Afghans, as everybody knows, are famous for their hospitality. Mehmon is like God. By now, Mohammad considers me as his brother. He doesn’t let me pay at restaurants. And I also get an invitation from his girlfriend to attend her cousin’s wedding.
I had some time in between meetings. So we went to chicken street. Mohammad doesn’t know why it is has that funny name. There are no chickens here anyways. The street is perhaps the only shopping location for visitors. Dryfruits, pakhols (the Massoud cap), handicrafts, antiques, furniture and, of course, carpets and fine hookahs. Walk into a shop and you are immediately transported to Arabian Nights. We got talking to a carpet seller, Hamid. He says business is erratic. Everyone is waiting for Christmas. That is when the scores of foreigners working here head home bearing chicken street baubles. But he is not optimistic this year. People are scared to walk about freely. A market crowded with foreigners sounds like a juicy target for terrorists.
As we leave, he invites us for lunch. Almost insists.
I had been wanting to have shorba ever since I landed in Kabul. Finally managed to have it. Shorba is one of the traditional and most commonly eaten dish by the aam aadmi. Mohammad takes me to this hole in the wall where an almost hidden staircase takes us to a small joint. Upstairs there are only two tables. The rest of the space is carpet seating. This is a favourite with taxi drivers. Mainly because it is cheap and almost like home-cooked.
As we climb up Mohammad says, `My dad had asked me to bring you home. My mom makes very good shorba and that is also my dad’s favourite,’’ he says. Unfortunately, we have a meeting. So it is a restaurant shorba for me.
The restaurant serves shorba and also Uzbeki and Tajik food. They mention it on the board. An Uzbek special is mantu. It is like the ubiquitous momos that you find in Delhi. But the beef inside tastes gently roasted. And then there is a touch of sour cream on top. I had it the other day. So we skip mantu. I wanted to have chapli kabab; literally slipper kabab. But they don't have it here.
The shorba arrives; in a small aluminium pot nestling in a blue-green porcelain bowl. It is scalding hot. It has to be eaten with naan-e-khashq, the popular local bread. The waiter has brought two large ones. Mohammad orders palao. He prefers rice.
He shows me how to eat shorba. Break the naan into small pieces and leave them in the bowl. Then you take out the boney meat pieces and keep them aside. He pours the entire gravy and the rest of the pieces over the bread pieces. The aroma spreads. The Afghans certainly know how to cook meat. The gravy-soaked bread and soft meat melt away in your mouth, leaving only the after taste of onions and traces of tomato. Very little water is used in shorba. The meat is allowed to cook in its own juices. No pungency of spice.
The last time I had something similar was in Hyderabad several years ago; when the walk was languid, vehicles never flew over, the Irani chai was thick and the mutton paaya thin. You could have paaya and bread in a little joint at Lakdi ka pul on a chilly winter morning and wonder about the Afghan connection. It was worthwhile. Hyderabad has since become Cyberabad. But today it is besieged. Kabul has not known anything else in decades. Good food, perhaps, is a daily balm. Don’t know how many people in this country can afford it, though.