Few people visit Afghanistan for its food, but on my first visit I was curious about the native cuisine as well as the stark beauty of that impoverished and backward country.
The average Afghanistani nomad or farmer eats a considerable amount of white rice -- and precious little else. On sale in the cities is a flat bread, similar to Arab pita or Indian nan, but with parallel ridges down its length, which the baker makes by running his fingers on the uncooked dough. The typical beverage is tea or milk; little alcohol is consumed in the Moslem country.
On Sundays and holidays festive food is prepared that is much more palatable and interesting. That is what is served in the restaurants of Kabul and Washington.
Unlike its neighbors, particularly to the east, the meats of Afghanistan are beef and lamb. There is abundant yellow onion, black pepper, dried mint and garlic in the food. Several dishes are steeped in yogurt, a few have considerable amounts of spinach, kebabs are popular. The seasoning is lively, but by no means hot or overpowering.
There are two Afghanistani restaurants in Washington and both serve remarkably authentic food. The Bamiyan at 3320 M St. in Georgetown opened in August 1976, followed a year later by the Khyber Pass on Calvert Street, just east of Connecticut Avenue. The ownership, menus and quality of food are similar. Each of the head chiefs has more than 20 years cooking experience, including lengthy service in Afghanistan's embassies here or in London.
Featured on the menu are aushak, which resembles ravioli, stuffed with leeks and topped with a sauce of yogurt, garlic, dried mint and ground beef; bulaunee, flat fried turnovers, stuffed with leeks, potatoes and ground beef, with a dab of yogurt on the side; and quabili palow, seasoned lamb under a mound of saffron rice, topped with carrot strips and raisins. The restaruants also serve fine lamb and chicken kebabs.
Perhaps the greatest deviation from the food in Afghanistan is in the bread. Here it is plumper and has a different texture, due, says M. Aman Sulaimani, owner of the Bamiyan and co-owner of the Khyber Pass, to the higher quality of flour in the United States.
Afghanistani restaurants are something of a rarity. According to Sulaimani there are only two or three others in this country, all west of the Mississippi. With considerable unrest in Afghanistan following a coup last year, it seems most of us will have to confine ourselves to Washington's Afghanistani restaurants. Luckily, we seem to have what may be the largest concentration outside of Afghanistan. AUSHAK (Serves 4 as appetizer) Sauce: 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 medium onion chopped (about 1 cup) 1/2 pound ground beef 2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoon tomato paste
Heat oil in skillet. Add remaining ingredients. Cook over low heat for 45 minutes. Dumplings 1/2 cup green parts of scallions, coarsely chopped Package egg roll skin, cut in 2-inch squares (See note) 1 teaspoon garlic powder 8 tablespoons plain yogurt 2 teaspoons dried mint, crushed 4 teaspoons salt
Put a teaspoon of scallions into the middle of 2-inch square of egg roll skin. Fold diagonally. Press around edges to seal, wetting edges to make them stick. Make 20 to 24 dumplings.
Boil 4 quarts of water, adding a teaspoon salt. Boil dumplings for 10 minutes, uncovered. Drain.
Mix garlic powder and yogurt. Spoon a tablespoon of this mixture on each of 4 plates. Portion out dumplings. Add another tablespoon of mixture. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon dried mint. Add sauce and serve.
Note: Egg roll skins are available in many Asian markets. CHALOW (4 servings) 1 cup rice 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon butter or margarine Large pinch of ground cumin Large pinch of ground cardamom
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Soak rice in cold water 2 to 3 hours. hours. Drain. Boil 1 cup of water and add salt and butter or margarine. Boil covered over low flame for 15 to 18 minutes. Add water if needed. Rice should be firm. Remove from heat. Drain any excess water in colander. Make rice into mound. Make a few holes in mound. Sprinkle cumin and cardamom and a few tablespoons water over rice. Place uncovered in oven for 15 to 20 minutes. SABSI CHALOW (3 to 4 servings) 1 pound lamb, from leg and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces 2 pounds fresh or frozen spinach 1 medium tomato, peeled, and seeded, firmly chopped 1 medium onion, finely chopped 1 or 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 tablespoon pepper 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Heat oil in saucepan over low heat. Add onions and garlic and cook for a few minutes. Raise heat to medium and add all other ingredients. Cover and cook for 30 to 35 minutes. Stir occasionally. Serve with chalow (rice). CHALOW KADU (4 servings) 3 pounds pumpkin or acorn squash 1/2 cup water 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Slice pumpkin or squash into inch-thick slices. Peel and remove seeds. Cut in half. Add sugar and oil to water and bring to a boil. Cover tightly and simmer for 15 minutes over low heat. Stir once or twice while cooking. Spoon some of the juice over the pumpkin or squash. Serve with chalow (rice).