Afghani restaurants abound in pockets of Delhi. They tend to occupy very specific locations like Bhogal, Jangpura, Lajpat Nagar on one axis, and the lane opposite Max Hospital, Saket on another. They are family eateries that offer a small variety of kebabs, a couple of biryanis and mantu: a momo-like preparation that is doused in a yogurt sauce and sprinkled over with small chanas. There are bread sellers in the immediate vicinity. In both cases, the breads are the rather decorated varieties, and can be ordered with your meal or bought separately, to augment a meal at home.
For the rest of it, Delhi’s Afghani restaurants are too much of a muchness to inspire confidence and I had never taken much cognizance of the cuisine till Le Meridien held an Afghani food festival in their Indian restaurant, Monsoon. First of all, there was Aush, billed as a thick yoghurt soup made with diced vegetables and pasta that was nearly identical to the Iranian Ash. There was a preparation of chicken in tomato gravy that had chickpeas called Kabuli channa, and there was an oh-so-familiar dish of lamb chunks cooked with potatoes and nuts in tomato gravy. All these dishes also appear in fairly similar form in Iran, in Pakistan and in North India, where mutton with chunks of potato is a signature dish in Kashmir.
Aubergines are accorded pride of place in Turkish cuisine, and Le Meridien’s festival too had Banajan Borani – as sophisticated a dish as any, where fried slices of aubergine were combined with tomato and sour yoghurt: nearly identical to the Italian Melanzane Parmigiana where parmesan cheese replaces yoghurt as the dairy component. Even the mantu that I’ve eaten all over Bhogal and Lajpat Nagar have become popular among Delhi’s denizens because of their verisimilitude to Tibetan momos, albeit, with a dairy-based sauce.
Then, there’s the matter of ingredients. I cannot remember how many times I have bought ‘Kabuli’ channa without pondering on the provenance of the word, but Chef Faridoon Ahmady told me at the Le Meridien festival that it is something of a staple in Kabul where he works in the InterContinental Hotel. The best pomegranates are said to be from Kandahar and Afghanistan itself is said to be where pomegranates originated. The greenest pistachios too come from Afghanistan, as a dealer of dry fruits in Khari Baoli, Delhi, once told me with a sigh. “Only God knows how I manage to procure a consignment of pistachios from Afghanistan, but piste ki lauz can only be made with Afghani pistachios because of the deep colour.” Political uncertainty and general strife makes trade with that country a challenge, but all the asafoetida used in India comes from Afghanistan. Chef Ahmady asked me to guess his age. “70” I replied firmly. “I’m only 51” he said sadly. “But because living is so difficult in my country, I have aged 20 years.”
You could say that Afghani food and ingredients have always been imprinted on our psyche, even if the country itself is not in the forefront of our consciousness.
Acknowledgement: Sangeeta Khanna for image of Chef Faridoon Ahmady