The heart-breaking truth about the security situation in Afghanistan is that it’s become nearly too dangerous to go out to eat. Which is bad enough, as a person visiting or living in Kabul — but it means that many restaurants are simply closing, going under. Dozens have been making their living here in a vibrant and diverse food scene. That scene is slowly fading to black. What does exist is difficult to get to, and you need to know where you’re going. Restaurants are largely unmarked in this city: tall walls encircle villas and secret courtyards, and getting in requires security checks and physical pat-downs.
Afghan food is hearty and delicious: heaping piles of dumplings, platters of rice, stewed meat and vegetables. This cuisine is not for dainty eaters nor those with sensitive stomachs; it’s designed for farmers and fighters. The country is land-locked, sandwiched between questionable neighbors, ringed by mountains, crisscrossed by dangerous (and often impassable) roads. No wonder Afghan cuisine is limited to what can be grown domestically — importing fresh food is a life or death enterprise. So, in the restaurants of Kabul you’ll get ample lamb, chicken, rice, naan, and sturdy vegetables like cauliflower and potatoes. You will not easily find beef, pork (this is a Muslim country, after all), fish or salad.
Should you find yourself in this special city, here are three places to seek out.
Serena Hotel. The attack on the restaurant at the Serena earlier this year was a particularly ominous one – the Serena had long been known as safe and secure place for foreigners and dignitaries to meet for a meal. But the restaurant has re-opened and the charming, smiling staff is desperate for life to return to normal.
The Serena does an excellent buffet of fresh salads that change daily – you might find an apple slaw with pomegranate seeds, or a fattoush salad tossed with spicy chickpeas. (The dessert buffet is equally impressive – though you might regret your second trip to the banana pudding bowl). On the menu you’ll find everything from Western-style club sandwiches to Kabul-style lamb curry, all served with fresh naan made in the open kitchen behind the dining space. And If you get the chance to eat at the Serena on an Afghan buffet night, you’ve hit the jackpot: gorgeous meat dumplings (mantoo) topped with lentils and yogurt sauce, stewed eggplant, rice dishes, lamb and chicken kebabs… it just goes on, and on, and on. Stop yourself if you can. I couldn’t.The Serena Hotel Froshgah Street Kabul, Afghanistan Ph: +93 79 965 4000
Flower Street Cafe. This is the place to go on a warm, sunny day. Breakfast, brunch and lunch are served in a grassy garden replete with vine trellises and a collection of cats. Flower Street Cafe has the freshest pomegranate juice I’ve tasted in Kabul – just a hint of sweet, just a hint of tart, as if you stuck a straw into the ripe red fruit.
Salads are gorgeous here and perfectly safe to eat (trust me, that counts in this town!) but the kebab sandwich is the way to go. Spicy chicken, lamb or beef rolled with vegetables, pickles, and served with a spicy herb sauce; it’s served with fries and a soup for less than $10. One guest at lunch told us he spends every breakfast at Flower Street; as soon as he sits they bring him a french press coffee and a brownie, every morning. Sounds like the best way to wake up.Flower Street Cafe Street 7, House 57 Qalai Fatullah, Kabul Ph: 070-29-3124
Sufi Restaurant. There are many places in town where a Westerner can get a mediocre meal that includes a black-market alcoholic beverage. This is not one of those places. Beverages are of the tea-juice-coffee variety, and the food is 100% Afghan and 100% delicious. Portions are also enormous… no one in the restaurant, much less my table, was able to finish what they ordered. Appetizers include mantoo (dumplings), bolanee (potato/leek stuffed dough), eggplant stewed in yogurt, and several kinds of naan.
Don’t miss the Kabuly Palaw, basmati rice steamed with lamb, raisins, carrots and pistachios, served with stewed tomatoes and a yogurt sauce. A colleague spooned up a rice and lentil stew with lamb, and another cut up the largest, freshest-looking chicken kebab I’ve seen in town, served with vegetables, salad and a pile of bread. They have an Afghan rice pudding on the dessert menu and even cut up a bowl of market-fresh fruit. Service is on the slower side, but in this town, there’s no reason to hurry.
As we finished lunch, live Afghan music wafted out of an upstairs window into the garden. A truly special meal, in a truly special place.Sufi Restaurant Butcher St. Shar-e-now, Kabul Ph: 077 42 12 12 256 www.sufi.com.af