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The New Age Kabuliwallahs

I remember seeing this movie ‘Kabuliwalla‘ based on a moving short story by Rabindranath Tagore. Years ago, one used to see tall, well built Afghans in pathani suits selling dry fruit fare from house to house...

And not so long ago, Afghan wasn’t such a bad word. For many years, Indians and Afghans have been friends, but somewhere along the way, politics changed everything........ 
I now walk a lot; mostly in the gym, to balance out the amount of food Chowder Singh has to eat; but I also walk a lot on the streets of Delhi. It's the best way to discover food on the streets. Here, I’d also like to mention that most of Chowder Singh’s discoveries are street food discoveries. I feel its a wee bit unfair when these are compared to food in restaurants and judged if as good. But Chowder Singh also understands that if you’re travelling a long distance to try an outlet, the food has to match expectations. If you love street food or off-beat food, a visit to all places mentioned by Chowder Singh is a must.
It was during one of these long walks, I came across not one or two, but four Afghani joints, bunched closely together in Hauz Rani, on the Press Enclave Road leading up to Select City Walk. I was quite surprised. Four Afghani joints... that too within 200 metres of each other! I was wondering if the residents of Hauz Rani had switched over from biryani to Afghani food or was there another reason? For long I’d thought that Lajpat Nagar had been the center of all things Afghani. With a couple of Afghani restaurants, a bakery and most of the Afghan population in Delhi being concentrated there, Lajpat Nagar has always been the hot bed of all Afghani action. So is Hauz Rani becoming the new Afghan hub?
My curiosity led me to all four joints – Afghan Hotel (a roadside takeaway with a six seater indoor space), Afghan Bakery selling taftaan (thick round Afghani naan) and two proper restaurants: Aria and Afghan Darbar. At first, the going was a bit tough. At both the Afghan Hotel and the Afghan Bakery, language was a barrier, so I started chatting with a customer and he became the translator. It took me three visits to break the ice and become friends. The food at Afghan Hotel was simple enough. Chicken and beef kebabs cooked on a charcoal grill, pulao, chicken qorma, beef kofta curry, taftan (bought from the bakery next door) and green tea to go along with the food. No fridges, no leftovers; everything in limited quantities and whatever gets over, is over for the day
Fresh food everyday. I love that.
I don’t think any of the dishes were culinary chart toppers, but the experience was special. For long, I’ve rued the lack of variety in our dhabas. Its the same five-six kinds of chicken and mutton kebabs, ten-twelve kinds of curries, three kinds of biryani and four-five kinds of breads that are present everywhere. Doesn’t matter where you go in Delhi. Its pretty much all the same. For long, we’ve had to put up with the likes of the ‘Mast Masalas’ and the ‘Oye Hoyes’ dishing out the same usual butter chickens, rarha muttons, chicken tikkas, paneer tikkas and the so-called chicken, mutton and vegetable biryanis. It's a different story that most of these biryanis are created by tossing together rice and curry in a pan. Whatever happened to the art of layering and dum? I think our dhabas and takeaways suffer from a serious lack of imagination. Afghani food came to me as a breadth of fresh air. It's different from Indian food, similar, but different. It's subtly spiced with a clean taste along with touches of dried fruits here and there.
The beautiful Kabuli Paloo (pulao) along with saag and chicken was cooked with chana dal!! The two restaurants – Aria and Afghan Darbar - were easier to communicate with and befriend. Aria has a daily changing menu and the food’s, well! Ok. Afghan Darbar (which is the second outlet after their first one in Lajpat Nagar) is a decent place to sit and have some good food. They have a long couch where one can comfortably lounge, eat and drink some tea, in typical Afghani style. The Afghani green tea is more like the Kashmiri Kahwa with dried fruits in it. Its quite a nice accompaniment with the meal. Some places also serve it plain, without the dried fruits.
At Aria, I saw these two fierce looking guys with long beards sitting and having a meal and occasionally looking towards me. My first thoughts shamefully were: Was I now a marked man? Would I be followed? What precautions should I take? Then I saw them getting up. One of them had a huge A3 size, light green coloured envelope in his hands. This was surprisingly; a medical report of Max Hospital. If you’ve seen the Max envelope, you’ll know what I mean. Because of its size and colour, its not something that’s easily forgotten. Someone in marketing at Max got it spot on. I guess now all Afghans wanting treatment seem to be heading to Max Hospital in Saket. The place is full of them. And Afghans cannot tolerate the spice levels of Indian restaurant food. Hence, I guess the need for Afghani food around Max.
That solved my quandary of three Afghani restaurants closely bunched together and a bakery supplying bread to all three in the nondescript area of Hauz Rani. Coming back to the two fierce looking dudes. Here were these two, probably with a lot of pain in their kidneys or whatever else was troubling them and there I was, wondering all sorts of things about them. I then came to the painful realization of how sorrily mistaken I was and as a society how narrow-minded we’ve become. And that’s the story of Afghans today, not just here, but I’d guess, pretty much all over the world. They’ve become a misunderstood lot. Misunderstood and ostracised. It's sad; but for them, this is a reality.
This was my first brush with Afghani food and and the experience was special. The current lot of Afghani food joints are in a sense, pioneers of their trade in Delhi. Like ‘New Age Kabuliwallas’. And I feel that as more people of the community get involved and more chefs from Afghanistan come here, the food will evolve.
Will Afghan food be the new ‘Chines’ story in India? I don’t know the answer to that question. But immigrants cooking their authentic street food in someone else’s land have thrown up many a surprise in the past: the Chinese in Tangra (Kolkata), the German immigrants cooking hamburgers and hot dogs in the US, Polish jew immigrants cooking Bagels in New York and many other such examples have left their indelible footprints across the sands of time. As to Afghani food, I’ll let you decide. At the same time, I’d also like to add that Afghan cooking is simple and with subtle flavours. I’m not sure if this food is meant for or will find flavour with hardcore butter chicken freaks.
And for all you ‘momo’ fans, a visit to Afghan Darbar for their Mantu is a must. Mantu is a steamed dumpling with a mutton and onion mince filling with a smothering of garlic yoghurt and a special tomato-based mutton mince and chana dal sauce.This is something special and compared to the regular ‘momo’, way better!!!!
Mantu at Afghan Darbar, New Delhi
Afghan Hotel takeaway and restaurant
Chicken and beef kebabs at Afghan Hotel
Green Tea at Aria
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20-MARCH-2012 Chowder Singh
Pinky and Namrata. You should check out Afghan Darbar. It has a decent ambience. It's ok for a couple or friends to go there. Not sure if you'd want to take kids or parents. The other places are streetfood places. More the types when you're feeling adventurous. But check out Afghan Darbar first. The Mantu is quite decent.
19-MARCH-2012 pinky reddy
Until what time are these Afghan restaurants open, Chowder? Sounds interesting? Is it a family place?
19-MARCH-2012 namrata
How fresh or hygenic is the chicken and beef? I have these these 'dhabas' in Saket ... do share your experience FROM THIS PERSPECTIVE.
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