I’ve never had a bad meal in an Afghan restaurant. And, I’ve found, it doesn’t really matter what I order — a juicy kebab with just the right touch of char; a lamb shank that has surrendered to its rich braising liquid; triangular dumplings so translucent you can see the green of their leek-and-scallion stuffing; a goblet filled to the brim with cardamom-scented milk custard — the food transports you, even if you have only the vaguest familiarity with the country or its cuisine.
That’s what Naheed Mawjzada was counting on when she and her family opened Afghan Kitchen 44 two years ago in Huntington Village. Diners might mistake the succulent lamb tikka kebab for Indian or presume the suave aushak (those leek and scallion dumplings) were Chinese. It didn’t matter, for she had a very clear idea of what kind of restaurant she had in mind. “I wanted to provide that feeling of having a home-cooked meal, of eating a dish you could tell was made with love and hits the spot in a way that so many restaurant meals don’t.”
She was confident that her customers would find this to be true, and she was right: Generous portions, satisfying preparations and heady-but-not-too-aggressive spicing are precisely what people are looking for when they want to be warmed and comforted.
That alluring mix of familiarity and exoticism is just one of the contradictions inherent in the food of Afghanistan. It’s often identified as Middle Eastern (even by a few Afghan restaurateurs), for instance, although the country, about the same size as France, actually lies far from what Westerners think of as the Middle East. “Customers expect us to have hummus,” said Omar Mosaver, owner of Kabul Kabab House in Westbury. “So, we have hummus.”
To truly understand the cuisine of Afghanistan, it makes sense to look at a map: The country lies at the very center of Central Asia and, over the millennia, has seen more than its fair share of military invasions and merchant caravans. The Silk Road, the historic web of trade routes between Europe and Asia, ran right through Afghanistan and fostered the flow of everything from textiles, gunpowder, precious stones and ideas such as Buddhism and astronomy to tea, spices, nuts, fruits, dumplings and noodles.
The cultivation of rice spread from China, and in both Afghanistan and its neighbor to the west, Iran (Persia), the cookery of that grain reaches dazzling heights. Those dishes, called pullao or pallow — what most Americans would call pilaf — are also common across Afghanistan’s 1,600-mile eastern border with Pakistan, with whom it also shares the tandoor-baked flatbread, naan, as well as kebabs.
Dining in an Afghan restaurant in the United States is quite different from dining in Afghanistan, where restaurants are confined largely to the big cities. Rafi Sarwary, owner of Kabul Grill in Hicksville, who grew up in the capital city of Kabul, said his family rarely went out to eat and that “fancy restaurants” were the exclusive province of foreigners and the local elite.
Kabul Grill has at least one feature of a restaurant in Afghanistan, where Western-style tables and chairs are not the norm. The front of the dining room is dominated by a takht, or raised platform, around which are arrayed toshaks (cushions) for comfort. The overall effect is one of ceremony and community. And in Afghanistan, “You wouldn’t have separate courses,” Sarwary said. “Everything would be set out on the takht. At home, it would probably be set out on a plastic tablecloth.”
Restaurants may have been a special treat, but Sarwary has vivid memories of enjoying street food as a child. One of his favorites: mantu, steamed meat-filled dumplings. “I’d get two for a dollar,” he recalled, “and they would come with yogurt and some lamb tail fat. You’d dip in one and then the other and then pop it in your mouth — we’d call it ‘bang bang bang.’ ”
Roghan-e-dumbah, the rendered fat from an ancient breed of fat-tailed sheep, is a foundational flavor that you won’t find here, but most Afghan menus feature mantu with drizzles of yogurt and tomato sauce. Other street foods such as aushak, the potato-stuffed flatbread called bolani, and the fried turnover called sambosa have been repurposed into appetizers. They are irresistible.
Kebab stalls are a common sight in Afghan cities and towns, and they have the same basic set-up as that of Mosaver’s Kabul Kabab House, the eight-year-old Westbury offshoot of the Flushing original, established in 1988. The grill, wide enough to accommodate 60 kebabs at once, dominates the space and, since the pandemic, has come to dominate the menu, too, as takeout overtook dine-in service. Many of the non-kebab offerings and waiter service were phased out to accommodate the change.
You’ll always find lamb and beef tikka, chunks of meat marinated in cumin, coriander, onions and hot chilies; kofta (minced meat with cumin, coriander, onion, tomato, chilies) as well as chicken seasoned with saffron; and two popular Iranian kebabs, barg (thin slices of beef) and jujeh (jojeh), bone-in Cornish hen. For non-meat eaters, there is a salmon kebab as well.
