Afghan food in Delhi: subtle and simple but herbs make a difference
The irony of our country is refugees cannot avail a basic service like a bank account but can afford to put up a 50-seater restaurant
On a recommendation from a friend and a consummate gastronome, my wife and I decided to visit Lajpat Nagar to try some Afghani cuisine. We finally stumbled upon an alley in Block I of Lajpat Nagar. And there it was right before our eyes a whole new country within the capital of India!
From bakeries emblazoned with Arabic names selling baklava and cookies, old and not-so-old Afghani émigrés hawking dryfruits and Nan-i-Afghani to neon lights flashing money exchange or cash for gold – everything seemed to conjure up a dystopian rendering of Rabindranath’s Kabuliwala! They made this place their home, fleeing a nation torn by war for more than 40 years. Later, I found out many had come as medical tourists and some moved from Delhi to older haunts like Calcutta, where they deal in money lending.
There were several eateries to choose from, but we were recommended Afghan Darbar and Maazar. Our first reaction to the food was, “…really, this bland?!” While we expected the food of a country close to Persia to be redolent with the aroma of spices, the opposite was true.
As we settled into a traditional, Afghan, square low-seated sofa with bolsters, a vintage music player let out a medley of jukebox of Middle Eastern, possibly Pashtun and definitely Pakistani Coke Studio music. We ordered the famous naan, kababs and korma and all of them turned out to be subtly spiced, soft, succulent and yet distinctly plain.
It was then that the ‘aha’ moment happened and I could connect the dots – Afghanistan is a cold land (the reason Babur liked it over our sweltering Hindustan) with very few spices growing, so obviously the staple of vegetables, lentils, meat, rice and bread, if authentic, would be mild in temperament, in stark contrast to the intimidating look of the people cooking them. The only strong flavour of the evening came with the salted buttermilk which had diced cucumbers and an odd mixture of herbs floating in it.
The two waiters who served us, we guessed, were Hazaras, the oppressed Shia minority of Afghanistan, whose name is derived from a thousand (hazar) strong battalion that settled in the country after its invasion in the 13th century by the Mongols. Khaled Hosseini’s poignant novel The Kite Runner is based on this community’s persecution which, unfortunately, has only increased over the years.
One of the bitter reminders of the fact that this was after all a refugee colony was when, after the meal, the restaurant refused our cards and digital wallet payments and demanded only cash. The irony of our country is non-citizens cannot avail a basic service like a bank account here but can afford to put up a 50-seater restaurant.
With a belly full of kababs, we thought we would wrap up the evening at Café Istanbul, by savouring some Turkish cuppa. Little did we know that it would bring us face-to-face with the real graveyard of empires and its people. To start with, the café was nothing like Istanbul, it was a shoddily decorated and incongruously seated joint that served coffee and home-made chilli coriander chutney. The man behind the counter was tall, handsome and fit the description of Syed Mujtaba Ali’s garrulous Pathan Dost Muhammed from the 1947 classic Bengali travelogue ‘Deshe Bideshe’. He was in his early to mid-thirties in a denim shirt with a deep scar on his right eye.
I ordered two coffees and started a prattle. With absolute calm, he said he had been knifed in Kabul last year, three times on the face. His father had been kidnapped, they paid a ransom, and upon rescuing him, he fled the country with his entire family.
He took out his phone to show us a few photographs that corroborated his story.
When I asked him if he ever wanted to return, his answer was point-blank and deeply unsettling, “There is nothing to return to for me in that country.” The doctors here couldn’t save his eye; he is now looking for a surgeon to help him make over the disturbing scar. With the pandemic hitting hard, he set up this café only five days back, as a last resort to eke out a living.
I took it all in, looked at my wife who was equally shocked. I told him that having suffered from eye related problems, I knew several excellent ophthalmologists and surgeons in Calcutta and if he wanted, I could give him a recommendation.
The coffee was strong and refreshing and I asked him how much was it for and just then our man, Mustafa, said “It will cost you nothing sir, aap mehman ho (you are our guest).”
Afghans are legendary for their hospitality, but this was off-the-charts. Just because I had shown a passing interest in his life, his story and displayed some meagre urbane empathy, he was ready to forgo the earnings from, what I clearly saw was, the only customer for the evening. The first two hours in that alley were an academic exercise of trying to relate the surroundings to what I had read about Afghanistan in books, but it was the last twenty minutes that really brought the pages to life, giving a glimpse of the real people and their struggles.
So here I am, smitten by Delhi’s little Kabul – a place I’d love to go back to for its delectable kababs, naans, buttermilk, but more so for its big-hearted people.
(The author is a Human Resource manager by profession, with an interest in history, culture and travel)