Afghan Culture + Cuisine: What the News Won’t Show You
What do you think of when you hear Afghanistan? Is it war? The Taliban? Or political issues? Chances are you’ve gotten all of your information about the country from the news and it was depressing. Although it’s true that Afghanistan has suffered from security issues and conflict, including a 14 year war with the U.S., that does not define a society or it’s people. Afghanistan is unique and complex and so is afghan culture.
At Culture + Cuisine we want to offer a new narrative and find the stories the news won’t show. Our series “The Communal Table” is a community dinner and conversation that allows you to learn about the rich culture and history of a unique country over a delicious meal while meeting new friends. On Saturday we will dine at Khyber Pass, one of the first Afghan restaurants in San Diego. Culture + Cuisine founder Loren sat down with Zia Nasery, owner and chef of Khyber Pass to talk Afghanistan, his journey to San Diego, and why Khyber Pass is more than just a restaurant.
From the Military to the Kitchen
Loren: Hello Zia, I’m so excited to talk to you today. Can you tell us about yourself?
Zia: Thank you. So I was born and raised in Afghanistan and when I finished school at the military academy I become an officer.
Loren: Woah military school? You have a military background? I had no idea.
Zia: Yes but the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan [of 1979] changed this. At the beginning my entire family was jailed and we didn’t know if we would survive. We eventually escaped to India and then to Germany and to the U.S.
Loren: What happened to your military and law enforcement career?
Zia: When I first came here I went to Washington, DC to the FBI, I said I have law enforcement background and I speak 5 languages, so I can be helpful. I took all of my degrees from different countries and from my hometown. After applying they said that I’m overqualified. I thought “What? How can I be overqualified for the American FBI?” But they would not hire me. Instead I drove a taxi. Eventually we left and came [to San Diego].
Loren: How did you become a chef?
Zia: During the days when I was a student in Europe [before the invasion] I was used to Afghan food. During one school vacation and I spent the entire break learning how to cook. When I came back [to school] I was cooking for myself and my friends all the time. It became my hobby. All the time. And after so many years in college I couldn’t get a job [after the invasion]. So one day my friend came to me and he said “Zia there is a place, start a restaurant, you know how to cook”.
The Birth of Khyber Pass
Zia: So I did. We started with a 2 burner stove, 25 plastic plates and cups on Conway street. I cooked the food and my wife served the guest. Within a few weeks the media came and gave it good exposure and we got excellent reviews, 5 stars, and the place became packed.
Loren: Your current restaurant is in Hillcrest on University. How did you get here?
Zia:Our restaurant started on Convoy street and then we built our own restaurant there. It was like a cave, with traditional floor seating and for 17 years our business was there. But then the area turned into a bit of a Korean town and the business didn’t do so well. So we moved to Hillcrest. We had young afghans design this space and we have been here since 2000.
Loren: What’s your favorite Afghan dish to good?
Zia: It depends some people like lamb, some like chicken. We afghans we like Lamb. My favorite lamb dish is kolby pallowa. Lamb kabob lamb chop and lamb curry are also very good.
Loren: What’s favorite cuisine besides Afghan?
Zia: This is very difficult to answer (laughs). I lived in India for a while. I loved indian food. But the indian food I’m used to it, it was homemade food back in india, I lived there for many years, about 7 in total. This kinda food is hard to find anywhere, because the food here, most of them, is commercialized. But for 33 years I’ve tried to keep homemade food in this restaurant.
More than Just a Restaurant
Loren: What can people expect when they come to Khyber Pass
Zia: Well for many years there were not so many Afghans here. Nor was there many sources of news about Afghanistan especially in San Diego. So we became a place where many people came and asked questions. There were news interviews and professors would bring their university students here for discussions. I would tell them that Osama Bin Laden was not Afghan. That Afghan culture is beautiful. I would tell them that our religion is for love and peace and that the radicals hijacking its name were doing so for political reasons and political gains, not because of the religion.
Loren: So Khyber Pass is more than just a restaurant huh?
Zia: The Afghan community in San Diego is bigger and access to news is different but we still get questions.So many people come here with questions, and whatever their questions, I try to answer.
Loren: What is one thing you want people to know about Afghan culture or cuisine?
Zia: Now is a totally different picture, so many things have changed, there has been so much war. But back then Afghanistan was very famous for being very kind and welcoming people. And right now we would love to bring peace.
Join us for Afghan culture + cuisine at The Communal Table on March 18th at 2:00pm. Find tickets here.