Saturday, September 12, 2009

Week #2: Afghan

This week Himself and I went with our food adventure-loving friends, Wes and Chuck, to Azeen's Afghani Restaurant in Old Town Pasadena. As soon as we hit the door, the aroma of a bazaar’s worth of spices wafted over and led us by our noses toward a menu full of temptations and an evening of déjà vu. I’d never had Afghan food before, but every dish on our table reminded me of something I’d eaten before.

For our appetizers we ordered things-inside-of-things (also known as things-with-things-inside-of-them). Many cultures have their own versions of filled dumplings—like ravioli and tortellini in Italy—and the filled pastries we most commonly associate with Spain’s empanada, Poland’s pierogi and Italy’s calzone (I just don’t think the American pre-fab Hot Pocket is worthy of comparison). Manti are steamed dumplings, and ours were filled with chopped beef, onion and herbs, topped with yogurt and a mixture of sautéed veggies.

The sambosas (their equivalent is the simbusak in Iraq and samosa in India and Pakistan) were fried pastries stuffed with ground beef and chickpeas, and the bulanee-e-katchalu, a delicate turnover with ground beef, potatoes and herbs tucked inside. All three appetizers were rich and flavorful but delicately seasoned.
bulanee-e-katchalu (left) & sambosa (right), with a yogurt & mint dip and a chutney

 For my entrée I ordered aushak, a plate of leek and shallot dumplings covered with a meat and tomato sauce. It looked like ravioli and meat sauce, but seasoned with cinnamon, cardamom and mint, it was an entirely different take on its Italian cousin.
Aushak, Afghanistan's answer to ravioli with meat sauce

Wes’ beef and chicken kabobs reflected standard fare throughout the Middle East. They were quite good, but what distinguished the plate was the pallaw, basmati rice cooked in butter with an array of aromatic spices.
beef & chicken kabobs with pallaw & Afghan bread

Andy’s Quabili Pallaw at first glance looked like a lovely orange mound of shredded cooked carrots and raisins, but beneath that sweet exterior was a layer of pallaw, and underneath it all, chunks of savory lamb. Chuck’s Smarooq Pallaw was the same dish, with chicken instead of lamb. Sweet and savory is one of those combinations you don’t find as often in Western cuisine, but the spices pulled the elements together and made it all work.
Quabili Pallaw or Smarooq Pallaw? You'll only know by digging in.

While everything was well seasoned, none of these dishes were spicy hot, as I had anticipated. Rather, the heat was an add-on, provided by a bowl of chutney. While Indian chutneys are thicker or chunkier, this one was vinegar based and almost like a dressing. It was made of chopped cilantro and jalapenos mixed with white vinegar and provided a nice balance of fresh flavor, heat and tang.

Afghan bread

The bread reminded me a little of the bread in the Muslim Chinese restaurants, in texture. It was a very plain white yeast bread, adequate but an accompaniment only. The Afghan tea was a basic tea laced with cardamom. Since I love cardamom in most anything, this was rich and flavorful, a welcome treat. In between the appetizers and entrées, we had a simple garden salad drizzled with a thinned plain yogurt and sprinkled with dried crushed mint leaves. In fact, a layer of plain yogurt and a generous sprinkling of mint accompanied almost everything on the table. The tangy yogurt layer reminds me of the sour cream that often shows up in dishes from Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia.

We shared a dessert called firnee, a delicately flavored milk custard topped with ground pistachios and  drizzled with rosewater. It was oddly both light and filling, so I’m glad we asked for one serving and four spoons. The rosewater was an especially nice touch. It was the fragrance and the flavor that I carried with me when we departed and walked back to our metro stop, imbuing the cool evening air with a heady, exotic quality.

What sticks with me most about our Afghan feast, aside from the fact that it was really tasty, is how much it reminded me of a number of other cuisines. Considering that Afghanistan has for centuries been a crossroad of people traveling between East and West, this is unsurprising. Places like this have traditionally mixed it up with foods and ingredients moving through. "Here have some of this and I'll sample some of that" is the method of food and ingredient exchange that enriches cuisines and experiences.

The murals around us reflected what I’m sure were scenes of home, a life and a terrain that may be foreign to many of us who dine there, but that surely provide comforting images of a missed country and a missed culture. Those who served us were warm, friendly and helpful. Visiting Azeen’s, I felt like we were in yet another crossroads, intersecting one of LA’s party districts with a thoughtful presentation of a cuisine from a part of the world we in the West just don’t connect with gettin’ down.


mariam said...

As an Afghan, I must say, you captured our cuisine and a little of our history in such a beautiful way. You also made my mouth water.

Glad you enjoyed!

Hungry Passport said...

Thanks so much for your kind words, Mariam. They mean a lot, coming from someone who KNOWS the cuisine. I look forward to more Afghan meals. This was one of my favorites among the year's 52 cuisines.

all the best,