Meet Diba Kushkaki
Diba Kushkaki, 40, is a mother of six from Kabul who has been living in the United States for more than 10 years. You might recognize her better as the owner of the the Afghan restaurant on University Boulevard, Sultan’s Palace. The soft-spoken mother of 6 sat down with me this morning under one of the beaded silk canopies at the Palace.
Diba left Afghanistan when she was just 10 years old, at the time of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. She lived in Pakistan for 6 years before moving to Germany where she lived for another 14 years.
It was her father-in-law who sponsored her family’s move to America. Her uncle was living in Tucson at the time and running his own construction company.
“My passion was cooking,” Diba told me. “When I used to live in Germany, I always wanted to have a small… take-out place or something like that. But never got the opportunity.” She finally got that opportunity when a friend told her to check out a location on Drachman.
She opened Sultan’s Palace in 2005 with 2 other friends, both Afghan. But the restaurant never made enough of a profit for the 3 of them to share, so they left the business to Diba in 2006. In 2007, they began the move to their current location, which finally opened in 2008. The expenses in the smaller location are more than what they paid at the bigger restaurant.
“My mom actually is a very good cook, very good cook. But I never learned from her,” Diba said. In fact, it was her husband that taught her how to cook! Once she learned the techniques of cooking from her husband, Diba began experimenting with flavors and measurements. “Everything is Afghan,” Diba says about her recipes. She keeps the dishes served at Sultan’s Palace as authentic as possible. All the meat is halal and all the spices are brought in from Los Angeles.
“There’s a lot of food that we kept out.” The decision to leave certain recipes off the menu was made based on how feasible it was to freeze the food or how long it would keep in the refrigerator. Her customers more familiar with Afghan cuisine have called her up specifically for such dishes, however.
Diba says her restaurant does not get much business from Afghans in the Tucson community. “Most of the families are widows. Like 80% of the women they came as refugees here. They’ve barely established their lives here.”
With the Department of Near Eastern Studies just around the corner from their restaurant and the Islamic Center of Tucson just up the street, Sultan’s Palace gets a lot of business from the greater Muslim community in Tucson. Especially during the month of Ramadan, Sultan’s Palace was a local favorite of many to break their fast.
When I asked her about her favorites memories at the restaurant, her dream-job, she jokingly answered, “No best memories! All the time I am working so hard! … I am all the time here. I have no vacation. If I take vacation, the food changes… It’s not easy.”