A line had started to build in front of Mohibullah Rahmati’s tent when a midday rain swept in. The mix of tourists and suits abandoned their places in the cue beneath the towering white Oculus, scattering as they looked for cover.
Rahmati is used to it.
He’s had to contend with the elements since launching his Afghan food business Nansense at the beginning of 2018, whether he’s serving from his food truck or at a stand at Smorgasburg. It’s a big change from the office job as banker he left to bring his mother’s recipes to a wider audience. Rahmati, who goes by “Mo,” loves it.
“I just want more people to know more about our version of comfort food and home-style cooking,” he said.
But that’s only part of what he has in mind. Rahmati admitted that he wants Afghan food to eventually be as commonplace in America as Mexican or Chinese cuisine. And he’d like to play a central role in spreading it, first in New York and then hopefully in other cities nationwide.
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That’s part of the reason that Rahmati—who grew up in Woodside, Queens—operates in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Few of his customers trace their heritage to Afghanistan; instead, many are trying the food for the first time, often as they traipse between vendors at Smorgasburg’s Friday market by the World Trade Center or its weekend events in Williamsburg and Prospect Park. He relishes that role of bringing his childhood favorites to new audiences, but there’s nothing like another Afghan trying the food and approving, he said.
Nansense is already well on its way to broadening New Yorkers’ understandings of Afghan food. In addition to all the orders cranked out, the New York Times named it as a “Critic’s Pick” and Rahmati won “best rookie vendor” from the venerable Vendy Awards. All before the business marked a year in operation.
With Rahmati’s brother, Abe, making the flatbread and their mother, Zeiagul, running the kitchen, Nansense is a family operation. They’d long discussed turning Zeiagul’s cooking into a family business because it had a reputation among friends and family, Mo said.
“My mom knows her food is on point,” he said. “To me, I’m no chef. I’m repeating a process I learned from her. She critiques me and I still have a lot to learn from her. If it wasn’t for my mother, this would not exist.”
When Nansense started, Zeiagul worked at Lord & Taylor, but with the business’s success, she’s joined as the de facto head chef. The family was right to trust her culinary prowess, not just because of the accolades it’s received, but because it is so deeply satisfying.
The mantu—Afghan dumplings with beef and onion—is easily one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Rahmati sells them in about equal number to Nansense’s chicken korma, an ideal lunch with carrot and raisin, onion and tomato atop long-grain basmati rice. Rahmati recently added bolani, a shallow-fried turnover with spinach and greens inside, for Smorgasburg’s Brooklyn events, and the snackable bites quickly beat out his other offerings. Two more versions—one with potato and another with pumpkin—will follow, he said.
Nansense also offers potato korma, a vegan dish that sold out rapidly during a recent Friday beneath the Oculus, despite the unexpected rain. As Nansense grows, Rahmati said they’ll add more family favorites, including an eggplant-based offering with yogurt, garlic, tomato and mint that he described as “out of this world.” Based on the bright flavors and masterful execution of Nansense’s existing offerings, there’s no reason not to believe him.
Photographs courtesy of Nansense.