I first arrived in Kabul in late 2004, one of thousands of aid workers who came to the Afghan capital after the Taliban fell from power in 2001. Since then, through my work and my new relationships with Afghan colleagues and friends, I have begun to understand the country's devastating history, the challenges facing its fledgling government, and the charms of its enduring cultural traditions—one of which is a delicious local cuisine. Nearly three decades of conflict have taken a toll on this once worldly metropolis, and reconstructing it will require more than rebuilding roads, bridges, homes, schools, and government institutions; it must include the restoring of Afghanistan's culinary traditions and landmarks.
The following account is a personal itinerary of some of the local restaurants, street-food vendors, and hole-in-the-wall kebab stands where I found food and friendship in Kabul. Along with my companions, Michael, an American political analyst, Noor, an Afghan translator, and Timur, an Afghan-American lawyer, I returned to these spots time and again for sustenance and inspiration. All have weathered great demographic changes, physical devastation, and economic uncertainty, yet they have survived, battered but intact, much like the resilient Afghan people they still serve.
Across from Shar-e-Nau Cinema and Park, Shar-e-Nau
If the Afghan people were to compile a list of a national culinary treasures, Herat Restaurant would be at the top. Located in the heart of Shar-e-Nau, a neighborhood that once housed the city's wealthy elite but now swells with expatriate apartments and nonprofit offices, the restaurant was founded in 1995, during Kabul's bloody civil war, by a proprietor from the northwestern Afghan city of Herat.
Outside the restaurant, the smell of kebabs on coals beckons passersby. Inside, the main dining room is populated by men seated at circular tables; a series of drawn curtains separates them from the "family room", where women, who were allowed to enter the restaurant for the first time after the fall of the Taliban, dine with their husbands and children. The decor is post-Soviet chic—macrame polyester curtains, linoleum floors, plastic flowers in ceramic vases, and flowery wallpaper in shades of hospital-sterilized green.
When I visit with my friends Michael and Noor, we order shishleek kebab, chunks of lamb alternating with cubes of fat from the animal's ample domba, or backside; the restaurant's signature dish, mantu, half-moon dumplings filled with ground beef or lamb, covered with red lentils and tangy yogurt, and sprinkled with dried mint and red chiles; and bowls of shola, a gelatinous vegetable soup. Three young waiters in crisp white button-up shirts, with slick black hair and adolescent skin, who have been working at the restaurant since it opened, tell us that business has always been good, even under the Taliban. They spin stories of the infamous mujahideen commanders and Taliban leaders who came in for the renowned kebabs and boast that parliamentarians and members of the royal family still visit regularly for "power lunches". "But we've never seen Osama in here," they swear, shaking their heads solemnly.
HR Charikari Restaurant
Across from Hadji Yacoub Mosque, Shar-e-Nau
Just a few steps from Herat, outside the HR Charikari Restaurant, three muscular men who wouldn't be out of place in a bodybuilding competition stand in a row. With their hands at the three o'clock and nine o'clock positions, they spin enormous aluminum vats that have been filled with sheep's milk and sugar, submerged in a wooden trough, and surrounded by ice. As the milky sugar cools, the men wield flat metal trowels, dipping and splashing the liquid onto the cold inner walls of the vats, where it hardens into ice cream. Again and again, they scrape the sides clean and start all over, in an uninterrupted motion of twisting and turning that leaves onlookers in a trance.
Inside, at a small table in a cramped "family room", my ice cream arrives, artistically plated in Gaudi-esque conical spheres, sprinkled with crushed pistachios, and delicately flavored with rose water. The color of clouds, with the texture of frozen yogurt, it leaves a chalky residue on my tongue. "Sheep's milk has an aftertaste," my friend Michael says, as he licks his spoon clean. I disagree. Either way, I feel an ice cream headache coming on.
The Tawaf (Street Vendors) of Cinema Park
Before it was closed by the Taliban in the 1990s, the old Shar-e-Nau Cinema offered a Saturday morning treat for the children of affluent Kabul families and served as a social hub for their parents. I've never seen the inside—today it admits only male patrons and shows a smattering of Bollywood musicals and Chinese action films—but I have grazed my way around the wondrous street-food buffet that surrounds it.
