Where to find Afghan restaurants in the UAE
Most people can name their favourite Lebanese, Indian, Thai or Italian foods. Can you name your favourite Afghan food? When one self-professed food lover is asked what she thinks of Afghan food, she cocks her head – seemingly surprised that she has not considered it before – and says, “I don’t know. I’ve never heard anything about Afghan food.”
That’s in part because so few restaurants in the capital serve authentic Afghan cuisine and the ones that do are hard to find. To taste Afghan food, you have to be willing to search for it. An extensive hunt revealed just four restaurants featuring Afghan food in the capital. So, it seems reasonable you could live here for years without ever stepping foot in one.
And if you do stumble across one of the smaller Afghan cafes, it’s not totally clear whether everyone is welcome. Can women eat there? Westerners? Surprisingly, the answer is yes – for the most part.
The most well known of Abu Dhabi’s Afghan restaurants is Nolu’s Cafe in Al Bandar. This trendy eatery has a tasty sampling of traditional Afghan dishes on its menu. It doubles as an American restaurant, serving burgers, sandwiches and salads. It’s a welcoming, comfortable spot for locals, expatriates, women and children. Bill Clinton, the king of Jordan and the emir of Qatar have all eaten there. But don’t let that intimidate you. You’re just as likely to find a couple of mums with tots in prams as you are a diplomat.
Marjon Ajami started Nolu’s Cafe with a desire to share the food she loves with others. Ajami was born in the United States (which explains the American side of Nolu’s Cafe), but her parents were raised in Kabul. While home-cooked comfort food for her American schoolmates was likely to take the form of macaroni and cheese or chicken and biscuits, Ajami grew up eating comfort food with names such as qabili pulao, mantoo and aushak.
Qabili pulao, also known as Kabuli pulao, is perhaps the most famous Afghan dish and it’s a highlight on Ajami’s menu. It’s a slowly cooked lamb shank served with brown rice that’s topped with slivered carrots and raisins. It can also be made with chicken.
The secret is in the rice, says Ajami.
“When we say brown rice, it’s not like you go buy brown rice. We make a sauce, sauté onions, a lot of spices and tomatoes and this all goes through that process of slowly cooking. We take parboiled white rice, mix it with the sauce. It turns into brown rice and we bake it.”
It takes 90 minutes to make one batch. That signature slow-cooking style of Afghan cuisine imparts deep, complex flavours, making it taste decidedly different from other Middle Eastern food.
“The food is spectacular. It’s a blend of Arabic, Iranian and Indian. It’s not as spicy as Indian food, but not as bland [as some Middle Eastern food]. We use a lot of veggies that are cooked. We use coriander a lot. We use cumin and turmeric,” explains Ajami. She adds that “onions are just the basis for everything. We’d rarely have a dish without onions.”
The chefs serving the Afghan food at Nolu’s Cafe are all from Afghanistan – brought here by Ajami. None of the five chefs can read or write English, which means Ajami can’t write down new recipes for them to try. “I have to show them,” she says. “They remember.”
To her, it’s vital that her chefs are natives of Afghanistan. “It’s a very different palate. [Other ethnicities] just don’t understand.”
That palate is influenced by the countries that share a border with Afghanistan. One of those is China, which explains why dumplings appear on many Afghan menus. The mantoo at Ajami’s restaurant is a dish of steamed dumplings stuffed with beef, onions and spices, topped with a mouth-watering yogurt sauce. Aushak is a tasty dumpling stuffed with chives and spices, then covered in meat sauce.
Kebabs also feature prominently on Afghan dinner tables. Lamb is the most widely used meat, but chicken is also popular.
Shahista, an Afghan restaurant in Dubai, has several lamb specialities and a long list of kebabs on the menu.
Emil Gheibi, Shahista’s manager, says Afghan food is similar to Arabic food, but the spices and flavours are unique. His favourite dishes are borani bonjan, dopiaza and, of course, qabili pulao. Borani bonjan is aubergine stewed with tomatoes, onions, spices and a yogurt topping. Dopiaza (which literally means “two onions”) is a slow-cooked lamb stew with onions, served with hot bread.
People don’t seem to seek out Afghan restaurants the way they might hunt down the best Indian restaurant in town, but Gheibi says once they try it, his customers are sold on Afghan cuisine. “Customers say it’s great food and a great place. We have a lot of regular customers.”
The two Afghan street cafes in Abu Dhabi worth mentioning are Sarhad Restaurant on the corner of Al Falah Street and Muroor Road and the aptly named Afghanistan Restaurant on Muroor Road, just past 15th Street.
Sarhad offers a handful of inexpensive Afghan specialities and caters heavily to local males. Traditionally, Afghan men and women dine separately (unless they’re eating at home) so women may feel uncomfortable entering this male-dominated cafe. Westerners too may get some lingering looks, but everyone is welcome. The dining room upstairs is reserved for women and families.
Afghanistan Restaurant also has a separate dining room for women and families. Westerners (and women) may get the sense they don’t belong, but they are not turned away. Service is polite and swift and the servers appear happy (and surprised) to see a new face. The restaurant is packed at lunchtime – a good sign in the restaurant business. The mere adventure of trying an unfamiliar cuisine in this off-the-beaten path street cafe is well worth the trip.
If nothing else, discovering the flavours of Afghanistan will inspire new conversation.
“A lot of people here just don’t understand what is Afghan food, what are Afghani people like?” Ajami says. “I’m introducing all these people to Afghani food and they’re amazed with it. They always have this image of the burqa or backwards or ... ” she pauses, then says matter-of-factly, “It’s not like that. And the cuisine is a great introduction in terms of how diverse the food and culture is. How we’re just so different.”
Where to go
• Nolu’s Cafe, Al Bandar, Abu Dhabi, 02 557 9500, www.noluscafe.com
• Shahista Restaurant, Al Garhoud, opposite Deira City Center, Dubai, 04 286 5060
• Sarhad Restaurant, corner of Al Falah and Muroor, behind the Shatar Hassan building, next to Habib Ban AG Zurich, Abu Dhabi, 02 445 4454
• Afghanistan Restaurant, on Muroor Road, just past 15th Street, behind the Ittihad (Printing Press) building, next to the Comfort Inn Emirates Hotel, Abu Dhabi, 02 445 6132. There is a second location for the Afghanistan Restaurant in Mussaffah: No 40, opposite the AV Vehicle Passing, 02 554 4922