Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Day 30 - Eating Afghan Food

I have never tried Afghan food. Although I have heard many good things about Afghan cuisine over the years, having an Afghan meal has never been an opportunity I happened upon or made time to pursue. Instead, I maintained a slight curiosity about the flavors and spices one might encounter with Afghan food, and I figured I would eventually try it at some point in my life. With access to a renowned Afghan restaurant, Kabul, in my hometown I thought I would try Afghan food when I got around to it, but I wasn’t about to make it a priority. That perspective changed as a result of two factors that came together to make trying Afghan food a much higher entry on my to-do list. More specifically, another "Tasty Tuesday" in my ongoing “I have never…” challenge provided some incentive to commit to the experience, and the very real possibility Kabul might be forced out of existence by a proposed redevelopment made trying Afghan food a much higher priority. In turn, Rachael and I made dinner plans to try Afghan food for the first time tonight, which proved a good decision on a long overdue beautiful summer evening.

After a busy day at work I arrived at my home with a substantial appetite. Although I was exhausted from the workday, my enthusiasm for the forthcoming new experience was hard to contain. As a result, the first words I spoke to Rachael when I arrived home were “Hi! Are you ready to go?” She confirmed she was, so the two of us loaded into the car and headed to a parking ramp just off of State Street in downtown Madison. A brief walk down through crowds of casual window shoppers and congregating friends led us to Kabul. The sidewalk seating at the restaurant was nearly filled to capacity as we approached, with small groups of people talking and laughing over colorful plates of food. Rachael and continued past the entrance to the outdoor seating area and entered the restaurant to find a dimly lit, dated interior. We stood for a brief moment before one of three employees on staff greeted us. After confirming our intent to sit outside, he walked us to one of the few remaining tables in the outdoor seating area, leaving us with a few small, laminated menus.
A Menu Full of Yum
Rachael and I spent a few minutes pouring over the various foreign names scattered throughout the menu. We periodically broke the silence with comments on the menu items and hacked attempts to pronounce their names. As we continued reading through our choices, a female server approached our table and welcomed us with a soft voice carrying a subtle accent. In response to our obvious undecided state, the woman placed glasses of water on the table and politely stated she would be back shortly to take our orders. Together Rachael and I continued discussing the menu options, ultimately deciding we would start with an appetizer of chick peas and ground beef stuffed fried pastries with a chutney and mint yogurt sauce known as Sambosa. After learning the restaurant was out of Turkish beer, Rachael decided she would try Afghan tea and I chose a go-to favorite, Spotted Cow.
Our server arrived a short time later to take our order. After taking down our choice or drinks and an appetizer she asked if we were also ready to place our entrée orders. Displaying some hesitance, the server asked if we would like her to come back later. I acknowledged we may need some more time, but raised my hand in a gesture to prevent the server from escaping too quickly. “Of these, what are the most authentic Afghan entrées?” I asked pointing to the menu. The server was quick to respond with four or five of the choices on the menu before she excused herself to tend to other customers. Based on her recommendations, Rachael and I quickly narrowed in on our choices for the evening’s meal. Rachael decided to try the lamb curry, which fit the mold of a traditional curry dish of Eastern origin. Intrigued by its description, I chose to stick with the server’s recommendation for the most authentic menu item, Qabuli Murgh, which was described as seasoned sautéed chicken over saffron rice topped with sautéed carrots and raisins. Moments later our server returned and took our orders. We were locked and ready for the Afghan experience.

Over the next few minutes Rachael and I chatted about our workdays and sipped on our drinks. Rachael found the Afghan tea to be a delightful change from normal, and I relaxed a little more with each pull from my bottle of Spotted Cow. A short time later our appetizer arrived. On a small round plate rested four large triangular fried pastries next a to a pool of white sauce. Without delay Rachael and I dug in, tearing pieces from one of the pastries. After dipping our pieces in the sauce, we both happily munched away on the light, delicious food. The inside was stuffed with a blend of peas and beef that maintain a mild, yet persistent spice. After all but eating the last bite, I suddenly realized had not taken a picture of the food in our haste to dive in. As such, the only photo evidence of this part of the meal is a nearly empty plate with a corner of a pastry left resting in a pile of crumbs.


Our main course came relatively quickly after we finished the appetizer. At first, Rachael and I were given a full bowl of Mashawa soup, which contained a delicious and spicy blend of chick peas, kidney beans, split peas, and meat with a blend of mint yogurt sauce. We quickly worked through the soup before our server returned with our main course. The server first set Rachael's plate onto the table, which contained a appealing blend of lamb, vegetables, and two different kinds of rice surrounded by a brown curry sauce. As the server set my plate on the table, I was struck by the bounty of color layered throughout the food. Orange strings of carrots and purple flecks of raisins sat atop a pile of white saffron rice ringed by a bright red sauce containing pieces of chicken. It was unlike almost any other meal I had seen before, and was certainly the first time I had a dish with carrots and raisins as two of the main ingredients.

Rachael's Meal

We didn't hesitate to start our meals as the server walked away from our table. After a few brief remarks about the appearance of the food, Rachael and I spent the next 15 minutes nibbling away at the food before us. We periodically traded bites of our meals, taking time to discuss our thoughts on each. Both meals maintained a mild spice much like the Sambosa before them, but the flavors of each dish were vey unique. Rachael's lamb curry was complemented well with the blend of vegetables mixed into the meal, and the raisins in my Qabuli Murgh provided a sweet touch to the spicy backdrop of the chicken and sauce. While Rachael did not find my main course that appetizing, I enjoyed both dishes equally. The mix of flavors and spices was certainly something new to me, and they came together in a way that definitely appealed to my taste buds.

My meal

Eventually Rachael and I worked about half way through our meals before concluding we were both incapable of handling another bite. We sat and relaxed for while until our server came back and offered us carryout containers for the remainder of our meals. We packed up our food as the server completed our check and proceeded to soak in the calm summer air for awhile before wrapping up the evening. I sat, stomach full, with my head facing the sky as it rested in my hands. I barely moved when the server picked up the leather sleeve containing my credit card and walked back into the restaurant to run our payment. I was in a good place, with a full stomach, after a good meal. Based on this first experience, Afghan food had won me over.

Today I decided to take some time to expand my culinary palette. The experience provided me exposure to a great new type of cuisine that I will definitely seek out again in the near future. Given the uncertain fate of Kabul Restaurant, I'm glad I took the time to visit the location before any decisions are made regarding redevelopment of the building's current location. While I'm hopeful the restaurant will stick around or find a new home in the future, I think I picked a good time to experience Kabul for the first time. The environment, the food, and my full stomach all indicate today's "I have never..." event was a perfect way to spend a beautiful evening after a long workday. As an added bonus, I learned Afghan food is freaking awesome.

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