Timing seems innate to Nelo Mayar, owner of Greenville’s first Afghan restaurant Aryana. She can sense a dish’s readiness from small reads: a shift in aroma, a slight change in surface tension, or the feel of a utensil in a pot.
As a child growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan, she knew guests were coming when her mother prepared six dishes instead of three. “No matter the size of a family, entertaining is central to the Afghan culture,” she says. “A guest is God’s gift to you, so you serve twice as many dishes and the very best you have to offer.”
To this end, she serves six dishes on a large plate for lunch at Aryana—two rice dishes, two meats, and two vegetables in delectable sauces—and welcomes customers to the restaurant like venerated guests. “I want them to feel as if I’ve cooked this meal just for them,” she says.
Mayar lived in three countries and raised four children before turning her passion for cooking into a career. It was a move to Greenville three years ago that kindled opportunity: Furman University asked her to teach cooking for their lifelong-learning institute, OLLI. She instructed more than 100 students on Afghan cuisine before feeling the time was ripe for her own brick-and-mortar restaurant.
The menu at Aryana is centered on a cultural belief that each food has a reason, an impact on the body’s well being. Equal portions of meat, vegetables, and starch are served “to re the immune system,” especially during winter months. Proteins are marinated and long-simmered with ground spices. Cumin, garlic, ginger, turmeric, coriander, and cardamom are essential to the Afghan palate. Mayar orders black cumin, cardamom, and the rice she favors through her husband’s uncle who lives in New York. She dreams of stocking the shelves at Aryana with heritage spices, organic dried figs, mulberry, green raisins, and indigenous long brown pine nuts.
Downtown Greenville has embraced the midday eatery, gobbling up the likes of chicken korma, lamb kabob, and sweet potato burhani. Mayar will add warm-natured dishes intended to “ready the body for the season”: a meat-filled steamed dumpling called Mantoo; a soup called Aash of root vegetables, dried dill, and long homemade noodles; and her children’s favorite meal Kecheri Quroot. They nicknamed
it “the volcano” for its erupting cream center and domed presentation with risotto-like grain, flavored with mung bean, ground beef, peppers, and dried mint.
Mayar says Greenville lacks entrées for vegetarians and is planning accordingly. “I will run out of days of the week before I will be out of vegetable dishes to serve,” she says.
Three employees help Mayar at the restaurant, all young people from Greenville with no connection to Afghanistan. She is teaching them to cook and serve, and they sit down around 3 in the afternoon to share a daily meal. “I hope they grow with me and the business. We are a good team,” she says. “I want this restaurant to be a place where we take care of people by feeding them these foods I know. The happiness it brings me each day is from none of us, it’s from all of us.”