Truth be told, I tried both approaches, searching for the perfect pathway into my entree. By my fourth or fifth bite, I sided solidly with the mad scientist. Individually, neither the butterscotch earthiness of the squash nor the mild savory chew of the lamb rose above the ordinary.
But when combined, the pair underwent a glorious alchemy that makes small children and food critics smile stupidly in wonder and confusion. Even better: With a dollop of house-made hot sauce on top, the combination produced an almost metaphysical bliss, the radiant jalapeno heat generating something of an out-of-body experience.
I was so captivated by the kadu palow that I came home and explained the dish to my wife, Carrie, who immediately wanted to know the name of the Afghan restaurant. This is when I learned that Panjshir had pulled off one more act of magic: It had independently introduced Carrie and me to its signature pumpkin dish, though our meals were separated by decades.
More than 20 years ago, when Carrie’s high school beau was scouting vegetarian options for their homecoming dinner, they landed at Panjshir. For her romantic night out, Carrie had ordered the kadu chalow, the vegetarian version of the dish, and was equally captivated by its balance of fruit and spice, the spinach rice substituting for the lamb. She had been hankering to take me here for years to see whether her warm memories of the place were genuine or just the overheated reactions of a teenager in love.
Tucked into a blink-and-you-miss-it strip center, Panjshir is easy to fall for, even without raging hormones. I’m smitten with the small, crimson-colored dining room, which exudes both a homeyness and a budget-minded elegance, all complemented by a relaxed and attentive wait staff. But I’m just as taken by Panjshir’s back story.
The restaurant was launched in 1985 by Aziz Niazy, who came to the United States with a dream of building a business for himself, says son Esmat, who now runs the restaurant named after an Afghan province in the news during the 1980s. Along the way, the elder Niazy introduced Northern Virginia to his favorite home-style dishes from Kabul, such as the much-lauded pumpkin plate. Just as important, Aziz, now 72 and retired, trained a protege to share the kitchen with his daughter, Maria. The student’s name is Barbara Hernandez, and she’s from Honduras.
This is what I love about America: That in some remote kitchen in Falls Church, a man and a woman from vastly different cultures can find common ground over seasoned rice and braised lamb, an alliance seemingly as organic as cross-pollination in a field of flowers.
The food that comes out of Panjshir’s kitchen is not complicated, a reminder that Afghan cuisine is often based on home cooking. The nuggets of marinated kebab meat arrive on the table lanced with a skewer, each piece charred (and sometimes dehydrated) from the high-heat cooking; stick with the lamb kebab, which takes the heat better than the chicken or beef, while still delivering a high lemony kick. The bulanee kachalu is a potato-heavy cross between a samosa and a fried wonton, a starchy finger food elevated with an application of that ubiquitous tableside hot sauce, the Afghan version of chutney.
Afghan cooking borrows from foodways across the Middle East and Asia — like the saucy muntoo dumplings, a meatier take on Lebanese shish barak — while carving out an identity of its own. After a while, you begin to see Panjshir’s menu less as a collection of dishes than a variation on a theme: Stewed lamb paired with baked apples and prunes (quorma-e-seib, a tasty cinnamon-spice combo), stewed lamb with turnips and ginger (shalgam palow, earthy and sweet, with a fine background burn), stewed lamb with pumpkin and yogurt (that aforementioned kadu palow). The plates celebrate the sweeter side of savory cooking, while understanding the importance of rice (whether spinach, saffron or plain white) to balance the flavors.
And speaking of sweet: Where does Panjshir source its pumpkins during the offseason? Esmat Niazy says his secret is to scour the Asian supermarkets for various kinds of imported winter squashes. “Sometimes I have to go pumpkin hunting,” he says.
In other words, on some days, Panjshir’s transfixing lamb-and-pumpkin dish may actually be lamb and butternut squash.