It started with a Kishmish
Different generations have different views on Afghanistan. A country dominated by changing political powers, an outsider born in the 1960s would have an opinion on the country completely at odds with someone born in the 1990s. But one thing has remained constant throughout its history — the hospitality of its people.
Regardless of the wars being fought, the warmth and generosity of the Afghan people has shone through. It’s what three women who grew up outside of their homeland, but retained a deep cultural link with it, visiting regularly and maintaining the key elements of its lifestyle even while thousands of miles away, wanted to exhibit when they created a restaurant called Kishmish.
Fatima Rabbani, Iman Nazemi, and Homaira Nasser-zia are celebrating a full year in operation. It’s been a year of trials, tribulation, but, ultimately, triumph. We sat down with Rabbani and Nazemi (Nasser-zia was unfortunately out of the country), to discuss how they have brought a piece of their history to Dubai.
Kishmish is located in Dar Al Wasl Mal at One Third food hall — a homegrown concept that brings together five different cuisines under one roof — and it was through the owner of One Third that the Kishmish women got their break.
Despite having no F&B experience, they were approached and asked if they’d consider opening a restaurant. “We discussed it amongst each other and we wanted to do something for Afghanistan,” explains Rabbani. “It was something that made sense, something that we were passionate about.”
She tells us that in Afghanistan “everything is around food. All gatherings, parties, weddings, everything”, so despite their lack of professional know-how, the trio felt their Afghan heritage would steer them right.
Rabbani is open that it wasn’t all plain sailing. “We’ve had a lot of challenges especially because we had no background in F&B so everything was a learning curve. We hired the wrong people in the beginning and we had to learn the hard way.”
The challenges piled up with Nazemi saying it felt like everything they didn’t have direct control of “became problematic”, whether it was consultants giving them the wrong advice or construction and licensing issues, but she says they had “such a strong image in our heads of what we wanted Kishmish to be it got us through it quite smoothly”.
A significant part of the charm of Kishmish is the ideal of it being real, traditional Afghan food. And while many restaurants claim their food is ‘home cooked’, for Kishmish it was a reality — with the women literally teaching their chefs how to cook it from their own kitchens.
The result is a menu that is “solely just Afghan” says Rabbani. “No Indian influence, no Pakistani influence, no other influence on the cuisine.”
She adds: “A lot of our customers tell us that the food tastes like their mum’s cooking or their grandma’s cooking. It’s very homey, it’s comforting.”
But while it may be traditional and simple, it’s still very diverse as Nazemi explains to us.
“We have a lot of variety in Afghanistan. What we’ve tried to do is take dishes from all different regions, all different hearty dishes which you eat in celebration or that you eat in the streets. We’ve tried to make a small tailored menu that incorporates everything.”
So if an Afghan walks in off the street, whether they are from the mountainous areas or from the valleys, both of which have dishes unique to them, they will find something familiar in Kishmish.
The women have managed to make contacts with Afghan suppliers registered in the UAE for the majority of the dried fruits, nuts, and spices required, with others in their homeland helping send through whatever they can’t source in Dubai to ensure authenticity.
It has paid off with the reception to the food, which Nazemi says has been “really good”.
A year down the line and Kishmish still has regulars coming from the first week while there “are a lot of new faces” also. The trio have also been keen to listen to feedback from their regulars and have used it to their advantage, even if they didn’t always want to hear it.
Nazemi says: “In the beginning a lot of the comments we received from customers really helped us grow and improve ourselves. Sometimes we didn’t like it, obviously, because our hearts and souls went into something and someone comes and says ‘no, this is wrong’, it hurts you a bit.
“I think we’ve learned how to become a lot more patient and tolerate a lot more. The most important this is we love what we’re doing — it’s not a job, it’s a passion.”
Expansion has already happened for Kishmish, with an outlet inside the Todd English Food Hall at Dubai Mall also exceeding expectations after a difficult start.
“Todd English was challenging because you have no control over the front-of-house there,” explains Nazemi. “How do you make sure that your cuisine is being explained properly? How do you know they are pushing your food? It started off slow but now it’s doing well, especially at night.”
From no F&B experience to running two outlets, including one in one of the most high-profile shopping malls in the world. The Kishmish team don’t like to make things easy for themselves. And they are doing it as three women in an industry where they are not the norm, as Rabbani admits.
“To be honest, it’s a very male dominated industry. I realised that when we went to the BBC Good Food ceremony, where we won Homegrown Restaurant of the Year — everyone going on the stage to pick up awards, they were all men.”
While Rabbani says they don’t feel discriminated against as such, she also says that in the beginning certain staff they hired “didn’t take them seriously”. There have been a number of changes in that department and they feel they finally have a team that supports them fully.
The owners also rely on each other for support, as Nazemi explains. “It’s probably one of the most stressful industries to be in, and women do run on emotion, which is probably why it’s a male dominated industry, but I think we’ve nailed it. We keep ourselves calm, we get through it. It’s stressful and intense at times but I think when you have a strong partnership and everyone can rely on one another it does help.
“We’re all on the same page, we all trust that we have the best interests — it’s like our child. And now we have certain members of staff who we are very reliant on. So you can see how they look at Kishmish as their child also because they saw it grow. They were there from day one: before we even came inside, they were coming to the house. So they are very protective of her, and of us.”
The steep learning curve has left an indelible mark on the Kishmish women, but they have come out of the other end stronger and better for it.
Nazemi calls it a “never ending challenge” and Rabbani says it is “constant stress and struggle and work” but in the end is it worth it?
“Yes, it’s worth it,” confirms Nazemi. “It’s worth it because we’re passionate about it. If we were doing it just to do it then probably not because you give up a lot of yourself and you give up a lot of your time. Fatima is married, Homaira is married, Homaira has kids – it’s stressful in that sense and it does take a lot from you but I think our main focus was to do something for our country.
“To show people our food, our culture. To show Afghanistan in a different light and in that I think we have been quite successful. People do leave here with a different image of Afghanistan — ‘oh, you’re not wearing a burka’, this is what we got in the beginning. But people left and they learned a lot because we would talk to them and would tell them about our traditions and our culture, and about the real Afghanistan, not this version which they see on the news. I think we have put Afghan cuisine out there.”