In Afghanistan — as in all of kebab-centric Central Asia — skewers are flat and wide (think sword instead of knitting needle) which keeps the kebabs from spinning when you turn them. “You just don’t put the meat on a skewer and call it a day,” Mosaver said. “Especially with the kofta, you have to keep your hands wet, but not too wet, or the meat will fall off. Not wet enough, and the meat will burn.” He uses his fingers to make grooves down the length of the kebab; the ridges will get a good char while the valleys will remain juicy.
At Kabul Kabab, kebabs are accompanied by two spicy chutneys, a red one that gets its color and heat from bell peppers and red chilies, and a sinus-clearing green one made with hot chilies, cilantro, garlic, lemon and vinegar. Here in the New York area, there’s always a third option, the so-called “white sauce” that was reputedly invented by Naheed Mawjzada’s father-in-law, Mohammad Rouzyi.
Rouzyi is a legendary figure in these parts: His first place, Afghan Kitchen, opened in Hell’s Kitchen in 1981 and more satellites in Manhattan and Queens followed.
A yogurt sauce seasoned with dill and mint is common in Afghanistan, but Rouzyi’s big idea was to add mayonnaise, an ingredient that doesn’t exist there. “White sauce” (it never received a catchier name), with its creamy-tangy richness, hit the big time when it was adopted by New York City’s halal carts, which, in turn, birthed the fast-food chains Halal Guys, Shah’s Halal, Naz’s Halal and more — many of which are owned by Afghans.
In Afghanistan, freshly baked naan is the standard accompaniment to kebabs, but on Long Island, they are usually served with rice. There are dozens of variations, from zereshk (made with tart barberries), palau and norinj palau (orange peel, nuts, saffron and rosewater) to zamarud challow, or “emerald” rice, given its verdant appearance by spinach, leeks, dill and cilantro.
These may be rare birds on Long Island, but every Afghan restaurant serves Kabuli palau, the national dish. The traditional Kabuli palau (and you may see it as Qabili/Qabeli and pilau/polo/palaw), said Mosaver, is made only for special occasions and the seasoned rice is baked over chunks of lamb. Here, it is more often made with a meat broth and served alongside a kebab or a braised lamb shank, as at Sarwary’s Kabul Grill.
At Afghan Kitchen 44, Kabuli palau duty often falls to Mawjzada’s cousin, Zarlasht Siddiq. She soaks the rice overnight, then boils it briefly before returning it to the pot with seasonings and broth, mixing it with a kafgeer, a sort of perforated paddle. Siddiq simmers the rice until she hears the crackle that means it has started to dry out and form a golden-brown crust on the bottom. Siddiq then lays a cloth over the pot (this protects the rice from droplets of condensed steam) and bakes it for 35 minutes.
The result? Beautiful, fluffy rice, with every grain separate and distinct. The traditional embellishments of raisins and candied shredded carrots may surprise you however. “Either you love it, or you want nothing to do with it,” quipped Kabul Kabab’s Mosaver.
Kabuli palau is typically made with brown basmati rice, but white basmati, challow, is the accompaniment of choice with vegetables. Sarwary says that he is most satisfied when eating okra, spinach, potatoes, pumpkin or his favorite, kidney beans. The secret, he says, is in the judicious use of seasonings.
“Pakistani and Indian food — there is so much spice it obscures the food. Persian, Turkish — there’s not enough spice, they boil the rice, put butter on top and that’s it. Afghan food, it’s just perfect.”
AFGHAN KITCHEN 44: 44 Gerard St., Huntington; 516-808-1977, afghankitchen44.com
KABUL GRILL:129 N. Broadway, Hicksville; 516-933-8999, kabulgrill.com
KABUL KABAB HOUSE: 247 Post Ave., Westbury; 516-280-4753, kabulkababhouse.com
More great Afghan food on Long Island
AFGHAN GRILL:1629 Hillside Ave., New Hyde Park; 516-998-4084, afghangrillny.com
CHOOPAN GRILL:15 W. Marie St., Hicksville; 516-681-8818, choopangrill.com
KABUL AFGHAN RESTAURANT:1153 E. Jericho Tpke., Huntington; 631-549-5506, kabulny.com
KANDAHAR GRILL: 459A S. Broadway, Hicksville; 516-595-7886, kandahargrill.com
KEBAB HOUSE: 526 S. Broadway, Hicksville; 516-935-3222, kebabhouseli.com
MAZAR KABAB HOUSE: 284 Glen St., Glen Cove; 516-629-6100