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Hearty and full of heart

Dishes at Hassib Sarwari’s Zarak inspired by his mother’s cooking

Restaurateur Hassib Sarwari left his hometown of Kabul, Afghanistan, for Canada many years ago, a refugee of war during the Taliban reign of 1996 to 2001. Despite the civil unrest that infused his childhood, what stands out in his memory is his mother’s cooking. Even at the worst of times, she was always making the best meals for her family—meals that were hearty and full of heart.

In coming to the Lower Mainland, Sarwari brought with him a fondness for the food and flavours of his motherland, aromatic dishes with delicate wafts of rosewater or hues of golden saffron. It has been his dream to share this cuisine with neighbours and friends in his new home.

Hassib is a partner of Afghan Kitchen Group with Winnie Sun, which operates Afghan Kitchen in South Surrey. The company is now about to open its flagship restaurant, Zarak, at 2102 Main Street in Vancouver.

Zarak, which translates as “gold flakes,” will offer dishes based on Hassib’s mother’s recipes. It will showcase aspects of Afghanistan that don’t often come to light in this part of the world.

“Afghan culture back home is based on hospitality and generosity,” Hassib says. “Families create spreads of food to honour their guests. Food establishes love, communication, collaboration and unity between families, relatives, and strangers in Afghanistan.

“The foods, tastes and spices of Afghan dishes are a tasteful blend of the regions that surround Afghanistan, through historical influences of the Silk Road,” he says. “The spices used in Afghan dishes are neither hot nor pungent; Afghan food is a perfect blend of extravagance and good taste.”

Some of the ingredients commonly used in Afghan cooking are cardamom, sumac (dried grape powder), dried fruits and nuts, yogurt, dried mint, fresh coriander and, of course, rice.

Zarak will build upon Afghan Kitchen’s menu, offering an elevated dining experience.

Some of the dishes are traditionally made only on special occasions because of the extensive preparation they require—like Afghan rice, mantu (beef dumplings) and aushak (vegetarian dumplings). Other items will be playful creations such as sliders that infuse Afghan spices and herbs into North American bites.

Kololi are vegetable-flour patties made from scratch: they have a little bit of heat and come in a vegetable sauce with fragrant cumin rice. Sabzi is the name of a slow-cooked spinach dish, and aush is a comforting tomato-noodle soup with beans—a home cure for whatever ails you. A flatbread known as bolani is an Afghan staple, ideal to scoop up chilled eggplant dip.

Zarak takes pride in its forthcoming cocktail list, which uses Afghan ingredients like rosewater, cardamom, saffron and even pistachios. Traditional Afghan tea will also be on the menu, as will BC wine, local craft beer and enticing non-alcoholic options.

Inside Zarak, you’ll find an elegant décor with subtle gold accents. On walls, you’ll find hues of pink, the bright colour commonly seen on Afghan mud houses. Exposed bricks, which are used in home construction in the region, will be used as dividers. You will also notice a kite motif, a nod to Hassib’s childhood.

Zarak is a tribute to the good things from Afghanistan and a show of faith for a troubled country that, despite it all, remains beloved by so many.

“Afghanistan is at times portrayed as a desolate, ungoverned and ungovernable land,” Hassib says. “The vast majority of Afghans are civilians who have endured years of civil war, economic drought and entrapment. Afghanistan has been the crossroad in Asian and Middle Eastern history, due to its central location and fertile lands.

“In modern history, Afghanistan was sought after for control from major world powers, and due to conflict, Afghanistan has become a place of adversity and resilience,” Hassib says. “There is wavering hope that Afghans embody through cultural values. Zarak embodies hope that we share, that one day, our beautiful home can be shared with the rest of the world.”

Some of Hassib’s fondest memories surround hosting his late father’s friends at home, when his mother would spend days preparing for elaborate, delicious meals.

“We were refugees of war during the [1996-2001] Taliban reign,” Hassib says. “My family was split due to that fact and we lost our father during our move to Pakistan. Health care was scarce and inaccessible. The devastation is unfathomable as I know families right now are enduring similar and worse difficulties. We were the lucky ones back then to have found a home in Canada and to have made a life for ourselves, but I know that luck is an undependable variable. I pray everyday for innocent casualties to end, and for the sacrifices that Afghans have made to allow for our country back. Our home is a special place.

“Through [my mom’s] cooking I see the sacrifice of a single mom with four young boys in an unknown land with pennies in our pockets,” he says. “I see a humble reminder of where we come from, of our heritage—that reminder, of home, that despite all the terrible things that we have been through, at least in the moment of eating, we are loved.”