Qayum Karzai came to the U.S. in 1969. In 1985, Karzai’s cousin Assad Akbari joined him. While Karzai’s brother, Hamid Karzai, took a different path back in Afghanistan (eventually becoming its president), Qayum furthered his restaurateur career, opening Helmand in Baltimore in 1989, followed by Tapas Teatro, b Bistro and Pen & Quill. His fast casual Afghani restaurant Kebabi opened on the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus last month. Akbari serves as the Helmand’s general manager.
Were your mothers good cooks?
In Afghanistan, every single woman is a good cook. When I was a little kid, I helped my mom all the time. When I came to this country, I said, “You know, I love to cook,” and I ended up in a restaurant cooking Afghan food.
So you might have become a chef even if there hadn’t been an Afghan restaurant for you to work at?
Two things: When most people come to this country, the first thing they do is work in a restaurant. Second, since I was used to cooking Afghan food, it was easy for me.
What makes Afghan food unique?
It is a very healthy food. If I took you to the kitchen, you wouldn’t believe it. Every day we start from scratch. We buy the food the same day and serve it the same night. Qayum has a farm and grows a lot of vegetables the way we do back home. Eggplant, green pepper, red pepper, cucumber and turnips. That makes a big difference.
Are certain flavors or spice blends particular to Afghani food?
It’s not as spicy as Indian; it’s very lightly spiced. We have some dishes with more sweet flavors. We have two different kinds of rice: One is white rice with cumin seeds; the other is brown rice, and we put in small amounts of cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper and cloves. At least seven spices go into that rice.
Some people segregate the sweet and savory spices. There’s folly to that, isn’t there?
A number of dishes we have are a combination of sweet and spicy. We have a lamb cooked with organic dried apricots, fresh tomato and chili pepper. We serve it with white rice and sweet-and-spicy turnips. We can’t make enough of that—zardalu challow. People who have been coming here for years and years, they say it’s an addiction.
What are some other popular dishes?
Another dish, Kabuli, is brown rice with raisins, carrots and lamb. I have a family who comes and I set up a table for them; everyone is having the same dish—it’s family-style. One of the daughters got married; she had her rehearsal dinner here for 45 people. She wanted everyone to taste the dish she grew up with. She started coming here when she was 4 or 5.
And of course there’s the pumpkin.
Yes, that’s sweet pumpkin with yogurt and garlic sauce. It makes a big difference what pumpkin you use. It should be a small baby sugar pumpkin. We get them from Sharp’s Farm [in Howard County]; we buy all their pumpkins. Before the weather gets cold, we get all the pumpkins out of the farm and put them in storage.
How many pumpkins are we talking?
You know those bins with watermelons at Safeway? I use about 40 to 45 bins every year.
The new place, Kebabi, is fast casual for a lunch crowd. Do you think people will also take something home for dinner?
I’d like to have nice cookwares, roasting pots. We can do organic chicken, stewed vegetables in containers for people to take home. They can put it right in the oven and warm it up, then bring back the pot when they’re finished.
Your restaurants all seem successful. What are you doing right?
The restaurant business is very transient. I think for the first 20 years, with the exception of a few people, the core staff of the Helmand stayed. This is the least transient of our restaurants. In restaurant circles, we’re seen as not super-aggressive employers.
Tapas Teatro has been open 15 years, and it’s always packed. I’ve never seen anything like it. Now it has a lot of competition—Pen & Quill. That’s also your place!
Here in Baltimore, people don’t want to wait. When we opened Helmand in Chicago, people would wait.
You’re a model immigrant. You came to the U.S., you created jobs, paid your taxes. What do you think about the recent election in the U.S.?
What happened in Afghanistan turned me off from politics. The best of Afghans couldn’t make it go. I am sad. I’m a little more disappointed. Overall, I think politics isn’t doing too good. Younger people might bring something.