Landing in Kabul, you can’t help thinking you are landing in the uppity slum that is Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. Appropriate because that’s where Delhi’s large Afghan expat community is centered and that’s where my first exposure of Afghan cuisine started. The point of the trip was to compare Afghan food to Indian, given that much of Mughlai cuisine allegedly has its roots in Afghan, Turkic or Persian originals. But that’s where things start going awry. When we find out faux Indian food and Afghan Chinese are the staples here. Every restaurant worth its monosodium glutamate has a ‘sweet corn soup’, a much less edible one that you get in India reinforced by double the cornflour, plus chowmein and achari chicken. Bleh! Ok, this must be an aberration, I say to myself and boldly go onto the kababs and kabuli palaw. There’s almost nothing to distinguish it from the Iranian Kebab, discovering to my horror that the Lajpat Nagar Kababs are fake, given their marination in heaps of ginger garlic and yoghurt that isn’t the norm in Afghanistan. Surprisingly, the Kabuli palow, the same combination of meat carrots rice raisins and cumin that I’d had in Uzbekistan the previous year (naturally called the Uzbeki Palow there), is also much better in Delhi; the par boiled rice so essential for that fluffy finish being absent in Afghanistan. I put this down to high expectations, but repeated meals in Kabul yield the same disappointing results, be at restaurant of street vendor. The fruits and vegetables in Afghanistan, on the other hand, are quite superb, but like the vast majority of Afghan women, they’re kept hidden away at home, and make no appearance in any menu anywhere, save the occasional western Café.
The author playing an antique Afghan lute
The first big culinary revelation, authentic and indigenous to Afghanistan, comes in Mazar -I- Sharif, in the ancient fortress of Balkh. A flourishing Buddhist city once upon a time named Bactria by Alexander, the desolate but still impressive citadel was home to Alexander’s wife Roxanne and was also where Zoroaster lived and died. My guide insisted I try the “local speciality” and so, naturally, as one does in Afghanistan walked me into a weed den, the air redolent with the perfume of smoked hashish. Given that everybody was puffing from the same pipe, I gave it a miss on hygiene grounds. Sadly in this area your choices are either hash or hash. Stopping at the stunning Nau-Gumbad (or nine domed mosque, the first mosque ever built in that country in the 900s, it is built on the site of a Buddhist stupa, which was at some point a Zoroastrian fire altar) the charming old caretaker invites us for a “snack” to his house. Over heart breaking stories of how he lost his entire family during the civil war, he offers me a choice of either smoked hash or hash cookies. A bit trapped, one is forced to try the latter, which as it turns out is not a good idea. The high sets in rapidly and everything starts seeming funny, be it the Afghan police and army men coming in to get a hash cookie from caretaker grandpa or even the sheer terror of the occasional Taliban checkpoint on our way back to Mazar.
The Chorba at Aybak with soft slippery noodles
A trip to the stunning rock cut Buddhist viharas of Samangan the next day yields yet another surprise: the first authentic Afghan soup. In a town called Aybak, the town which Qutbuddin the first Mamluk Sultan of Delhi and lieutenant of Muhammad Ghori, adopted his name from. Called simply chorba, this was a unique Afghan version of Kadhi: a soured yoghurt cooked down slowly into a delicious broth flavoured simply with salt. Into this was dunked some delicious handmade noodles and was topped off with a paste of tomatoes and onion fried in ubiquitous lamb fat. This is supplemented by quite possibly the best “falafel” or as we Tamils call it “parupu vada” bought hot from a street vendor. The combination is winner – much like the dumplings in the kadhi, just better dumplings and a less spiced kadhi. This fine dish also came with the side entertainment of a Taliban truck flying through the city, occasionally shooting bullets in the air a few hundred yards from us. The Afghans you see really know how to set up a variety entertainment lunch show.
The flight to Herat, brings about more of the same – insipid kababs and palow. But the big surprise comes at desert time. Cardamom is the Vanilla of Afghanistan (and arguably much of South Asia), while we chew on some delightful local cardamom flavoured chewing gum, we wait for the handmade ice-cream called Shir Yakh, this dish is totally unique. This isn’t soft creamy Italian gelato, nor is it a granular sorbet. It’s definitely not the semi-freddo we call kulfi in India, nor is it the silky smooth bastani of Iran. Sheer Yakh is Sheer Yakh and its pointless comparing it to anything else. Fresh green pistachio paste is mixed with fresh milk and frozen in front of your eyes, in metal containers dunked in a mixture of ice and salt to lower the freezing point, much like the conventional ice cream churner. The difference comes in what happens after. The Afghans mash it with large spatulas into a deliciously smooth paste that is like no texture you’ve had before. One taste of this manna and you know it isn’t that horrendous Italian green coloured almond ice cream passed off as pistachio. Oh no, this is just rich sweet creamy pistachio served with a dollop of white cardamom ice cream. Bingo! Hit the jackpot! That ice cream alone was worth the Taliban checkpoints, hair raising conversations with men with AK 47s and rocket launchers, and the ghastly 6 hour flight from Delhi.
Sheer Yakh is Sheer Yakh and its pointless comparing it to anything else
Let’s be clear, Afghanistan can’t be a food destination in itself and clearly Babur was either a tasteless cretin or was not talking about its culinary charms when he wrote his paean to the Afghan melon. Its modern cuisine reveals what it has always been; a melting pot of Iran, India, Turkestan and to some extent China. It’s definitely not the source point of any Indian dish that I have tasted, but it is best described as the great granddaddy of that dreadful Indian invention: the multi-cuisine restaurant where out of about 300 horrendous dishes, you find the occasional three or four treasures.
Abhijit Iyer Mitra is security analyst and a self-proclaimed libertine and gastronome
First Published: Apr 17, 2019 15:50 IST