Born in Afghanistan, Ayubi was just one when her family fled the country in the mid-80s due to the Soviet-Afghan War. Crossing into Pakistan, the four sisters and their parents settled in Melbourne before moving to Adelaide two years later. Her parents worked odd jobs until opening a suburban Afghan restaurant six years ago. Serving authentic Afghan food, that Torrensville restaurant is the basis for one of the most successful local food stories of the past five years, Parwana. Acclaimed nationally, Parwana has changed this city’s perception of Afghan food. Its success paved the way for the Ayubi family to open the casual Ebenezer Place eatery Kutchi Deli Parwana last year, as well as the dessert catering arm Shirni Parwana, while a third Parwana will open at Flinders University in the New Year.
Ayubi gave up a career in the public service – she was a policy analyst for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) – to return to Adelaide and work for the family business two years ago. Aside from her day job, Ayubi is Sultana’s Dream Deputy Editor (currently on hold), a not-for-profit e-magazine that provides a forum for the opinions of Muslim women, and was on the board of Writers Victoria. Ayubi (who runs a blog, My Thought Bucket) also contributes opinion pieces to publications such as The Age, The Drum, New Matilda and Crikey to tackle topics such as Reclaim Australia, imperial feminism and anti-Muslim attitudes.
Knowing she didn’t want to become a career public servant, Ayubi returned to Adelaide in 2013 without any grand plans. “It was not my passion,” she says about her time at ACMA. “I loved it, it was a great career trajectory and I did really well. I was comfortable and bored. Returning to Adelaide, the reality for me was to move back in with my Mum and Dad and not have a job. I thought that sounded really good,” she laughs. “In the back of my mind was to extend the family business and work with my Mum and Dad. It all worked out.”
While Ayubi’s parents run the original Henley Beach Road restaurant, the children are in control of the other sides of the business. With its Mash and Studio Gram fit-out, the casual Kutchi is as successful as the parent restaurant. Ayubi is involved in the day-to-day operations of both outlets. Even though Kutchi features the more spectacular fit out (it is nominated for an International Restaurant and Bar Design Award), Kutchi, like the original Parwana, serves authentic Afghan food.
“We made a conscious decision to make sure our business model revolves around the authenticity of our food,” she says. “It’s exactly the same in terms of how traditional our recipes are. The recipes we use have been on my Mum’s side of the family for generations. It’s just packaged in a different way, served to a different crowd at a different pace and is more casual. We thought that was really missing in the city. Living in Melbourne for six years, you see how many food pockets there are, just this amazing authentic food everywhere you go in the city. That was the concept we kind of based it on. It’s a pop-up twist on what we do over there [Torrensville], because my sisters and I are the ones who started this one [Kutchi], so it re flects our experiences having lived most of our lives here. We just tried to mix those elements and make sure the food is as authentic as ever, and that it’s still got that spirit of generosity.”
Ayubi says places that serve authentic food can challenge people’s perceptions.
“I think it’s that indirect and intangible feeling people get when they sit down for a meal,” Ayubi says. “They know that it’s something very authentic and maybe it challenges their perception of what they have in mind with a country such as Afghanistan that, for the last decade at least, has relentlessly been about war and terrorism and violence and poverty. That’s not the Afghanistan my family knew. That’s not the Afghanistan my parents grew up in. That’s not part of the massive history of the country. It has a very rich history and a beautiful landscape. It’s such a shame that people around the world will never get to see this. That’s the story we try to tell indirectly. We don’t have to preach about our culture or the religion associated with the country. There is so much more we have in common as humans just by the very fact we are human, and that can be told by having a meal.”
Ayubi, along with her three sisters, her niece and her brother-in-law, travelled to Afghanistan three years ago. She says the trip helped her understand her mother and father.
“I visited extended family and they just were so similar to my parents. We visited my Dad’s side of the family. Their house in Kabul is still standing because they made a lot of effort to keep it and repair it after any war damage. It’s this beautiful three-storey house and to see the family photos on the walls made me feel very connected to the whole place. I didn’t think I would feel that connection.
“It was this really weird experience of me thinking, ‘I was born here and this is where my family history is and the first few months of my life were in this house’. It’s such a beautiful landscape. Amazing. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t realise the extent to which I had been influenced by what we see on the news.” While in Afghnaistan, Ayubi says she and her sisters were struck by how kind the people were, despite the poverty. “It was striking and it made me fell humbled because these were people who had nothing and lived in very simple homes and shelters but had so much generosity in them and, without romanticisng it, generally seemed to be having a good time.”
Ayubi’s writing career began while she was in Canberra, not long after she started working for ACMA.
“It was the first time I had been out of Adelaide properly. I was young – 22. I had completed Honours in Chemistry and thought, ‘It’s not really me’. I never really thought I could work in a lab environment and I didn’t want to go into academia. I just left and went to Canberra and got a job there with ACMA as a graduate through one of their graduate training programs.
“In Canberra I was introduced to new people and different ways of thinking. A lot of people I met there were journos and academics and I think the first thing I wrote was about banning the burqa. That was about seven years ago when we were starting to talk about it in Australia. I remember going to see this woman speak in Canberra. She was a news presenter in Canberra and at that stage I was wearing a headscarf. I remember hearing her speak and going, ‘What’s going on?’ She has good intentions but totally missed the point in many ways. I just thought that she shouldn’t be speaking for me or for people of my culture or religion and misrepresenting it so much.
“I just sat down and wrote something about it and it was just a stream of, not emotion, but just my thoughts. I think it was the first time I really cared about something and thought I had to let it out or change people’s views in some way and have it published.
“That first piece was for Crikey. That was a few years ago now and about, I guess, the irony of enforcing liberation onto people: ‘We don’t agree, so we’ll just take away people’s civil liberties and force them not to wear one [a burqa]. That will solve the problem and it’s a win for feminism.’ There is so much arrogance in that.”
After six months in Canberra, Ayubi moved to Melbourne still working for ACMA. While in Melbourne she met Hanifa Deen who is the editor of Sultana’s Dream.
“She’s a lot older than me but I just love her because she’s no bullshit. She’s an author of a few books and we became really good friends. We thought there was a big space in opinion pieces and social commentary for Muslim women who are stereotyped all the time. There are a lot of men talking for us within the community and there are a lot of men and women talking about us outside the community. This was a space for all of these women who are really accomplished and don’t need anybody else to speak about them or for them. We decided to create a dedicated space just for that. Our audience wasn’t go to be anyone in particular but just society in general.
“It got a lot of uptake immediately, just by universities using it as an education tool. It’s in the national archives, the government uses it for different things, it had a growing readership and that was really good. It’s on hold at the moment because we’re applying for different funding. When we have funding we’ll be able to dedicate a bit more to it and get it up and running again.”
Cemented back in Adelaide, Ayubi is planning for the city to host an Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate for the first time in four years.
“It’s in the works,” she says. “I’ve pulled all the right people in and the funding. Now it’s just about the mechanics of it and securing the location and the speakers.”
The last IQ2 Adelaide event was held in 2012 and featured Annabel Crabb, Lynn Arnold, Amanda Vanstone and others debating the topic: is a degree the be all and end all. For the 2016 event, Ayubi isn’t too worried about the theme at this stage. “I just hope we have a really important conversation.”
Parwana Afghan Kitchen
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