A is for Afghanistan

August 30, 2008

Ariana Afghan Kebab Restaurant

787 Ninth Ave (Between 52nd and 53rd St), New York, NY


(It will pass)

Graffiti on the walls of a Kabul teahouse

– from The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

Recently, we embarked on our first leg of a 192+ country culinary journey through New York City.  First up on the list: Afghanistan.  We will have to profess our ignorance up front for this one: we know nothing about Afghan (Afghani?  Afghanistani? We’ve seen all three.) cuisine.  We are fairly adventurous eaters (as we hope you will come to know), though this type of food none of us had tried before.  But hey, that’s why we’re doing this, right?  So where does one start to learn about a cuisine about which one knows nothing?  In this day and age, of course, Wikipedia is one important go to information resource (though we have a few more up our sleeves).  Through the Cuisine of Afghanistan entry, we learned a few things about the type of dishes to expect.  Rice is king in Afghanistan, breads and other grains are also staples.  For rice dishes, it’s Palow, with meat and spices blended in with the rice before it is baked, and Chalow, another basmati dish, which is baked simply with oil, butter, and salt, and then served with a Qorma (stew or casserole).

We had seen an Afghan kebab house out in Jackson Heights a few times, and thought about trying that one, but as we were in mid-town until fairly late that night, heading out to Queens didn’t seem like a wise option, especially to our grumbling bellies.  So we opted to check out two westside Manhattan Afghan favorites: Ariana and the Afghan Kebab House across the street.  After a peek through the window at the décor and clientele and a quick glimpse at each menu, we decided to go with the former.  Ariana has a pleasant and low-key vibe, with just a few tables, and a reasonably priced menu.  Rugs and pictures of landmarks and landscapes in Afghanistan adorn the walls, including some notable images, such as the National Geographic Afghan Girl photograph, and one of the 1500+ year-old Buddha’s of Bamyan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, just 6 months before the regime fell.

We walked in and were greeting by a smiling and enthusiastic waiter. The items listed on the menu were as we expected: many variations of kebabs, Palow, Chalow.  We decide that we need to try as much of the menu as possible between the three of us.  So we opt for the Combo Appetizer as a starter, which we are told will be a “surprise.”  It turns out to be two types of fried turnovers, or Bolanee.  One was filled with mashed potatoes and the other with pumpkin, both with lots of herbs and spices, and served with a yogurt dressing.  Also on the combo plate was some well-seasoned “fried” eggplant, which was more like an eggplant stew, served with pieces of flat, square bread.  The bread was dense, but fluffy in the middle.  Almost like a doughier panini.  All were delicious, although the pumpkin turnovers definitely stood out.

For the main course we each ended up ordering lamb dishes, but no matter.  The meat was seasoned quite different for each.  Here’s a quick breakdown of what we ate:

  • Kabuli Palow: This dish consisted of salad and rice with shredded carrots, raisins, and almonds.  The rice was topped with grilled lamb, tender and well seasoned.
  • Kabuli Palow with Lamb Tikka Kebab:  Similar to the above, though the meat was seasoned and cooked quite differently.  This dish also came with a side of potato, covered with a red sauce of indistinguishable, but tasty, makeup.
  • Bandenjen Chalow: Again with salad and rice, though this time the rice it was plain, with no raisins or carrots or anything.  One the side was a stew of eggplant and tender lamb cooked with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes.

The waiter suggested we put some of the spicy sauces sitting on the table onto the dishes.  One red, one green sauce, both blends of hot peppers, added a nice flavorful spice to the dish.  They also brought out a little bonus yogurt sauce, which gave the meal another nice dimension.

We finished off the meal by splitting the two desserts offered.  The Firnee came in a little pudding glass, was a firm but smooth, nutty pudding with pistachios and slivered almonds mixed in.  Beghalawa is essentially the same baklava that you’ve had before at Turkish restaurants or your local falafel joint, but served piping hot (fascinating that baklava can be found, with little variation, from the Mediterranean to Central Asia).  We ordered tea and Afghan coffee, both of which were spiced with cardamom and maybe a little clove.

The meal was good and the flavors well balanced, but this was certainly a New York City version of Afghan dining.  The fact that we each had a bottle of beer with our meals is probably atypical for Afghan dining.  Tea would likely be more of a staple. A colleague of mine, who recently spent six weeks working in Afghanistan with their National Archives, training staff to digitize rare manuscripts in an effort to preserve what little of their cultural heritage remains, noted that no situation was ever complete without tea.  Work couldn’t be started with out everyone first having a few glasses; meetings would not commence until everyone had a glass in hand.  Meals would certainly be served with tea.  I wondered, is tea in Afghanistan served like it is in India, with milk, sugar, and spices boiled together?  A little internet research reveals that Afghans prefer to drink green tea, made by boiling tea leaves and served without sugar or milk, so that it is quite bitter.  Our tea didn’t have sugar, but also wasn’t bitter and had some spices blended in.  Still we enjoyed our spiced tea and coffee: Noquar has since been inspired to add some chai masala to his morning coffee.

So we enjoyed ourselves, for sure.  But we can’t say that it was all that much better than the food that one might get from a good halal cart.  And we’re sure that the array of dishes and flavors one would experience in Afghanistan would be quite surpass what we had at Ariana. Looking at the pictures on the walls during dinner, I got to thinking about what it would be like to one day eat in Afghanistan, enjoying a table spread on the floor of someone’s house.  Apparently, dinner is a big family affair, and guests are treated like royalty.  The author Åsne Seierstad wrote about first meeting the main character of her book, The Bookseller of Kabul, “One day he invited me home for an evening meal.  His family – one of his wives, his sons, sisters, brother, mother, a few cousins – was seated on the floor around a sumptuous feast.” She eventually spent 6 months living with that family and shared many more such meals with them.  We can only hope that one day very soon, the possibility of actually visiting Afghanistan will be a reality for many more than just journalists, soldiers and politicians.

One of the goals of this adventure is to learn more about the cuisine of each nation (or region where the owners are from), and talk to the servers or owners about their homeland, living in New York, and how, if at all, this city has influenced their dishes.  We certainly failed to do that this time.  The restaurant was busy (it was a Friday night at 9pm in Manhattan), and we were engaged in a heated political discussion (the usual “will Obama win?” debate that makes our meals stressful these days) during most of the dinner.  So we dropped the ball on that front.  But we vow to dig up a litter more dirt next week, when we visit Albania.  Until then…