Nov. 3, 2022
The Shams sisters decided to open a bakery to help other Afghan women. The hitch? They didn’t bake.
BOISE, Idaho — Bahar Amir Shams last visited Kabul in 2016. It was her first trip back to her birthplace after two decades away. Her family had fled quickly, just as word came that the Taliban was going door to door looking for girls for arranged marriages. With four young daughters, Shams’ father knew he had no choice but to find a way out of the country he loved.
The family hid in hearses and truck beds, waded across roaring rivers, and found refuge in Iran and Turkey before finally landing in Boise, Idaho, in 2002. Shams was only 6 when they left Kabul and when she returned as a young woman, she came to a realization about her former home city.
“It was just so hard to be a woman,” she said. “They had no opportunity, and I had so much.”
Shams returned to the United States with a plan to open a bakery with three of her sisters and send some of the proceeds back to Kabul to support single mothers. The only hitch? None of the Shams sisters were bakers.
So Shams turned to the Internet. She subscribed to YouTube channels, enrolled in online courses, and scoured foreign websites for recipes she thought she could replicate. If a site was in another language — Ukrainian, say, or Bulgarian — she’d copy the instructions into Google Translate, line by line. Then she’d teach her sisters the recipes. The second-oldest, Khatera, caught on quickly.
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In 2019, the four sisters officially opened Sunshine Spice Bakery & Cafe with Khatera’s saffron pudding as their signature dish. The bright yellow dessert, made from rice flour and coconut milk and topped with crumbled pistachio, paid homage to pivotal places from their family history: Afghanistan, a center for growing saffron, and Turkey, where the sisters lived as young refugees.
As Bahar expanded her research and Khatera grew more confident in the kitchen, the menu expanded to include other global items like pillowy mantoo stuffed with spiced ground beef, homemade bread stuffed with Bulgarian cottage cheese, and pistachio baklava with hand-rolled phyllo dough.
Then one day this past spring, they got a call. Had they seen the news? Khatera was among a handful of bakers nationwide nominated by the James Beard Foundation for 2022′s outstanding baker. The sisters were shocked. People started showing up in droves.
“Things aren’t so busy right now,” the youngest Shams sister, Homeyra, told me the day I visited. The store had been open just 20 minutes, and they had already served seven customers, including one who arrived before the store even opened. “This city has been so supportive of my family since day one,” she said.
The sisters are opening another store closer to downtown. And for now, Bahar is enrolled in two online culinary courses, one out of Ukraine and the other out of Australia. When I last spoke with her, she and Khatera were making their third opera cake of the week. The notoriously finicky French delicacy involves layer upon layer of sponge cake, ganache, and coffee buttercream. (The Shams add pistachios to theirs.)
They’ve also started to package and sell their signature green tea, infused with saffron imported from Afghanistan and harvested by women. A portion of the proceeds from tea will go toward supporting a handful of struggling mothers near Kabul, some of whom are battling breast cancer.
Currently, some of these funds help support their oldest sister, who was the head of a hospital system in Kabul before the most recent Taliban takeover in 2021. She and her daughter have taken refuge in Pakistan and hope to secure visas so all five Shams sisters can be reunited in Boise.
“Right now, it’s not a lot of money, but it’s more than they would have had,” Bahar Amir Shams said. “We hope to empower them to start a small business themselves, or leave the country if they can’t find opportunity under the current regime.”
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