Dates and Camels
Houston boasts a veritable United Nations of dining establishments. But one national cuisine that is underrepresented here is Afghanistan's -- a pity, since some say Afghani food is just like Northern Indian or Pakistani food, only better. So when I recently heard about the opening of a new restaurant called Afghan Tandoori King on Bissonnet, I called them up immediately.
The number I was given turned out to be the owner's cell phone. When I asked him if the restaurant was open, he sounded tentative. He was vague about the menu too. He suggested I get some food to go and see how I liked it. It was all very odd.
I pulled up to the restaurant around 7 p.m. on Sunday, September 24. The owner was sitting outside at a picnic table, and he got up and greeted me when I headed for the door. There wasn't a single customer inside the modest restaurant, but the tables had been set with elegant linens and big artificial flower arrangements. It looked like a wedding reception was about to take place. The kitchen was closed.
Doh! It was the first day of Ramadan. Since Afghanis are Muslims, the restaurant wouldn't be serving dinner until after sunset. But by the time the light of cultural insight had dawned on me, it was too late to call the whole thing off. The owner was foraging around in the kitchen trying to find something for me to eat. It would make things even worse if I left now.
He apologized that everything on the menu wasn't available. I assured him that would be fine as he loaded up several Styrofoam to-go containers and stuck them in the microwaves. Obviously, I wasn't going to be sampling the very freshest examples of Afghan Tandoori King's cooking, but I was hardly in a position to complain.
"I won't eat any of this until after sunset," I joked as I paid the bill. He laughed and told me not to worry. Afghan Tandoori King is open for lunch during Ramadan, so they aren't exactly fanatics about fasting. But he suggested that I come back some night during Ramadan and try the $9.99 iftar buffet.
When I pulled out of the parking lot, I turned the wrong way on Bissonnet and didn't realize my mistake until I had gone several miles. By the time I got back home, it really was after dark.
I spread our iftar, as the meal after sunset is known, out on the dining room table. An order of beef kebob consisted of five or six big chunks of steak that had been seasoned with garlic and herbs and grilled on a skewer. The meat had a robust flavor, but it had been dried out in the microwave. I ate it on a piece of pillowy Afghani nan, an elongated flatbread that looks like a deflated, pointy-ended ciabatta.
There were several little plastic containers in the Styrofoam box that were filled with a green sauce that looked and tasted like a vinegary green salsa. The Afghanis call this stuff cima alla Genovese, or Genovese sauce. A generous dose of the Italian-Afghani salsa verde reconstituted the dried-out beef kebobs nicely.
The star of our iftar buffet was a traditional Afghani dish of eggplant slices baked in a spicy tomato sauce. The tomatoes were seasoned with a fascinating blend of aromatic cinnamon, fresh mint and fiery chile peppers. The black-skinned eggplant and deep-red sauce were then garnished with bright-white dollops of garlic-flavored yogurt sauce, which added both a cool creamy accent and a garlicky bite. While the microwave didn't quite do it justice, I now understand why Afghani banjan (eggplant) salad is world-famous.
We also got some of the ubiquitous Afghani side dish called palaw, which is a distant cousin to pilaf. This elaborate rice dish is seasoned with cinnamon and cumin and garnished with raisins and carrot shavings. You could practically make a meal of the stuff.
The generous portion of the Afghani dumplings called mantoo filled another Styrofoam box. The dumplings were covered with white yogurt sauce and then topped with a seasoned ground-meat mixture. Under the blanket of meat and yogurt, the dumplings themselves were shaped like Chinese potstickers. Some were stuffed with spinach and scallions and some contained vegetables and ground meat. If you're fond of wontons, pierogi, ravioli and the world's other stuffed dumplings, you're bound to love these savory pasta pillows in yogurt-and-ground-meat sauce.
It was after sunset when I arrived for my second visit to Afghan Tandoori King. At first I was puzzled to see so many people sitting outside the restaurant. Then I noticed the cloud of tobacco smoke rising from the patio.
During the month of Ramadan, devout Muslims refrain from eating and drinking before sundown -- not even water is allowed. If that's not hard enough, smokers are also required to stop smoking during daylight hours, so the hardcore have to get their entire nicotine fix between sunset and bedtime.
Ramadan is determined by a lunar calendar. Its first day can fall as early as September or as late as December. The fast is observed from dawn to sunset, which makes a September Ramadan day particularly difficult. On September 24 the sun rose at 7:11 a.m. and set at 7:16 p.m. in Houston, which means the fast lasted for almost exactly 12 hours. That's almost two hours longer than you'd have to fast on December 24, when there are a mere ten hours and 15 minutes of daylight.
If you think tempers are out of control on Houston's freeways at rush hour, just be thankful you're not stuck in traffic in Amman, Jordan, this afternoon. A family friend who lives there sent me an e-mail describing the Ramadan season. On the plus side, the work day is only five hours or so during the month of fasting. Most offices close early so people can run a few errands and get home by sunset. And the iftar feasts are fabulous. But woe unto the driver who waits until the last minute and gets stuck in traffic.
"At four (o'clock) the highways are choked, and everyone leans on the horn," she reports. Everybody on the road is suffering from the same "low blood sugar headache from fasting, uncomfortable thirst and, in many cases, a desperate desire for nicotine." Fistfights at traffic lights break out on a regular basis, she says.
The traditional way to break the Ramadan fast is with a glass of water and a date. But five or six Camel Lights looks like the most popular option for the patio gang.
When we were seated, our waitress offered us menus, but we opted for the buffet. This turned out to be a mistake. The entire buffet consisted of the eggplant dish, which we had already tried, chicken thigh korma, rice palaw, chicken tandoori comprised entirely of miniature drumsticks, and a boring chicken noodle soup. The best part of the meal was a hot-out-of-the-oven Afghani nan.
The entertainment consisted of a television set tuned to an Afghani station broadcasting from Southern California. I especially liked a program of hypnotic music and whirling dervishes rotating endlessly in their flowing white garments. There were a lot of commercials for California Afghani restaurants, too.
I highly recommend Afghan Tandoori King for lunch or as a place to break your Ramadan fast. Just don't fall for the bargain buffet deal -- order from the menu.
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