A trip to Little Kabul

had my first taste of Afghani food nine years ago at Helmand on Broadway, a handsome, brick-walled restaurant decorated with Afghani artifacts in antique vitrines. I’ve been wild about this cuisine ever since, one that weaves Persian, Indian and Middle Eastern flavors into exquisite culinary cloth. Dishes like aushak, large, tender ravioli are filled with sautéed leeks, topped with a mild, buttery meat sauce, and served on a bed of yogurt speckled with fresh mint; kaddo borawni, fried and roasted pumpkin, also sauced with garlic-scented yogurt, achieves a miraculous melting texture. I’ve eaten my way through the whole Helmand menu: the deep, hearty soups enriched with yogurt; the grilled and roasted lamb dishes accompanied with light, airy rice pilaf studded with whole spices; my beloved koufta callow, large soft meatballs in spicy, cinnamon-scented tomato sauce; dwopiaza, lamb kebabs (served inauthentically but deliciously medium rare at Helmand) sauced with vinegared onions and yellow split peas, presented on a square of flatbread that soaks up the juices.
The dining room with such amenities as linen, a wine list and gracious, informative service make the downright inexpensive prices for this refined cooking all the more a bargain.

I would have been content to satisfy my yen for Afghani food at Helmand had I not heard from my colleague, Rob Zaborney, a multi-cultural chef, traveler and eater, about a neighborhood in Fremont and Newark called Little Kabul, where an Afghani community supports restaurants, kebab shops, food stores, bakeries and butchers. He spoke of many exotic pleasures along Fremont Boulevard, especially at Salang Pass, a serious restaurant he said was well worth the trip from The City.

We arrived for lunch and chose a Western table in the colorful, muraled dining room. Other diners lounged at low tables on a raised platform, carpeted with intricate hand-woven rugs.

We dipped into two bright sauces set on the table — one a green cilantro chutney spiked with vinegar and garlic; the other a sweet, red, fruity chile oil — spooning them onto pieces of Afghani flat bread as we listened to Urdu devotional music and some perky Bollywood intrumentals, among many selections. Finally the bolani ($6.50) arrived, a thin, griddled flat bread lusciously filled with mashed potatoes and leeks, seasoned with cilantro and red chiles. One bite explained why we had to wait. These heavenly flatbreads had to be rolled out, filled and cooked to order. The tasty filling, the crepe-thin, crisp/tender crust and the refinement of the preparation reminded me of the gozleme I’d seen rolled out by Turkish women during a recent visit. They worked with the satiny dough effortlessly, achieving an ethereal degree of multi-layered tenderness. This bolani had the same artisan quality, and we had to restrain ourselves from eating the whole huge pile of triangles mounded on a plate next to a cup of thick yogurt.

After the bolani appeared, the rest of the meal — an assortment of small plates — poured out of the kitchen. Syrupy-sweet Borani kadoo ($4.99), long cooked pumpkin, needed its piquant topping of yogurt, dried mint and dill; Borani badenjan ($4.99), long, skinny, eggplants cooked to almost a jam-like consistency also benefited from the refreshing sauce of yogurt and dried herbs.

Aushak ($4.50), everyone’s favorite Afghani dish, sings here. Crescents of thin noodle dough were filled with braised leeks and garlic, topped with a meat sauce punctuated with nutty, crunchy yellow split peas, and finished off with a drizzle of herbed yogurt. The layers of flavor and texture made each bite exciting. Mantoo ($4.50), another dumpling, is similar except that it’s a square, open-face ravioli with curled edges, holding spicy ground beef and topped with the meat sauce, yellow split peas and yogurt. Try them both.

Do not leave Salang Pass without ordering pakawra ($4.50), long narrow cats’ tongue-shaped potato slices rubbed bright yellow with tumeric, and souffléd in the fryer so that they puff. Super thin and crispy, they expel a sexy little potatoey breath when you bite into them. Charming.

For a main course, have the national dish of Afghanistan, Quabili Pallow ($11.50), a regally mounded platter of saffron-and-tomato tinted rice with hunks of flavorful lamb on the bone hidden in the middle of the pile, which is decorated with a festive topping of sweet, shredded carrots, raisins and almonds. One side of the plate is anchored with tasty, juicy, tumeric-yellow braised cauliflower and squash.

After a meal of this heft, the only dessert that really makes sense is a refreshing jala or faloodeh ($5), starring kulfi (dense ice cream made of boiled-down milk) sprinkled with pistachios, afloat in a dish of rosewater-scented syrup, thick with transparent rice noodles (faloodeh) and shaved ice. The “Afghani sundae” is crowned with the frozen skin of boiled down milk, which is like thick, dense whipped cream. This dessert achieves the impossible, balancing creamy and rich with clean and juicy.

We staggered out of Salang Pass and made it as far as next door, the Pamir Market, where a couple of bakers in the back pulled long, flat Afghani breads out of a tiled pizza oven. We watched them tug the soft dough into shape and then dimple the top with their fingertips. Customers took the hot breads away wrapped in newspapers.

Bulk spices; halvah; honey; buttery new crop California pistachios; green Afghani raisins that taste just like grapes; hard, tiny, whole, dried apricots for braising with meats; and crunchy jelabi made by a local woman — a sweet made of dough piped out into boiling oil, then soaked in sugar syrup — all earned praise from my fellow explorer, an Asian market expert.

Newark Square, a shopping center a couple of miles north, is another nexus of Afghani businesses, the foremost being the ornate Afghan Village.

This is a large, multi-roomed restaurant decorated with a potpourri of tiffany lamps, French crystal chandeliers, bas-relief wall murals in pounded copper, Indian screens and emotive oil paintings. No doubt many marriages have been celebrated at the glittery Afghan Village in a faraway suburb outside San Francisco.

We stopped in for afternoon tea, dark and strong, served in a thermos, which kept it hot, and ferni, a comforting, milky, rice flour pudding scented with cardamon and pistachios. We couldn’t resist another jala, a scoop of kulfi in rosewater, this time with chewy cellophane noodles and shaved ice, topped with that thick, rich, frozen cream.

I looked longingly at the plate of aushak on the table of a young woman who was enthusiastically eating by herself. The dumplings looked fine and delicate. But I was just too full, which means another journey to the exotic East Bay has to be planned.

430 Broadway, San Francisco, (415) 362-0642

Salang Pass
37426 Fremont Blvd., Fremont (510) 795-9200

Pamir Food Mart
37422 Fremont Blvd., Fremont (510) 790-7015

Afghan Village
5698 Thornton Ave., Newark (510) 790-0557

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