Originally from Kabul, Afghanistan, the Mahmood family was forced to leave their home country in the mid-1990s when the Taliban took over.
Khalid Mahmood, now 32, was 3 years old at the time.
“I remember very little, but I do remember the day we were leaving. It was very hectic,” he said. “I remember leaving with my mom and my aunt. We went to Pakistan for about six years, and then we moved to Michigan around 2000. I haven’t been back.”
In 2017, Mahmood’s uncle and cousins made the journey to Lansing. In July, the family teamed up to open Noosh Afghan Cuisine, the only exclusively Afghan restaurant in Michigan.
“We’ve done our research, and we would know because we’re Afghan,” Mahmood said with a grin. “The next closest one is in Illinois. In Detroit, there’s a lot of different Mediterranean stuff, but not Afghan.”
A father of four and an Okemos resident, Mahmood operated a handful of Puff Puff Tobacco smoke shops prior to entering the restaurant industry.
“I’d been thinking about it for a while, maybe five-plus years. I always wanted to get into the food business, but I didn’t have the right partners, the right resources. I don’t know how to cook everything,” he said. “So, I waited a couple more years. When my uncle and cousins moved from Afghanistan, I knew that my cousin is a good chef, and so is my sister.”
Noosh staffs three employees in addition to the many family members who pitch in, including Mahmood’s mother, sisters, aunt, uncle and cousins.
One of Mahmood’s sisters, co-owner Mina Mahmood, also designed a menu decorated with Afghan-inspired anime characters. It features traditional Afghan staples such as qabli plow, a brown rice dish with sauteed carrots, raisins and marinated lamb that’s served with a side of moderately spicy beans.
“That’s as Afghan as you can get, probably. It’s popular,” Mahmood said of the dish, which he noted is made differently in almost every Afghan state. “Up north, it’s very oily and extra garlicky. Down south, it’s different.”
Other dishes include mantu, Afghan beef dumplings served with yogurt sauce and tomato paste; bollani, pumpkin- or potato-stuffed flatbread that’s similar to a quesadilla; kabobs; wraps; and traditional Afghan puddings.
Mahmood describes the general taste of Afghan cuisine as something “between Indian and Mediterranean food.”
“We’re not as spicy as Indian food, and we’re not as seasoned as Mediterranean. We’re kind of in the middle,” he said. “You’ll see these dishes at most people’s houses, weddings, birthdays, parties.”
The reception from newcomers, as well as the many Afghan refugees who now call Lansing home, has been promising.
“Recently, a lot of Afghans moved to the Lansing area. There are probably 300 to 500 families now. We also get a lot of those people that left families back home and don’t have anyone to cook for them at home,” Mahmood said. “We get a mix of all kinds of people, though. Everybody just wants to try it because it’s something new.”
People have even traveled across the state to experience the taste, including one couple from Muskegon.
“When they heard that we were here, they came out just to check it out. Some people had it outside of Michigan, on the West Coast or the East Coast. People that have tried it know what it is,” Mahmood said.
Though he hasn’t returned to Afghanistan, Mahmood hopes Noosh can channel the spirit of his people in its homestyle cooking.
“It’s a very beautiful, colorful and diverse country. They’re a tough people who go through a lot. Even in the situations they’re in right now, they’re living, they’re happy, they’re dancing, they’re celebrating,” he said.
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