by David Santori
When you walk into Lapis, you are home. And if you ever wonder what home feels like when the Popal family welcomes you, it feels like a happy place. A place with wonderful family memories and a feeling of warmth, peace and well-being. While we all know that “home is where the heart is”, at Lapis home is also where the food is cooked with passion and love.
I had the chance to sit down and grab a bite with the Popal family to chat about their life story, how they arrived in the United States and of course Afghan food. A story about immigrants told by an immigrant. A story sprinkled with cardamom, mint, sumac and raisins as well as a dash of Afghan history.
What brought you to the U.S.? And what do you remember about your first food experiences when you moved here?
The Soviet-Afghan war in Afghanistan in 1980 made it a dangerous place to live and for the safety of our family and our children we decided to leave. The United States was seen as the land of opportunities so for our children’s future and to give them the life we wanted for them, we decided to come here and find refuge. We arrived in Virginia at one of our uncles’ house and we lived with him at first.
Food is a big part of our culture in Afghanistan – fresh food, made from scratch, prepared twice a day. Whether it’s vegetarian, gluten free or vegan, Afghan food is very diverse. We arrived here and realized food in the U.S. wasn’t very healthy especially 35 years ago – a lot of junk food, frozen food, microwaved food etc. It is very different now because you have access to a lot more variety, but back then it was the standard. And because food wasn’t very healthy, we had to continue to commit to cooking from scratch, to recreate the flavors from home. It was like learning how to cook again. And we needed to make food for our children, so at first we learned from our uncle how to make the perfect rice for example – these little things that you have to teach yourself when you live in another country while trying to make a home. We knew we had succeeded when friends would come over and tell us they felt they were back in Afghanistan, transported there by the scents and flavors of the dishes we served them.
Shamim Popal, is the mother and creative mind behind the menu. Her passport picture hangs in a frame at the restaurant as she holds her youngest daughter Fatima before coming to the U.S. – like a historical stamp, a reminder of the story of leaving Afghanistan. Shamim explains that she was never interested in food or cooking while growing up. She loved to eat, of course, but that was the extent of her relationship with food. Growing up in Afghanistan, she remembers having a wood stove in her kitchen as gas came much later; the kitchen was separated from the house to avoid smells. She was not allowed in the kitchen because her family had cooks and while she was able to observe them work once in a while, she was not welcome in their space while they were busy preparing food. The family lived briefly in the Persian Gulf area of the U.A.E., her husband Zubair worked in sales at the InterContinental Hotel and Shamim started to attend cooking classes offered by one of the hotel’s chef. She learned French cooking basics and technique. It not only sparked an interest in the culinary arts but also triggered a new passion.
How has your upbringing influenced the way you cook and think about food?
I learned many cooking techniques with French chefs. Much of our family was now in Europe after emigrating from Afghanistan, we were lucky enough to be able to visit them several times and eat international food. All of us were fascinated with the café culture of France, the crêpes, the bread etc. and we at first wanted to recreate these French flavors in D.C. [note: the family opened Café Bonaparte then Napoléon and then Malmaison], which we did successfully. The concept of an Afghan restaurant came much later as a family idea. We came up with all of the ideas for Lapis and created menus for fun together during breakfast time at home – making lists of food we thought would work well, dishes people would want to eat and how to make them discover the essence of Afghan cooking.
My own journey as a refugee and the way I learned how to cook has influenced my creativity as time went by. For example, mixing Eastern and Western ingredients or spices together, using French techniques, taking risks with creating recipes, making traditional Afghan food healthier with less fat, healthier oils, less frying etc. We have managed to put our own modern twist on Afghan food to create a unique menu.
For those not familiar with your restaurant, how would you describe it? What unique perspective do you bring to the D.C. restaurant industry?
We serve homemade food and we cook everything from scratch. Our dishes are cooked with love and a passion for capturing our legacy. Whether the dishes are family recipes or newly reinvented with our own twist, they are all very distinctive and healthy. Our family eats here every night. We pride ourselves knowing that somehow we manage to introduce healthy Afghan food to the neighborhood and the city. It is a tribute to our country.
