With Afghanistan so much in the news these days, I’m reminiscing about my first experience with Afghan food when I was in Islamabad, Pakistan, back in 2014.
I was on a 3-week business trip back then, and one of my Pakistani colleagues had wanted me to have a taste of the food from his home region, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the north-western frontier of Pakistan. His grandfather was a Pashtun chieftain, and their ethnic group spanned both Pakistan (44 million Pashtuns or15.4% of Pakistan’s populace) and Afghanistan (at 15 million, they constitute 42% of the population of their country).
Khiva restaurant, which still operates today, offers the robust-tasting cuisine which spans Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
What we had:
Afghani Chicken Boti - fabulous when served hot and fragrant straight from the grill. I could only discern onion, garlic and lemon juice on the meat - no pepper or masala spices whatsoever.
Afghani Veal Tikka - very toothsome and gamey - I guess that’s the way the Northerners/Pashtuns like their red meat. Again, the only marinade were onions, garlic and lemon juice, and no aromatics like cumin, coriander or any sort of spices whatsoever. I remembered asking my colleague why that was the case, and his answer was, “We can’t grow any of these in our arid lands. No chili pepper plant can survive in the desert.”
Osh Plov - Uzbeki brown rice garnished with raisins, julienned carrots and mutton shank: extremely aromatic rice dish with a texture that’s to-die for. A year later, when I was in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I found out that this rice dish was a staple, often cooked with lamb-meat, and topped with grated carrots.
Tandir Samsa - Uzbeki pasties stuffed with spiced minced chicken. These were my fave dish for the evening - these little parcels of buttery goodness were literally bursting with flavours:
Uzbeki Non - the flatbread is similar to naan, but studded with black & white sesame seeds, and beautifully pleated on the edges. Soft and moist on the inside, crisp and deliciously-toasty on the outside:
Waziristan Dum Pukht - which was baked lamb with potatoes, lemons, green chilis and onions, tightly-sealed in a pot and slow-cooked. This was another gamey, very robust-flavored dish typical of Pashtun cooking:
Khiva Restaurant Islamabad
Khan Markaz F-7, Jinnah Super Market, Near Saeed Book Bank & Askari Bank, Islamabad, Pakistan
Tel: 051-2650263-65/Mobile & WhatsApp: 0337-7077771/0337-7077772/0337-7077773-4
When I volunteered at our local hospital, one of the security officers originated from the Khyber area. He’d mentioned he spoke Pashto and I’d assumed he was Afghan. He was actually Pakistani and his first language was Punjabi but Pashto was also spoken by many from his area.
My only experience of Afghan food is this very casual place in Manchester that you’ll see was not the greatest success:
We are lucky that we have a lot of Afghan food in the Bay Area. With Fremont being the place where many Afghan refugees settled in the 80s. In fact, if you watch the movie The Kite Runner, there’s one scene where you can see the Bart train running overhead, presumably in Fremont.
These days there’s a lot of gentrification, with the neighborhoods in Fremont redeveloped and some of the Afghans relocating further away to I think Tracy, and closer to Highway 5.
I am sure the recent news affect them greatly.
There’s a well-known (maybe THE only) Afghan restaurant here in Cambridge MA. I think it’s part of a mini-chain here in the US that was owned by the Afghani leader’s brother or something like that? I haven’t been in ages, but the food was always reliably good.
The situation there is so heart-breaking. Yet more terrible news in a terrible year.
Do you still keep in touch with them over WhatsApp?
The only Afghan restaurant I’ve been to is Ariana II in Kilburn, North London. I had the chapli kebab and really enjoyed. I recommend it on a best food for tenner in London thread back in the day. It’s one of the places that’s still open of my recs. Quite a few have closed.
There was an Afghan stall in the Emeryville Public Market food court, before it was remodeled, and I ate there regularly. After 9/11, they removed all references to Afghanistan from the signs and menus. They came back after a year or so.
It wasn’t really a chain - the different restaurants were operated by different family members (siblings of Hamid Karzai, as it turned out).
I ate at the one in San Francisco first, later the one in Cambridge. Just delicious.
Didn’t learn about the ownership connection till much later. Apparently the first one was in Chicago (and even appears in WikiLeaks docs, if you please).
Here’s some related reading.
