As the last bit of orange disappears from the sky, sherbet along with dates, both in plastic ware, are perched on tabletops at Afghan Darbar, a restaurant tucked deep in the bustling bylanes of Lajpat Nagar II. Almost instantly, the languorous restaurant morphs into a teeming joint as immigrants from Afghanistan gather for iftar.
As the patrons of the three-year-old restaurant bite into the ancient icon of the Middle Eastern world to break their day-long fast, the belief that binds them together is almost palpable. “It is recorded in the hadith, that the prophet always broke the fast with dates. We follow because it is tradition, but dates also provide a boost of energy and work the appetite after a long day of fasting,” says Fayaz Amini, who has come to Delhi from Panjshir, Afghanistan, for medical services that are not available in the war-torn land.
Delectable platters of aromatic kebabs, koftas and the Afghan naan, a fat, flat bread, straight out of the tandoor, rally out of the kitchen. Kebabs form the nucleus of the multifaceted Afghan cuisine. The restaurant replaces the popular shami, shish and lola kebabs of Afghanistan with generic names of mutton kebab, chicken tikka and fish fry. But in taste, the skewered kebabs, spiced with black pepper, roasted cumin and cardamom, are milder than their Indian cousins. Minced meat koftas float in rich, yet muted tomato gravy, traditionally made using a dazzling array of spices — coriander powder, cumin, fennel seeds, sumac and saffron.
Abdul Wali Khan from Paktia in Afghanistan, came to Delhi in 2014 for his MD training at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Rajendra Nagar. “It’s hard to cook for oneself with a demanding job. So, I come here for iftar. They’re particular about the iftar timings and I am certain that their meat is halal,” says Khan, asserting that the food at Darbar mirrors the iftar feast back home. “The only dish amiss are the chaplee kebabs, flat, round cutlets of ground meat,” he says.
A few metres away from Afghan Darbar is Kabul Delhi, established seven years ago by Irshad Ahmed, a Delhiite and Hashmat, Kabul. The name of the restaurant bears the stamp of their commercial union. A favoured dish here, is Mantu — steamed dumplings of spiced minced lamb and onions, served with garlic yoghurt and rajma or kidney beans, garnished with sprigs of coriander or mint leaves. Its vegetarian counterpart is known as Ashak. The dish iterates that the cuisine is not just a delicate interplay of flavours but also temperatures. At Afghan Darbar, rajma is replaced with chana dal or split chickpeas. That’s the beauty of eating at restaurants that don’t take themselves too seriously. You may go back for one dish but be served a variation depending on what is available. Yet, never compromising on delectability.
On Sabir Shahrukh’s plate, at Kabul Delhi, the fragile dumplings split easily into halves that he shares with his friend Ismail Kharimov from Tajikistan. The latter is in the city for his sister’s medical treatment. The two exchange words in Persian and move swiftly on to the main course. The fragrant Qabuli Uzbeki, is a variety of pilaf mixed with raisins, chopped nuts and carrots, heaped over chunks of meat, undeniably the most popular dish of Afghanistan.
Lesser-known delights are accommodated in the vegetarian section. Sumptuous preparations like Sabzi Palak or spinach stew, and Borani Banjan, a rough puree of roasted eggplant with a dash of garlic and chilli pepper open the window to a simpler interpretation of the cuisine. But at these restaurants, barely anyone ordered a vegetarian dish. “We eat a lot more meat during Ramzan to stave off hunger the following day but our vegetarian dishes are tasty too,” says Shahrukh, who moved to Delhi in 2013.
“The Taliban killed my brother four years ago. And then, they came after me. I escaped with my wife and children,” says Shahrukh, digging into the Dopiaza, chicken pieces in a rich curry made with a generous amount of onions, as the name suggests. But the culinary skills of the restaurants’ chefs, he insists, don’t compare to the magic his mother can stir up in the kitchen back home. “Can anyone cook better than your mother?” he asks.