Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Postcard from Kabul


Kabul, Afghanistan. OK, so you'll probably NEVER come here; but I'm always interested in reading about food in far-flung places, and perhaps you are too. In a place as exotic and mythical as Afghanistan, one might imagine nomads sitting in yurts eating naan and yak cheese... in Kabul, that couldn't be further from the truth. There is a vibrant, diverse and refined food scene here, as long as you know where to go. Restaurants are largely unmarked in this city: dusty, pockmarked walls encircle villas and courtyards, replete with gardens, lush furnishings, gorgeous carpets. To get in requires passing through two steel doors and for males, undergoing a pat-down. But once inside, it can be magical.

Mantoo, Ashak, and Vegetable Samosa
Design Center Cafe.  Rahim, the owner, is a designer: of carpets, buildings, and menus.  He masters all three at the aptly named Design Center Cafe, where you will snack on Afghan and Western dishes in a gorgeous courtyard hung with vibrant rugs.  He serves several regional specialties, all of which are must-tries. We tried two types of Afghan dumplings, both made with a simple flour and water dough: mantoo,  plump with beef and spices, and ashak, filled with garlicky sauteed leeks. Both were topped with a thick yogurt and spicy red sauce.

Cake is delicious in any language
Bolanee, a naan flatbread stuffed with spiced pumpkin, was deliciously autumnal and came with a curried yogurt that added bite. There are five pages of menu here - in our group we ate curried chicken, kebabs, vegetable soup, vegetable samosas and chicken wraps - and he even serves an American-style burger.  Everything was delicious and after a dessert sampler of chocolate cake, brownie cake, and an Afghan take on carrot cake (a real winner! warm with caramel sauce) we sat back, enjoyed the sun slanting through the thatched roof, and felt truly lucky to have peeked behind these walls.

Design Center Cafe
6th Street Quallah-e-Fatullah
Kabul, Afghanistan

Pomegranate juice!
Flower Street Cafe. This is the place to go before the sun goes down on a nice warm day (avoid the deep winter months). Breakfast, brunch and lunch are served in a grassy garden replete with vine trellises and a collection of cats. Flower Street Cafe has the freshest pomegranate juice I've tasted in Kabul - just a hint of sweet, just a hint of tart, as if you stuck a straw into the ripe red fruit.

Kebab sandwich
Salads are gorgeous here and perfectly safe to eat (trust me, that counts in this town!) but the kebab sandwich is the way to go. Spicy chicken, lamb or beef rolled with vegetables, pickles, and served with a spicy herb sauce; it's served with fries and a soup for less than $10. One guest at lunch told us he spends every breakfast at Flower Street; as soon as he sits they bring him a french press coffee and a brownie, every morning. Sounds like the best way to wake up.

Flower Street Cafe
Street 7, House 57
Qalai Fatullah, Kabul
Ph: 070-29-3124

Palaw at Sufi's
Sufi Restaurant. Last, but not least, Sufi Restaurant. There are many places in town where a Westerner can get a mediocre meal that includes a black-market alcoholic beverage. This is not one of those places. Beverages are of the tea-juice-coffee variety, and the food is 100% Afghan and 100% delicious. Portions are also enormous... no one in the restaurant, much less my table, was able to finish what they ordered. Appetizers include mantoo (dumplings), bolanee (potato/leek stuffed dough), eggplant stewed in yogurt, and several kinds of naan; but don't waste all of your stomach space there... the regional dishes are something special.

Lamb and tomatoes

I tucked into the Kabuly Palaw, basmati rice steamed with lamb, raisins, carrots and pistachios, served with stewed tomatoes and a yogurt sauce. A colleague spooned up a rice and lentil stew with lamb, and another cut up the largest, freshest-looking chicken kebab I've seen in town, served with vegetables, salad and a pile of bread. They have an Afghan rice pudding on the dessert menu and even cut up a bowl of market-fresh fruit. Service is on the slower side, but in this town, there's no reason to hurry. 

Chicken Kebab

As we finished lunch, live Afghan music wafted out of an upstairs window into the garden. A truly special meal, in a truly special place. 

Sufi Restaurant
Butcher St.
Shar-e-now, Kabul
Ph:  077 42 12 12 256

One Response so far.

  1. Mary says:

    Wow erin - I really want to come to Design Center Cafe with you. That pumpkin flatbread looks SO GOOD. Great article, stay safe!

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