In beautiful culinary contrast, downtown Kabul, Afghanistan's capital offers a taste of both traditional flavors and international cuisine at walking distance, thanks to greater international engagement.
In various travelogues, foodies have long associated Kabul with mount-watering pulao (pilaf – rice and meat dish), the unbeatable Afghani tikka-kebab, as well as the aromatic, fresh-baked and affordable variety of ‘naan’ bread providing sustenance to rich and poor alike.
In recent years, as historian Mohammad Iqbal explained, the influx of hundreds of thousands of international visitors and workers from aid agencies, diplomatic missions, and professionals has transformed the food scene in this landlocked country's metropolis.
"You can now see an array of fancy restaurants with neon lights emerging next to the classic Kabuli restaurants," he told Anadolu Agency.
This change offers Afghans from all over the war-ravaged country an opportunity to indulge in varieties of flavors of western, Turkish, and subcontinent cuisine in their historic capital city.
Pizza next to pulao
Pulao has many historical legends associated with this dish of rice and beef meat, carrots, raisins, and in some varieties, almonds, and pistachios. It is believed to have been invented in this part of the world and is the default main course for all social, as well as official, gatherings.
Casual stroll downtown in the old Kabul Bazaar area presents living pictures of this love for food with flocks of locals and visitors alike settling down for breakfast, brunch, or early lunch and dinner with a golden loaf of naan bread freshly baked and crispy alongside a simmering pot of sweetened green tea with the ambiance of exotic birds singing from their hanging cages inside the eateries.
"The most authentic and sustainable variant (of pulao) is cooked in sesame oil, with local rice grown in northern provinces and locally dried fruit," said Zabih Ullah, a chef from northern Takhar province at Kabul's Aqcha Pulao restaurant, while talking to Anadolu Agency.
On any given day, his relatively small eatery in the bustling Shahr-e-Nau neighborhood serves up to 1,000 customers at lunch alone, he claims.
The local saffron tea, green tea, or yogurt drink is the preferred beverage here, which goes well with freshly grilled kebab or pulao.
At a distance of few meters across the other side of the street, staff at a number of fully air-conditioned newly established fast-food bistros are equally busy. At Yummy, one such pizzeria, most customers order deliveries to their home or office on their cell phones.
"We have many burger varieties and other fast foods, but almost all of our deliveries are of pizzas, people love it," said Noor Wali, a delivery boy on his motorbike.
New class of foodies
In the view of historian Eqbal, the advent of western and Turkish food in Afghanistan represents a change in the culture promoted and accepted by younger Afghans with international exposure.
"You'll notice that the fancy Turkish restaurants and western-style pizzerias are usually occupied by well-to-do professionals or those coming from different provinces to experience the urban lifestyle in Kabul," he said, adding that unlike the traditional foodies, who prefer hanging around in roadside restaurants, the young often prefer ordering meals to their homes and offices for security and hygiene concerns.
Taking note of this trend, young Kabul resident Waheed Ullah has taken the traditional "bolani" break to new heights as both a snack and a complete meal when complemented by a fresh yogurt drink.
Ranked at the top among the world's best 50 breads by CNN, this Afghan bread is made by putting a balanced quantity of fresh vegetables or meat over half of a round naan and flipping the empty half over it, then deep or lightly frying it on a skillet or baking it in a mud oven.
Waheed Ullah came up with the idea of taking this favorite roadside snack to the next level of a branded meal equally adored among the rapidly growing professional middle-class in Kabul.
His small Bolani restaurant venture evolved from a shaky start-up a little over two years ago to a successful business with a second branch and home deliveries. "People are loving it, even expatriates when they visit Kabul they love visiting us because not everyone likes to eat bolani from roadside stalls due to security and other concerns," he told Anadolu Agency.
In the fast-growing Kabul, the central Shahr-e-Nau and western Karta-e-Se neighborhoods are the key spots for restaurant strollers. And, when it comes to desserts to complement a tasty meal, the only thing coming close to Afghanistan's iconic "Sheer Yakh" (ice cream) has been the Turkish Baklava, a layered pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with honey.Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.