There, vendors known as tawaf line up at covered wooden carts, where they churn out steaming bowls of nakhoda (chickpeas flavored with vinegar and spices) and warm, comforting aushak (small spring onion dumplings topped with ground meat, tangy yogurt, and dried mint). Sweet jelabi (fried dough nests dripping with honey) are favored by the children. My weakness, however, is the boulanie, a large, doughy, fried pastry filled with spring onions or potatoes, served hot off the griddle, and slathered with a spicy tomato-cilantro salsa that makes the tongue tingle.
The Kebab Vendors of Faroshi Bazaar
The Old Bird Market
From Shar-e-Nau, Michael, Noor, and I make our way through the busy city center to Ka-e-Faroshi, the old bird market. We pass through Pashtunistan Square and on toward Zarnagar Park, where towering pines stand as memorials, reminders of what the city must have looked like before the fighting began.
Nearby sits Pul-e Khishti Masjid, the legendary mosque that is rumored to be the site where the original Afghan jihad against Soviet occupation was planned. Here in Kabul, markets are divided into sections named for the goods they sell. We pass the shor bazzar (kite market), where kite makers, some of whom made cameo appearances in the film The Kite Runner, sell their gorgeous creations from small, narrow stalls.
"Walking here is like going four centuries back in time," Michael says. He's right. With Noor in front of me and Michael behind—both protectively shielding me from the men who stare at the spectacle of a woman, a foreign woman, in the market—we wend our way down a narrow footpath that is sodden and muddy with last night's rain.
We finally arrive at Michael's favorite vendor; unfortunately, the chapli (hamburger-like kebabs) that he has been raving about are sold out. The stall's proprietor, a handsome man with a thick white beard, a beige, grease-speckled shalwar kameez, and a pristine embroidered skullcap, is hovering over his enormous skillet.
"All that is left is sheep's liver and kalpura," Noor sighs with disappointment. I have no idea what kalpura is, so I prod him for an explanation. He stammers and stalls, and I realize he is embarrassed. "Just tell her, Noor," Michael nudges. I get my answer in a whisper—"Um, well, it's the part of the male, just below the penis…"—and my suspicions are confirmed. "The testicles!" I exclaim.
Noor declines to eat them (though he is happy to add a new word to his English vocabulary). My curiosity has been piqued, so I request a sample. When the vendor shakes his head, Noor explains, "Kalpura is only for men; it's eaten for strength and virility." Then, after a pause, he adds, "Actually, women can eat it sometimes—if they are pregnant and hoping for a boy."
Still craving chapli kebabs, we drive—past the old Russian bread factory, an immense yellow-and-white wedding cake of a building that towers over its neighbors; past where the road splits to head toward the Kabul golf course, Kharghah Lake, and the Paghman district, the stunning stretch of the Hindu Kush foothills that has been a Sayaaf stronghold for as long as most Afghans can remember; past the old Intercontinental hotel, which has become a landmark in its own right—into the neighborhood known as Karte Parwan.
We've come here, to this narrow street littered with car parts, on the advice of my friend Timur, a self-proclaimed "halfghan", born to an Afghan father and an American mother. Inside, the restaurant is crammed with benches of men, young and old, hunched over plates of kebabs. A squadron of boys rushes back and forth furiously, ferrying plates of meat, spicy chutney, and naan to their eager customers. In the middle of it all, in a glass-windowed box before three enormous skillets, a rotund, gray-haired gentleman mixes a mountain of ground beef with his left hand before slapping the flattened patties into the skillet with his right. Next to him, two rows of shelves overflow with bowls of spices: red chile flakes, cumin, salt, coriander, pomegranate seeds, chunks of chopped tomatoes, sauteed garlic, and onions. The truly ravenous can even request a fried egg on top of their patty.
We collect our take-out order and head home to savor the feast. One bite, and I know that Timur was right. The combination of spices, the slight crunch of the pomegranate seeds, the tangy but not overpowering garlic, and the heat of the chiles and black pepper: it is divine. I make a mental note for my next barbecue and relish the lull in conversation as our mouths—and our stomachs—fill.