A culinary grey area for the majority of Britons and certainly one of the most underrepresented of Middle Eastern cuisines here in the UK, the food of Afghanistan certainly isn’t the easiest to come by. If you live in Nottingham however, and are prepared to venture into the edgy, multicultural shopping hive of Hyson Green (essentially the city’s hub of Islamic and Asian culture), there is one place where you grab an authentic slice of a cuisine borne of cross-cultural pollination along ancient trade routes between West and East.
Kabul Express, a small unassuming takeaway/café-style eatery with the patina of an ordinary kebab joint, offers authentic Afghan dishes for modest prices. But for Kabul being in the name, you wouldn’t necessarily know this specialised in an array of dishes reflecting Afghan’s diverse ethnic tapestry and the rich history of a nation forged through centuries of internal upheaval and conflict.
Aside from familiar meat-on-a-stick offerings (which though still awesome, represent a tiny part of this nation’s cooking), I was unaware of just how refined and sophisticated the cuisine of Afghanistan really is. From what I’d read prior to venturing into Hyson Green, Afghans evidently put special value on meal times – food, and copious amounts of it, being at the centre of family and social occasions in a nation where good hospitality is everything.
Contrary to what I had assumed, the cuisine has less in common with the food of neighbouring Pakistan and owes far more to its westerly neighbour, Iran. The flavours, much akin to the ancient cuisine of Persia, are nuanced and subtle, the spice blends being based on a canny interplay of sweet and sour rather than being full-on and fiery.
While I couldn’t resist the temptation of a slab of freshly barbecued meat from the grill (in this case, beautifully tender lamb chops in a spicy yoghurt marinade), the dishes that impressed me most were indeed the less familiar, but quintessentially Afghan specialities. The signature Afghan dish, as I was told by the friendly and obliging owner of Kabul Express, is Qabli Pulao, a deceptively simple dish of rice, carrots, sultanas and lamb originating from the country’s capital. The depth flavour in this dish is quite something, with the rich, savoury lamb-infused rice cut by the sweetness of fried sultanas and thin carrot strips. Similar to biryani, the rice is hearty and serves as a perfect standalone dish. I’d imagine this, served alongside curries and the ubiquitous naan breads, would be the ultimate comfort food for home-sick Afghans.
As a side dish I ordered Ashak, or leek dumplings, which clearly have their origins in a neighbour slightly further to the East. Served in a delectable meat sauce with an attractive yoghurt swirl and fresh herbs, they were simply some of the most appetising dumplings I had ever eaten. The dish was simply exquisite, and easily the highlight of the meal. Afghan chai, or Kahwah, a sweet, cardamom-infused green tea was equally equisite and a perfect way to round off a wholesome and delicious dining experience, which was positively enhanced by the warmth, hospitality of the owner who delighted in my enthusiasm for the food of his country. Acting as a de facto cultural ambassador for his nation, which many of us associate merely with grinding poverty and terrorism, he was keen to promote his hometown of Kabul as a potential tourist destination, citing its stunning ancient Islamic architecture and picturesque snow-capped mountain scenery.
While I won’t be holidaying in Kabul any time soon, or at least until it becomes safe for Western visitors, I can at least make regular excursions to a mini Kabul right in the heart of the East Midlands. This really is a unique culinary offering, extremely rare even in the UK’s larger cities and something the people in Nottingham should be proud to boast of.
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