There was no kishr in Kansas. But Rowida Assalimy, who was born and raised there, got to drink it anyway. She was lucky then—her parents would bring back the kishr from their visits to Yemen. But later in life, Assalimy’s luck changed when she tried, and failed, to find the stuff at American stores.
So the University of Chicago M.B.A. candidate did what any good budding entrepreneur would do: She decided to be the first person to import and sell this ancient beverage in the West. Her first step: start referring to kishr as a tea. “People are so unfamiliar with kishr,” Assalimy says. “If I say coffee cherry, people think there’s cherry in it.” But in fact that’s exactly what kishr is: sundried husks from dry processed coffee cherries (the berries of the coffee tree). In other words, kishr uses the stuff that’s usually discarded after the valuable coffee beans are extracted. Ancient Yemeni kishr blends coffee husks with Saigon cinnamon, cardamom and ginger, and grinds it all into a fine powder. Assalimy’s version is different. In fact, she admits that if she were to bring her kishr to Yemen, “they wouldn’t recognize it. I had to adapt kishr for the American palate.”
The first adaptation: reformulate the kishr from a powder to a coarse, tea-looking product. (“People want to see what’s in it,” Assalimy says.) The second: tone down the spice. Through sampling events, Assalimy found that timid American taste buds don’t want too much of kishr’s traditional flavor of baking spices. (The kishr remains plenty spicy, though—it has notes of chai and holiday teas.)
Assalimy sources her coffee cherries from Yemen’s Haraz mountains. “Since they consume the husks there, they take better care in hulling it,” she explains. She claims the drink has health benefits, such as providing antioxidants and vitamins. That, it turns out, is another way she’s marketing kishr for Americans. “Nowadays [Americans are] so health-conscious,” she says. “In Yemen, though, they drink it for taste.”
Kishr ($12.95 per box) is available at Goddess and Grocer, 1646 N Damen Ave (773-342-3200) and 25 E Delaware Pl (312-896-2600).