Monday, August 16, 2010

Post 28: First Time with Afghan (SF: Russian Hill/Nob Hill)

I slapped myself out of my low tide of culinary inspiration.  My inspiration is back.  Or... perhaps I'm just craving Afghan food, and I'm craving it enough to post about it.

My first experience with Afghan food was a couple of months ago when my manager (born in Afghanistan, raised in USA) brought some of her mom's homemade fare to the office for the team.  Although our team consists of just five people, there was enough food to feed the entire corner of our office.  (Uh... it's a pretty big corner.)

I had no clue what I was eating, but I know good food when I see it.  And logic tells me that if an Afghan mother (or any mother for that matter) is confident enough and proud enough to prepare party-sized trays of her own home-cooked deliciosities, then gosh darnit, that stuff has got to be good.

A look at what Marya brought in:

Homemade qabalee.  Qabalee is a combination of pallow rice, raisins, carrots, and meat buried within.  Pallow rice is rice that has been baked after having been tossed in syrup made with carmelized sugar.  Zeera, or cumin seeds, helps perk up the rice.  There's nothing that can come between me and the Japanese, short-grain sticky rice that I've grown up with, but I welcome long-grain rice from other cultures whole-heartedly.  Pallow rice, I welcome you into my life with arms wide open.

Shola.  Contained within the puffy rice is lamb and finely minced vegetables such as onions and celery.  At first glance this dish looks a bit like oatmeal, and the color doesn't do the flavor the least bit of justice.  If you judge this book by its cover, you're definitely gonna miss out.  It's sweet, but it's got spices.  It's soft, but it's not mushy.  It looks bland, but oh lord, it's full of flavor.  I just can't get over how the oil and juices from the meat seep from below... almost like hot lava bubbling up from a volcano, ready-to-burst... and how every other bite of the engorged sticky rice has a surprise of lamb.  Oh sweet heavens, this stuff is good.

Beef qorma.  These chunks of beef have been stewed with onions, garlic, ground coriander, crushed tomatoes, and cauliflower.  It complements the qabalee and the shola really well.  With the qabalee, the gravy (the qorma part of it) helps give the rice an extra hand in spice, but I discovered that this beef deliciousness really shines on a bed of the shola.  Because the shola is so thick, the gravy has nowhere to escape; the shola can enclose the meat and its gravy within its congealed grains.  Your mouth gets nothin' but flavor.  Perrrrfect.

Many thanks to Mrs. Hameed for introducing a new cuisine to all of us in the office.  Marya, you've got one mean-cookin' mama!

My second experience with Afghan food was at the end of July when I visited my childhood friend Grace for her 25th birthday.  Knowing that I was going to make the trip up to the Bay, Marya had been raving about some of the amazing Afghan food up in northern California.  (Apparently, the Bay Area has the largest population of Afghan immigrants in America.)  We didn't make it to Fremont, but we did find a hidden gem in the city.

For some reason I kept thinking that we'd be walking into a hole-in-the-wall place.  For that reason I kept asking Grace and the group, "Are you sure you want to have your birthday dinner here?" And everyone just responded, "Yeah, let's try somethin' new."  Okay, kids.  I really wanted to sit down and eat, but if everyone was okay with it, then I guess it was okay.

So we arrived at Van Ness and Union by bus (complete avoidance of walking up and down the huge hill on Union, which was actually later defeated by Grace's need to visit the BOA ATM on Polk), and we looked (and looked and looked) for a hole-in-the-wall.  We couldn't find it.

Helmand Palace is not, as we discovered, a hole-in-the-wall.  It, as we continued to discover, is a cozy little restaurant complete with white tablecloths and a wine list bound in leather.  Shock.  But good shock.

A look at what we ordered, per recommendation by Marya (thanks, boss):

Naan.  The fluffy, white Afghan bread (naan is the word for bread for Indians and other cultures as well).  So yes, naan bread would be bread bread (redundant).  And chai tea would be tea tea, which is superfluously redundant as well.  No matter.  This naan was very much nom-worthy.

Aushak.  Traditionally, aushak should fit in your palm, but the Afghan ravioli we had were much bigger.  They were stuffed with leeks and scallions and covered with ground beef sauce.  The leeks are the soft, grassy-like leeks, not the full-grown, stalky green onion-ish leeks.  Oh, did I mention the minty yogurt on the side? Dee-lish.

Bowlawni.  The restaurant's version of these Afghan pastries were triangular, causing them to look a bit like Indian samosas.  Typically, bowlawni is made with large, round and thin flatbread, but hey, these were good too.  One was filled with leeks and scallions, and the other was filled with a yellow-tinged potato.  Yogurt on the side with a bit of dill.  Not greasy at all.  Dee-lish as well.

Qabelee.  A mound of rice that, once uncovered, exposes juicy, moist and tender chunks of lamb.  The carrots and raisins complement the rice and lamb with another dose of sweet, moist flavor.  This was surprisingly more addicting that the aushak and bowlawni.

Mourgh kebab.  Simply charbroiled chicken breast (not dry or tough at all) that is served off the skewer.  The side of spinach is absolutely amazing.  It turned Grace (who refuses to eat anything green and leafy) into a fan.  The spinach is fresh, and it had been chopped and wilted down with garlic, onions and other spices.  Amazing.  What looks like a potato in the midst of the kebab plate is actually pear that had been poached in a sea of spices.  It was sweet enough to place next to a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  Really, really amazing.

Lawand.  Lamb sauteed with a variety of vegetables and yogurt.  The sauce has the consistency of curry, but it's not regarded as curry because of its use of different spices.  This dish is served with challow (not pallow) rice, which is also baked but seasoned more simply... with just cumin seeds rather than the plethora of spices.  The lawand was definitel drool-worthy.

We also ordered a bottle of Five Rivers cabernet as recommended by the staff.  I'm not sure if it paired well with the dishes that we had, but it was smooth and had a bit of spiciness to it at the end... I guess that makes it alright then, eh? 

Alex asked the waiter, "What's the suggested wine to pair with Afghan food?"

The waiter, more courteous than dumbfounded, patiently explained, "It's illegal in Afghanistan because..."

He didn't have to finish the sentence.  All four of us resounded, "Ohhhhh..."

Americans... real smart.

We finished off our meal with some strong, strong Turkish coffee (not Afghan at all) prepared right at the table.  Fun to watch someone prepare (boiled five times)... but not as fun to drink.

We didn't order the kaddo despite what many said on Yelp.  I do like my pumpkin (except for pumpkin pie... not my favorite), so next time, kaddo will be on the menu.

For a country with over 28 million and with such a major stake in the war for us, you'd think there would be more restaurants serving Afghan cuisine around.  Too bad there aren't... because this stuff is good! I'm glad we decided to put on our adventure shoes and taste some Afghan food though.  This definitely is something I will return to for major consumption. 

Happy birthday, Grace! Until next time, let's get S.O.F.A.T.

Next post: Yummy... Yummy?

ML - 20100816/20100724

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