If I were to invite you out for dinner where I live, I would bring you to my favourite local restaurant, an Afghani restaurant. Before eating there, I had no clue about Afghan food. Then one night – I think it was summer – for some reason our scheduled plan failed, we needed food, we did not feel like the same ol’kebab, and we decided to try this one, a bit randomly. I remembered driving past it while house hunting: the apartment we saw that night was the creepiest one ever, for the record, but it was worth going there just for noticing this place. ‘Kabul Restaurant’.
It is a one man show, front and kitchen. The owner is a very handsome man, always smiling and with the ability of making you feel genuinely welcome. To me, Afghan people will always be legendary for their hospitality, thanks to this man. The grey post-industrial German city outside is transformed into a luxurious display of red cushions, soft music, smiling people and great food. On Friday and at weekends the food is laid out on a buffet, while during the week he’ll cook a dish or two on the spot. The quality of food is excellent, even if it does not vary that much. I assume it is quite traditional Afghan cooking, maybe slightly toned down on spices to suit German palates, but just a bit. Clearly the chef knows what he is doing.
We always start with a meat broth soup of chickpeas and noodles, flavoured with dill, mint, garlic and an array of difficult to guess spices. You’ll find a recipe below. Then there are filled ravioli (for lack of a better name) of two types, one with meat in a split chickpeas sauce, the other with leeks in a meat sauce. The main carb is provided by rice – white one, flavoured with a bit of cumin, and a brown rice with carrots and raisins or oranges and pistachios: they are clearly influenced by the Persian way of cooking rice, but with a unique spicing, again, and they are maybe my favourite dish. Three types of stewed meat, rotating between chicken, lamb, veal, and meatballs, all cooked to melting perfection and each with its own special spice profile. Three vegetables, rotating between soft spinach, carrots, peas, cauliflower, again each with its own spices. Some ground meat kebabs – good, but maybe the less assertive food here. A fresh vegetable salad (during week days the owner would always bring a big plate of cucumber, tomato and mint to snack upon while waiting – so refreshing!), an addictive vinegar, chilli and coriander sauce, and a yoghurt sauce with garlic for dressing the dishes.
The flavour is so intriguiing that I cannot get enough of these simple dishes. I have eaten them for more than a year now and I still am not tired of them, but actually crave them whenever I think about it. I am still trying to capture all those subtle spices that build the taste. The day when I am leaving this place for good is not far away, and I’m going to miss this food. I need to learn how to cook it before leaving. I want the recipes.
But I’m shy of asking for recipes. Maybe I will eventually, but I want to have a background idea first. I did find some of the dishes in Laura‘s beautiful cookbook, and I could get an idea of where the flavour profile comes from. Actually for a primer on Afghanistan food, and more, this book is a great starting point, and Laura’s recipes are always easy to follow. But I needed more. I was happy when I spotted a book about Afghan cooking at the library. Not in the least a bit attractive as a layout, and with many really complex dishes, or maybe it is me getting confused by German, most likely. Several recipes needed heavy adaptation: I don’t know what kind of ingredients the author is using, but three hours cooking time for me translates into inedible rice, no matter the variety. I started to cook and adapted the recipes, trying to reproduce my restaurant food, and you know, they worked. No surprises I could not guess the ingredients, although usually I am quite good at recreating by just tasting: they are complex. Afghan food lies between two of most complex flavoured cookings in the whole world, Persian and Indian. It has some obvious influences from Mongolia and central Asia, and some influences from Europe, with the use of herbs and some sweet spices. Silk road cooking at its purest state, and utterly fascinating.
I dont’ know if you are familiar with Sasha’s Global Table Adventure. Every week she cooks food from a country she’s never been to, most of the times: she’s actually cooking her way through the whole world in alphabetical order. Brilliant idea, and even better realization, with perfect pictures, funny and informative writing and spot-on recipes. My idea was to do something similar for this week, so that I could give you an idea of a whole Afghan menu, the way she does. I found this task overwhelming for my rhythms so I gave up (and kudos to Sasha, who’s turning into one of my food heroes). Anyway, I’d like to share two of the most unusual recipes I have tried so far with you: I’m by no means an expert, but I did love that food. As if I had invited you to my Afghan restaurant.
