"In Afghan cooking culture, the way you cook your rice is regarded as a real test of the chef, and it's not easy to get it right," says Marjon Ajami, raising her hands into the air, to demonstrate that if cooked correctly, the rice should fall to the floor in individual grains, like rain.
Ajami, who moved to Abu Dhabi from Los Angeles seven years ago, is the chef and founder of Nolu's, a cafe in Al Bandar which opened in October last year and serves a mixture of healthy Californian-style food and Afghan dishes.
Although perhaps not the most conventional of pairings, for Ajami it is a personal one: she is passionate about healthy eating and her parents moved from Afghanistan to the United States in 1970, where her mother ran a restaurant serving traditional Afghani food. "When my husband and I moved to Abu Dhabi, it was hard because I was so used to shopping at Whole Foods and going to cafes and regular restaurants, whereas here, everything was centred around the hotels," she explains. "So, I gathered together all the things that I craved and decided I want breakfast, I want healthy, wholesome and fresh, with some Afghan influence."
The result is Nolu's: a spacious, bright, airy cafe with views of the water, a relaxed friendly atmosphere and, from the dishes that I sampled, very tasty food. The cafe was named after Ajami's children, Noah and Lujayn, and the Afghani dishes on the menu are prepared according to her mother's recipes. Customers can try items such as mantoo (steamed dumplings stuffed with minced meat and topped with a ground beef and yogurt sauce), borani kadoo (sautéed squash in a saffron and cardamom sauce) and marinated kebabs served with that all-important brown rice, which gets its distinctive colour from the addition of perfectly caramelised onions and is baked in the oven in a spiced tomato sauce.
"The beautiful thing about Afghani food is that because we border with so many different countries, the cuisine has a number of influences," Ajami tells me. "In terms of spicing, Aghani food is somewhere in between Indian and Iranian food; it's not spicy but it is very fragrant - we use coriander, turmeric, cumin, cardamom and cloves. It is also very healthy; yogurt is often used as a base, we include lots of vegetables and don't tend to deep-fry anything."
The light, healthy California-inspired dishes on the menu, which include signature salads, wholesome sandwiches, breakfast scrambles, steel-cut oatmeal with raisins and bananas and broiled grapefruit with brown sugar and cottage cheese, are all Ajami's own creations and represent a style of cooking that she felt was missing from the Abu Dhabi dining scene.
Although she is adamant that she doesn't want Nolu's menu to read like a "hodgepodge" of different cuisines, she is open to receiving customer input, too. When a slightly adjusted menu is launched next month, it is likely to feature a steak and potato option in honour of the British expatriate who told her that he craved "simple food" and a creamy chicken pasta dish that was requested so often by a number of her Emirati customers that it will now become a permanent feature. "I think it's so important to talk to customers, to have a close connection and to listen to what they are saying; making little changes like this isn't going to hurt me, so I just thought, why not do it," she says.
Ajami also explains that during her time eating out in Abu Dhabi, customer service has often been an issue and that this is something she places huge emphasis on at Nolu's. "I hate going to a restaurant and there being no relationship between the waiter and me, so I've tried to build a strong team of happy, joyous employees who hopefully breathe this into the service. I want to hear our regulars being welcomed back and for the staff to know which table is their favourite or how they like their coffee. It's the little things that make a difference, after all," she concludes.
Nolu's cafe, Al Bandar, Abu Dhabi is open from Saturday to Wednesday 8am to 10pm and Thursday and Friday 8am to 11pm. For more information, call 02 557 9500 or email email@example.com