We chose to be entrepreneurs and to embrace the American Dream everyone talks about. We bring this tradition of the Afghan culture that hospitality is key. In Afghanistan, being hospitable is to provide the best food for your guests. And this is what we do here at Lapis. Our guests’ experience needs to be the best and our restaurant is like our home. When you come in, you are walking in our home and we will welcome you with open arms.
What do you see as the main differences in the culinary scenes between the U.S. and Afghanistan?
Back in the day, people didn’t go out much to eat in Afghanistan. Food was made at home for the family to gather and eat together. On the other hand, we noticed Americans cooked less and went out to get food instead when we arrived here.
Now it’s a little bit different. In Kabul, with the overall modernization of societies everywhere the younger generations eat out more than in the past. Fried chicken, juice bars, yogurt places, fast food, even bowling alleys are now very popular as well as Turkish and Lebanese food. You obviously can still find traditional Afghan food, but things have evolved and it is more international. Oh, and it is spicier there.
Being in D.C., a big international metropolitan area and with some many different segments of the population represented here – from diplomats, to foreigners, to tourists, students and locals – we challenge ourselves to research new trends, new food and push each other to make our food better and healthier. Presentation is also very important and we pay attention to every little detail. Tasty and pretty is what we thrive to achieve.
How has D.C. dinning shifted over the years - what have been some of your favorite trends and new restaurants?
Restaurants now pay more attention to details just like we do so this is also what we look for and hope to experience when we go out to eat. There weren’t as many choices for food before. The city has now evolved so much and there are a lot more upscale options now. Customers have also changed and expect more as well. Expectations are higher and social media is a force to be reckoned with because it can influence opinions about a place.
We miss Italian food so we enjoy going to Pizzeria Paradiso for a date night. Le Diplomate is always good. Fiola Mare is another favorite. Our kids enjoy Zaytinya and Rose’s Luxury.
What keeps you in D.C.? Where do you go for inspiration in the city?
In the beginning, school kept us in D.C. It was important for us to provide stability for the kids. We also missed the four seasons of Kabul after living in the Persian Gulf for a while. D.C. has four seasons, just like Kabul, so we are very happy. Plus, it is an international city after all and it is easy to walk around everywhere. Lots going on, free museums etc. There is this European look to D.C. that we enjoy a lot, especially in Georgetown, and it reminds us of going to visit family across the ocean.
As I am scooping another serving of qabuli palow on my plate, this dish of Afghan rice pilaf with a julienne of carrots and raisins available with lamb or as a vegetarian option usually made for the most distinguished and important guests visiting someone’s home, I am reminded that I’ve been spending all this time chatting and eating with the Popal family in what feels like their living room. Warm and cozy. Refined and exotic. Modern yet full of legacy. Just like the food they serve. The chicken kebab is delicately sprinkled with sumac, the rice is cooked to perfection al dente with their own secret technique, the buranee banjan baked eggplant is just that much more interesting to the palate with the incredibly appetizing garlic yogurt and dry mint. Elegant and stylish.
Blue and golden frames showing family pictures – round, square, rectangular frames – all of them carefully put together like a curated gallery wall for all of us guests to enjoy and explore. Reddish Afghan rugs with purple and blue hues on the floor as well as intricately carved wood panels used as dividers bring a romantic and colorful touch to the place – flavors from a distant home for us to appreciate right here in the city. A real true testament of how the Popal family has inspired so many in their community as well as the Adams Morgan community. A home away from home to discover the Afghan way of life and realize we have a second family at Lapis waiting for us to join them for dinner.
Photographer, blogger, Instagram addict and Parisian expat, David Santori has spent 17 years in the country before recently settling down in our nation’s capital. David’s musings are sprinkled with food, colors, lifestyle photos, travel experiences as well as humorous cultural differences. Follow his adventures @frenchieyankee on Instagram. And no, David does not own a béret.