Afghan cook’s journey to Dublin included stint at refugee camp
By Lou Fancher
A person dining at Pamir needn’t hear the infectious laughter of chef Mehri Akbarpour to relish the tender lamb shanks roasted for hours, seasoned with onions, tomatoes and spices and served on a moist bed of basmati rice.
Nor must guests at the family-owned restaurant eat with their hands in traditional Afghan custom to enjoy koobideh, charbroiled ground beef marinated in Pamir’s secret recipe seasoning.
But it’s intriguing to learn the stories behind aushak, puffy steamed dumplings with leek and cilantro filling and topped with a yogurt cap, chicken kebabs that arrive enveloped in creamy tomato sauce and other menu items. There is abundant joy — and ever-present laughter — in a conversation with 53-year-old Akbarpour.
“I cooked in Germany for two years as a refugee in a camp. We left Afghanistan when I was 14. I cooked for 25 people. We didn’t have a lot of ingredients: meat once a week. We managed,” she says.
Before Akbarpour fled with her family from their homeland, she learned to cook from her mother.
“I was in school until the war started when I was 12. Then we had to stay home for almost three years. We couldn’t leave the house because we were girls. My parents thought the soldiers would hurt us.”
She learned to prepare her mother’s specialty, kecheri, made with meat, fried mung beans and rice. Because there was no laundry machine in their home, her mother sometimes joined with a neighbor on washing days.
“I’d have to cook dinner,” she recalls. “The first thing I ever cooked was kecheri. Everybody liked it.”
Another time, the results were different.
“I used a pressure cooker but couldn’t figure out how to use it and the food exploded everywhere. It hit the ceiling, all the neighbors ran to my house, and I fainted. It was a horrible day.”
After marrying in the refugee camp at age 17, Akbarpour and her husband from whom she is now separated came to the United States. The San Leandro resident has three adult children: twin sons Farhad and Farzad Akbarpour handle customer service in the front of the restaurant, daughter Zahra Akbarpour is Pamir’s owner.
“Zahra can cook, but she’s not a good cook,” says Akbarpour, followed by laughter that softens the comment with a mother’s obvious love. “My daughter opened Pamir because of me: she trusted me.”
Trust comes too from Farhad, who says, “It’s fun being family and being here all the time. It can get crazy and hectic, but even though we yell and raise our voices, we’re still a family.”
His mother’s koobideh is his favorite.
“I can eat it all the time. The flavor is from my growing up: it was my go-to dish on special occasions. We’d grill, sit down, eat together. We’d eat the old-school way with our hands. My uncle would tell me that food always tastes better if you eat with your hands.”
Chef Akbarpour would say that food tastes better if it is authentic. That means cooking the rice a bit longer so it is soft.
“Some rice is sticky or dry: the one I make is perfect,” she says, with peals of laughter at her own hubris. “Knowing which spices to use is also important. In Afghanistan, all we had were cumin, turmeric, garlic and onion. I use those four a lot.”
As often as not, customers have never had Afghan food.
“We have Asians, Caucasians, Indians, Afghans, all kinds of people. They fall in love, and we feed them often after that.”
People sometimes walk out after they discover that Pamir serves no alcohol. “My daughter tells them that the food is so good, they won’t miss the wine.”
Complaints on Yelp, she says, are useful for learning what customers dislike, but frustrating.
“The real customers are OK, but some have a competing business and just want to talk bad about you. Of course that’s not good for a family-owned restaurant, but what can we do? It’s a free country: you can say anything. Do I like that free speech? Of course I do; who doesn’t?”
Of course, Akbarpour likes most the customers who “look at me and say, ‘Thank you so much,’ ” and time spent with her 5-year-old grandchild. And then there is shopping.
“The Livermore outlet stores are only one exit away from us. Everybody knows that when I’m sad to say, ‘go shopping’ because it cheers me up.”
Despite a childhood filled with challenges and the rigors of a family-run restaurant, Akbarpour suggests these are the secret ingredients behind her sunny disposition: frequent cooking and frequent shopping.