The Real Afghani

Photo by Amy TheiligDespite having the last name “Afghani” and being related to a guy (my dad) who was related to a guy (his dad) who lived in Afghanistan (Nowhereville, Kabul), my knowledge of Afghan food is surprisingly minimal (practically nothing). So when a friend (wannabe Muslim-food foodie) told me he had found an Afghani restaurant in Orange County called the Amazing Kabob House (best restaurant name in the county after the Pakistani deli Great Zucchini) and asked what he should get, I blanked. “You're Afghani, aren't you?” he said. It's true, I explained, but I was Afghani in the same way Condi Rice is black.

Nevertheless, he kidnapped me for lunch one Friday afternoon and drove me to the Amazing Kabob House, squeezed in between a tattoo parlor and a teriyaki restaurant in the part of Orange near the 91 freeway. It was a tiny place, perhaps bigger than my parents' bedroom, and filled with artifacts of a utopian Afghanistan: pictures of the magnificent stone Buddha of Bamiyan (blown up by the Taliban), the fatigued girl with the emerald eyes who appeared on an iconic NationalGeographiccover (now a refugee) and an action shot of men playing buzkashi, the game that involves teams on horseback trying to pry a goat's carcass from each other.

“Hey, what's the name of that instrument?” my lunch partner asked, pointing to another cultural curio. It was an Afghan guitar, similar to the Indian sitar, but not as long in the neck. I shrugged. “You're Afghani, aren't you?” he asked again. I pointed toward the kitchen: two cute Latinas. Jerk.

He quieted as the scent of kebabs filled the muggy Amazing Kabob House air. The lunchtime crowd bustled. Groups occupied tables; others stood, waiting for their takeout orders. On the grill, we could see various kebabs sizzling between bell peppers, tomatoes and onions on skewers. The menu promised various versions: lamb, chicken, ground beef, even a shrimp kebab. “I'll take the chicken tikka kebab combo,” I said with the certainty that that's exactly how they'd do it in Afghanistan.

“Don't be boring,” my partner snapped before turning to the cashier. “She'll get the mushroom curry combo.” He then ordered the Kabuli palau—basmati rice cooked with lamb, carrots and currants—and a bowl of aash, a noodle soup. “You know, aash is a Persian soup,” I volunteered. But my lunch partner wasn't paying attention—he was ogling the pillowcase-big naan those two cute Latina cooks were heating up. Or maybe it was the Latinas. He's confused that way.

After about five minutes, our orders arrived. We ordered individually, but the portions were big enough to qualify as family-sized to the American palate. The aash's hefty portions of potatoes, chicken and tomato would sell well in Iowa. Each sweet basmati rice grain in the Kabuli paula exhibited a touch of lamb that, combined with the sharp currants and refreshing carrots, created a wonderful, meaty sweetness. And the chicken mushroom curry combo—my friend insisted on calling it by its ethnic name, chicken qorma; my friend is a moron—was light in its burn but absolutely decadent.

We finished and requested to-go boxes. At the table next to us, an old white couple stared at our dishes. “Look at what they got,” said the lady. “They really know how to order.” My lunch partner beamed at his food knowledge. Then again, we were the only people at the Amazing Kabob who didn't order an amazing kebab. Don't look at me—I'm the Afghani, remember?


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