Syed Aslami has silver hair that stands high and seems like it may have threatened to abandon him at one time in his life. While he speaks, he points his finger up in the air and accents every word with the movement of his hand. He has a lot to say, and he ends almost every sentence with the phrase, “You know that.” “In Afghanistan, everyone cooks. Everyone wants to be the one to cook the kabab—you know that,” he says, digressing from an exceptional, if disturbing, description of the Taliban militia. “Everyone loves the kabab—you know that.”
He’s right, I do.
I’m no expert. I can’t describe spices or appraise any particular cooking style. It was only a few months ago that I broke open a can of tuna and mixed it with the red spaghetti sauce and noodles. I called it tuna surprise—my roommate gagged. But when I bit into the cubed piece of lamb from one of the skewers of my “Kabab-E-Gousfand” at Aslami’s restaurant, Kabul West, it was so good my eyebrows scrunched together in near-painful delight.
Kabul West is one of those few treasures lost in a sea of strip malls and drug stores. When I was a teenager growing up in Sandy’s suburban sprawl, my friends and I must have passed the restaurant a thousand times. The huge well-lit sign on the protruding facade of the building reads “Afghan Cuisine.” It was one of those strip-mall letterheads that I always saw but never once actually read. However guilty it makes me feel now, the truth is Afghanistan never really meant a thing to me, let alone “Afghan Cuisine.” Kabul was just a foreign word.
Across the valley, right in the middle of downtown Salt Lake City and inside Baba Afghan restaurant, a picture of the city of Kabul hangs on the wall toward the back of the dining room. The picture shows a splendid city with a river piercing its center and mountains in the background similar to and every bit as impressive as those that tower above the south end of the Salt Lake Valley. Throngs of people appear to be moving along a sidewalk next to the river, and an interesting sort of architecture always leads your eyes back to the mountains.
Kasim, the owner of Baba, says Kabul wouldn’t look anything like the picture now. He left Afghanistan the year I was born, 1976, and he’s never gone back. On the walls of Baba’s dining room, handmade Afghan rugs are interspersed among more pictures of awe-inspiring mountain scenes—they’re so dramatic, at first you think they’re paintings.
If you don’t know anything about Afghan food, just let Kasim do his thing. He started us off with Mantoo—homemade pastry shells filled with onions and beef, served on yogurt and topped with carrots, split peas and beef sauce. My girlfriend, Ashley, and I had to fight for the last bite. Too afraid to order the lamb, she got the Murgh Challow, chicken sautéed with spices and yellow split peas, then sautéed again with yogurt, cilantro and curry. I don’t even know what cilantro is.
She looked at it and smiled. “It’s so pretty,” she said. Then she tasted it. We didn’t talk for a few minutes as we concentrated on the only thing that seemed to matter right then—it was delicious. The rack of lamb that I ordered on special was so tender, the meat seemed to fall off the bone right when you bit into it. For dessert, we split a sweet Backlawa, and rather than face her fury, I let Ashley have the last bite of that. We washed it down with pomegranate juice.
Kasim is from Kandahar, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities and one of the most heavily bombed right now. He says he agrees with the actions the United States was taking but he had a humility about the effects of it that was easy to understand. “I’m a U.S. patriot,” he says. But how good could he feel about it? It’s a war.
One of the rugs on the east wall of the dining room depicts the tanks and helicopters of an invading Soviet Army. Afghan soldiers fight them from the backs of horses. Adjacent to his restaurant, Kasim is putting together a gallery of handmade Afghan rugs and pottery. The rugs are elaborate and engaging. If I could ever afford to buy one, I would struggle with the decision of whether to put it on the floor or on the wall. It’s a decision with which Kasim apparently has struggled as well.
Aslami has also decorated Kabul West with rugs and pictures of horses. Much to the delight of Ashley and her nerdy engineer friends, Aslami informed us all that before he left Kabul in the early ’80s, he was a professor of engineering at a university in the Afghan capital. He had supported the “freedom fighters,” who resisted the Soviet invaders. When the war became intolerable, he left the country.
The only job he said he could find here related to engineering was substitute teaching in public schools. We all cringed. We listened to his story, transfixed both by his words and a bowl of sautéed pumpkin pieces he had insisted that we try. They were amazing, and the budding chemical engineer, Chris, sequestered the bowl as his own. This is the same guy who looked at the pile of rice on his plate and said, “I don’t know how you can make so much rice and not have any of it bunch together. They’re all like little individuals.” It really doesn’t take much to impress us. So we were infected forever with a perpetual nostalgia for Afghan cuisine. Thing is, we’re not alone. From what we read and learn, the ones who would probably love Afghan cuisine right now more than anybody are the Afghan people.
The Soviets were bad, Aslami said, shaking his head, but the Taliban is a different story. “They are monsters. You put monsters in charge and this is what happens—you know that,” he says. “They kill innocent people, they hurt women, and they slaughter minorities. They do things you can’t imagine and that you only see a small part of on TV. Human beings should not act that way—you know that.”