To spice things up: Afghan curry mixture
A spice mix used widely in cooking, it probably changes from family to family. The book gives a mixture I stick to, although I have slightly changed the amounts. It is a mild all-round curry that goes well with any meat and most vegetables. I use it almost everyday and always have some at hand, ready.
5 bay leaves
2 tablespoon fenugreek
2 tablespoon cloves
2 tablespoon black pepper, whole
2-3 dried chillies
2 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric
Grind all the ingredients in a spice grinder. You can use a mortar, but it is going to be very hard work. And the bay leaves never disintegrate.
To drink: cardamom green tea
This infusion has quietly grown into being my daily drink. It is not a subtle one and indeed, don’t use expensive green tea for this. it is great to wash down an excess of food or to prepare in large amounts to drink while working. At the restaurant, it is served in big pots. No sugar or other ingredients are added, but it is served with sugar and cardamom coated almonds. It works with the almonds, but I’ve grown to like it on its own. I prepare it quite light because I like to leave the leaves inside the pot and make a second infusion with them, but you can make it stronger if you like. If you make so, infuse first the green tea leaves for a minute, then remove them and add the cardamom (it needs at least five minutes before releasing its full aroma).
For about 1 lt teapot:
1 tablespoon chinese green tea
4 cardamom pods, crushed.
Cauliflower and turkey qorma
I’m quite sure this cannot be much traditional: turkey – in Afghanistan. Come on! On the other hand I find great turkey and cauliflowers at the market. I don’t particularly like these ingredients in principle, so I was quite surprised when I could not stop eating the resulting stew. A great example of the power of spices. Very good leftovers. Serve with rice (for rice recipes, I advise you to follow Laura’s Silk Road Gourmet, or just use some Persian style rice).
1 medium cauliflower head
500 gr turkey leg meat
2 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves
2 teaspoon curry
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Wash the cauliflower, cut into small rosettes, and soak into salted water for ten minutes. Brown the sliced onion on a big pot in some vegetable oil. Add meat cut into bite size pieces and garlic. Brown. Add cauliflower in small pieces, curry, ginger, lemon, pepper and salt. Add 200 ml water. Cover and cook until the sauce is thick (about half an hour) . Add peeled tomatoes, cut into pieces, and cook them for a further 5 minutes.
Ash – chickpeas and noodle soup
I make this soup almost every week. It has a deeply satisfying flavor, is very filling and very convenient to make with frozen ingredients. At the restaurant it is clearly made with meat broth: use it if you have some by hand, it will taste richer and greasier. If you don’t or want to make it vegetarian, chickpeas cooking broth makes a very tasty soup anyway. The recipe on the book calls for red beans and chickpeas, but I use only chickpeas more often. When I have frozen or fresh spinach I add them, and if I have fresh mint and dill I use them, but both herbs are very nice when dried as well.
For the noodles, I buy some dried thick egg and durum wheat noodles labeled as ‘Hubertus Spaetzle’. The outcome is quite similar to what I eat at the restaurant. I guess you could make your own if you have time. The book calls for generic ‘band noodles’ but I love how the thick, almost round ones give texture to the soup.
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon Afghan curry
1/2 tablespoon tomato concentrate
1 lt stock (vegetarian or meat)
200 gr cooked chickpeas
100 gr dried noodles
1 1/2 tablespoon dried dill. or fresh one
1 1/2 tablespoon dried mint , or use fresh one
a handful of fresh spinach, or some frozen ones (optional)
1 garlic clove (to taste)
1 pinch paprika power
Chop the onion and sautee it in a large pot with some vegetable oil, until slightly soft and brown. Crush the garlic, add it together with the curry, the tomato concentrate, the chickpeas and the stock. Bring everything to the boil and let it simmer for about ten minutes. Add in the noodles and cook until ready (the ones I use have a long cooking time, about 20 minutes: if using regular or handmade ones, you want to cook them together with the herbs). Add in the spinach, mint and dill and let it boil a further five minutes.
Meanwhile, crush the remaining garlic, whisk in the yogurt to create a thick sauce. Serve the soup with a dollop of yoghurt, and sprinkle with paprika and more dried mint, if you like.