Emran Restaurant & Market opens, the first Afghan restaurant in Spokane – Inlander

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Nasrollah Mohammadi was a young child when he left Afghanistan to flee the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s. Born in the northern province of Kunduz, Mohammadi moved through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey before the United Nations Refugee Agency helped him, his wife and his three young children move to Spokane in 2014.

One constant through it all? Food.

At the end of last year, Mohammadi and his wife, Samira, opened Emran Restaurant & Market on Division Street, just south of Indiana Avenue. The unassuming spot that used to be Heavenly Special Teas, and a grungy tavern before that, is now the first Afghan restaurant in Spokane. Just as food helped Mohammadi learn about the people he encountered growing up, he and his family are offering their favorite dishes to Spokane and inviting the city into a deeper understanding and appreciation of Afghan and broader Persian culture.

Emran is named for the father of Maryam, a revered woman in Islam sometimes conflated with Miriam, the sister of Moses, or Mary, the mother of Jesus. Emran is also the name of Mohammadi’s son. Emran Restaurant & Cafe is a place not only for food, but for ideas, neighbors, and generations to meet.

“When people want to understand the culture of some people, I think that starts with food,” Mohammadi says. “I thought maybe Spokane people don’t know about our people. So that’s why I thought I could make something here that’s a little bit like our country.”

From the outside, the building still looks like a bar. White brick walls with narrow windows at the top make it hard to see inside, more typical of your favorite karaoke den than a family-friendly restaurant.

But inside, Emran is white and clean and spacious, with fridges filled with sodas, raisins, and a big crate of Medjool dates. In the background, a playlist of Farsi pop music gives a boost of energy. Mohammadi took advantage of the tall walls along the front to create three special booths, covered in deep red carpets and cushions, where groups of friends can sit cross legged in front of family-style platters of lamb and rice. There are plenty of tables, too, also red, where groups of three or four can grab a quick bite.

Samira is usually in the kitchen behind the order counter, preparing each dish as her mother taught her, and her mother’s mother before her. Mohammadi helps with prep, but defers to his wife as chef.

“Our people, especially ladies, when they start to grow, they learn to make food,” Mohammadi says. “They believe if you want a good mother for kids, we must care for our children with the best foods.”

Mohammadi speaks five languages, and Samira speaks three. She’s modest about her English, preferring to make guests feel welcome with her homemade dishes and a beautiful, steady smile.

Every day, Samira hand folds countless manto, Afghan dumplings stuffed with beef and spices, garnished with green herbs and bright orange lentils, and drenched in a garlicky yogurt sauce ($18). She rolls bolani, a flakey flatbread filled with savory potatoes and leeks ($10). And she prepares platters of pulau, a rice pilaf dish, in both a Kabuli and Uzbeki style ($20). Although pulau variations are found everywhere from Central Asia to Eastern Europe, Kabuli pulau is Afghanistan’s national dish. A tender shank of lamb is buried under piles of Basmati rice, golden with curry and turmeric and sweetened with carrots and raisins.

Emran also offers chicken, lamb and beef kebabs ($18), plus sweets like jalebi, spiraled dough fried in sweet saffron syrup, and coconut cookies sprinkled with pistachios. Mohammadi hopes to add Turkish and Iranian dishes to the menu as he figures out what Spokanites like to eat.

“This is just the beginning,” Mohammadi says. “First I thought we should start with a small [selection] so Spokane people know about our food. Then, slowly we serve our other foods.”

Lest you’re left wanting more after a luxurious meal, Emran is a store, too, selling home goods, clothing, jewelry and groceries in the space next to the restaurant. Mohammadi used to operate a market by the same name on north Hamilton Street but moved the goods to this new location to keep both operations under the same roof.

Bangle bracelets, ornate necklaces and dangling earrings draw the eye into the market, where long embroidered dresses line the walls, perfect for Afghan parties and celebrations. Behind, imported goods help a home cook experiment with new ingredients at home, like rose water, dill water or liquid saffron. Bulk crates offer walnuts, raisins, dried peas and candied almonds. Back shelves display hard-to-get spices like sumac and black cumin.

Years ago, Mohammadi flew to Germany to visit his mother. He made his way back, and as he descended into Spokane, he suddenly felt the wave of relief that only happens when you’re coming home.

“At that time, I understood, ‘Oh, I really love Spokane,'” he says. “Not just me, but my family, too. We have very great friends here. I’m not talking about Afghan people. No, I’m talking about our American friends. They are so kind. I have very good neighbors.”

One recent weekday afternoon, a middle-aged man walked into Emran. He left and came back with his teenage son. He struck up an enthusiastic conversation with Mohammadi as the son looked around. Turns out, the father was deployed in Afghanistan years ago and has missed the food ever since. He ordered a favorite dish, excited to take home and share with his family.

Spokane is home for Mohammadi and his family now. But that doesn’t mean they’ve left behind the lessons they’ve learned from living cross-culturally for so long.

“Every culture has something good and not good,” Mohammadi says. “We want to share the good things.”

“Our people believe a guest means God sent that person to us. That means our home will be more happy, more blessed.”

Emran Restaurant & Market • 1817 N. Division St. • Open daily 10 am-10 pm • 509-919-0092

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