this with a lot of our main dishes like chicken or rice. It’s a bit like an Afghan Parmigiana – without the basil and the parmesan. Ashak, which is a bit like ravioli, is usually a complicated dish – and we make it from scratch in-house, from the dough to the stuffing. A quick solution is to use store-bought large shell pasta. The stuffing for the bolani is used in ashak, too.
Homaira: Ashak is one of my most favourite dishes and my grandmother always used to make it for me.
Which ingredients feature prominently in Afghan cooking?
Iman: Rice, lamb, dried fruit, sour cherries, spices like turmeric, cardamom, a bit of saffron, fresh chillies (although our food is not spicy), rose water, orange blossom water and really good olive oil. You’ll also always find raisins on our tables because we have so many varieties of grapes. And in our Kabuli rice, one of our signature dishes. Kishmish is the Dari term for raisin.
How varied is Afghan cuisine?
Fatima: It’s so diverse – we have so many dishes, and everyone makes their versions differently to others. Afghan cuisine has been influenced by many of that of its surrounding countries such as India, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Armenia and Mongolia.
Iman: There’s a lot of similarities to the food from the countries Fatima has mentioned. For example, we have dumplings and fresh noodles in our soups, which come from Mongolia, and we have dishes like khicheree (lentils, rice and spices) and korma, which are typical in India. But our versions taste different.
Homaira: Our food also varies according to the different regions of the country and it’s seasonal. We also have a huge street food scene and celebratory dishes. We have a small menu at Kishmish with our favourite dishes as we couldn’t include everything.
What do you love most about what you do?
Iman: We’re just so happy that our dream has come to life and that we can enjoy doing what we love. We love talking to our guests and teaching them about our culture and our food. Many people have a lot of questions because their perception of our country is so different to what Afghanistan is really like. So Kishmish gives us a chance to show our home in a new light.
You have a quote from Rumi on one of the walls at Kishmish – why?
Iman: Rumi was born in Afghanistan – not many people know that. We love his work, and thought this was apt as we’re cooking from our hearts. Everything in the restaurant shows bits and pieces from our culture. The artworks are by an Afghani artist who lives in Germany, our logo showcases a contemporary version of our suzani motifs and our glasses and light fixtures are handmade using materials from our country.
Homaira: We say we’re Afghan, with pride.