Afghanistan is nestled between Iran, the Indian Subcontinent and the former Soviet Union, which hasn’t made for the smoothest recent history — not to mention a certain war over the past decade. But that positioning has also led to some great flavor combinations that make use of native ingredients and the palates of Afghanistan’s neighbors.
With Afghanistan becoming part of the American consciousness this century, Afghan restaurants offer a real-time alternatives to CNN for those interested in the rich Central Asian culture of Afghanistan without most of the political overtones.
“Our original restaurant opened on Sept. 17, 2001,” says Akmal Qazi, owner of the Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant Kabul House in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, pointing out his curious timing. His parents owned that Kabul House, with the current incarnation having opened in 2010. “People hear about Afghanistan and become curious about the culture. I knew the potential we have with our cuisine.”
Persian, Indian, Chinese and Mediterranean cultures influence Afghan food, according to Qazi. Onions play a part in everything, meat often features prominently and mint is often used as a garnish.
The flagship dish of Afghan cuisine is the Qabili Palau, which consists of tender meat (usually lamb) domed under rice that’s mixed with lentils, raisins and julienned carrots. The bolani is a flatbread often stuffed with pumpkin, leeks or other vegetables. It’s comparable to the Indian paratha. The mantwo is a meat-stuffed dumplng topped with yogurt that takes its cues from Chinese and Central Asian cuisines. The aushak is more of a vegetarian ravioli. Kabobs also feature prominently.
Though Afghan restaurants are still few and far between in the United States, they can usually be found near the major urban centers, especially if there’s a sizable Afghan-American population nearby. Among the more heralded restaurants is a pair known as The Helmand in Cambridge, Mass. and Baltimore, owned independently by brothers of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
But the center of Afghan cuisine in the United States is in the Bay Area. Fremont, Calif.’s Little Kabul is home to dozens of Afghan restaurants, including De Afghanan Kabob House, considered by many to be the best Afghan restaurant in the country. Also in Fremont is the Maiwand Market, known for selling Afghan breads, meats and other ingredients to help recreate the cuisine at home.
Still, unless you can invite your way in for dinner into an Afghan-American home, restaurants may be the way to go.
“We’re a very hospitable people,” says Sahar Rakin, vice president of the Afghan student group at George Washington University, and whose family owns King Kabob in Fairfax, Va. “If you come to our restaurants, you won’t leave unhappy.”
Here are some of those restaurants where you won’t be disappointed:
- Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant 110 E. Union St., Pasadena, Calif.; 626-683-3310
- Balkh Shish Kabab House 2310 31st St., Astoria, N.Y.; 718-721-5020
- Bamiyan 358 Third Ave., New York; 212-481-3232
- De Afghanan Kabob House 37405 Fremont Blvd., Fremont, Calif.; 510-745-9599
- Dunya Banquet and Restaurant 5951 Stevenson Ave., Alexandria, Va.; 703-212-8511
- The Helmand 806 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md.; 410-752-0311
- The Helmand 143 St., Cambridge, Mass.; 617-492-4646
- Kabul House 4949 Oakton Street, Skokie, Ill.; 847-674-3830
- Maiwand Market 37235 Fremont Blvd., Fremont, Calif.; 510-796-3215