Some of the better kababs to be had in India used to be from Afghan sources as well.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa used to be known as the North West Frontier Province - my parents used to cater parties from a favorite restaurant that specialized in food of the region. More delicately flavored tandoor delicacies mixed in with delicately spiced curries and rices.
There are some Afghani enclaves in Delhi now, with the increasing numbers of Afghan refugees over the past many years.
I’m still in touch with my Pakistani colleagues in my former company, the British American Tobacco, though its Pakistani entity is known as the Pakistan Tobacco Company.
Khiva restaurant is still operating, and one can see its latest menu on its Facebook pages. But looks like it has reduced its offerings from a wide array of Uzbek, Pashtun and Afghan options to just mainly Afghan these days.
On this same business trip, 9 days after that dinner at Khiva, I was brought to New Kabul Restaurant, perhaps Islamabad’s most popular Afghan restaurant. It’s got a nice al fresco dining section which I much preferred over the rather oppressive indoor section.
For dinner that evening, we had:
Kabuli Palow - that ubiquitous Afghan pilaf dish consisting of steamed rice mixed with lentils, raisins, julienned carrots and lamb. It’s considered the Afghan national dish. The brownish hue of the rice came from the lamb broth used to cook the parboiled Sella basmati rice.
Chicken Karahi - rather a spicy (perhaps localized to suit Pakistani tastes) chicken stir-fry with a wonderful gravy for dipping one’s bread.
Kofta Afghani - juicy beef meatballs, smothered with a lightly-spiced tomato gravy, flavored with onions and garlic.
Afghani Nan - the taste and texture of the flatbread is exactly the same as Indian or Pakistani naan, but it’s differentiated by its signature oblong shape.
Ashak - an Afghan dish made of pasta dumplings filled with scallions and a meaty tomato sauce, topped with yogurt and dried mint.
Afghani Tikkah - skewered cubes of mutton. Tasted very, very gamey.
Manto: - closely resembling the Korean mandu, the Afghan manto dumplings are filled with beef or lamb mixed with minced onions and spices, steamed and then topped with a very typical sauce, “seer moss” (garlic-yogurt), dried or fresh mint, lemon juice, and minced garlic. The manto topping also included some tomato-based sauce includes split peas, red kidney beans and/or some sauteed ground meat.
We finished the meal with “kahwah”, traditional Afghan green tea, served with sugar-coated peanut clusters. Honestly, I don’t know who introduced to whom those Afghan peanut clusters, but the Chinese had exactly the same sweet. I surmised that it was the Mongols/Huns, who laid waste to much of those two parts of the world, who introduced this food item (beware the barbarians who come bearing sweets).
There’s also a popular deli, called the Afghan Bakery adjoining New Kabul Restaurant, which offers baked goods, besides an array of canned and bottled Afghan grocery items.
New Kabul Restaurant
Jinnah Supermarket, Markaz F-7, Islamabad
Tel: +92 512650953
Ariana in Brighton/Allston is also nice for Afghan food and was a bit more refined than Helmand
I had lunch at Shahzada Khan, a “dhaba” (roadside eatery) along the main street of Taxila in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. It was a 1,200-year-old city very rich in history, and I was absolutely enthralled to visit the pre-Islamic Buddhist archaeological sites there.
Our lunch spot was also pretty atmospheric as well, located beside the busy main street.
Customers could opt to sit on the charpoi beds whilst having their meals, but we didn’t. If I’d had to recline whilst eating, I might’ve gotten my lunch all over the front of my shirt.
We ordered two dishes: the chapli kabab - minced beef patties, lightly-spiced and studded with chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro, and their house specialty: crisp-fried freshwater “rohu” (carp). The dishes were served with a stack of local “naan” breads, and a local lemon-yoghurt dip.
We saw both dishes being freshly-prepared right in front of us:
Crisp-fried, spiced "rohu"
Naan and lemon-yoghurt dip:
Manto/Manti are found throughout Central Asia , Turkey and Greece. There are many types and sizes. It’s one of my favourite dishes at Uzbek, Afghan and Turkish restaurants.
I should check a Turkish grocery store to see if they sell frozen ones.
My first Afghan meal was at a nice restaurant on 2nd or 3rd ave in the east 20s in Manhattan in the late 90s. Lots of Afghan kabob shops in Canada, but not that many full service restaurants. We do have some Uzbek and Azerbaijani options close to the heavily Russian - populated suburban neighbourhoods north of Toronto.