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My Dinner in Kabul

A journalist went to Kabul expecting to see suffering, and he did. But he also found magnificent music, real hospitality and (most surprisingly) abundant food.

The Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in Kabul. Photograph by Aulfat Rizai.

The Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in Kabul. Photo: Aulfat Rizai. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I did not go to Afghanistan for the food. In fact, I went there thinking that one bonus of my visit — the primary purpose of which was humanitarian and journalistic — would be the shedding of a few unwanted pounds. Let us be frank: Cuisine is not usually uppermost in the mind of a country devastated by war, hunger and injustice. I thought that winter rations in Kabul were likely to be grim, and I stuffed my suitcase with high-protein Odwalla bars, a jar of almond butter and some Scharffen Berger chocolate that a friend gave me for good luck.

This all happened in February, when Kabul was very much a closed shop. You could get there only by taking a United Nations-operated flight from Islamabad. The city had by that time sustained a minor invasion of journalists and government workers, but there were no facilities for tourists, and it was quite a disorienting place to be. The best hotel in town, the Intercontinental, was one of the worst hotels I’ve ever seen: The ceilings were stained and falling in; the carpeting was threadbare and curiously moist, and seemed to sustain a variety of insect life; there was seldom any electricity and almost never any hot water.

I’d arranged to stay at an old al Qaeda house that some friends had rented in the fashionable Wazir Akbar Khan area, where we had full-time translators and drivers. (For security reasons, journalists had been told not to go out unescorted.) I had heard that we would have a cook as well, and I mostly felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to run around town trying to scrape up food. I had a big meal on my last night in Pakistan, and prepared for the worst.

Dinner my first night in Kabul, however, was a revelation. We had spicy little meatballs in rich sauce, a wonderful rice dish, crisp fried potato cakes and delicious fresh Afghan bread. When I expressed astonishment, a friend explained that we had nabbed the best chef in Kabul, and that everyone who came to dinner at our house tried to poach him away. Qudratullah arrived every day at 7 am to make us breakfast, produced a hot lunch for us at midday and prepared dinner for us every night.

One wonder of wintertime Kabul was the markets. In this ruined city, the stalls, surrounded by Taliban-era graffiti on bullet-pocked walls, held a profusion of local foodstuffs: pomegranates and oranges, and all sorts of nuts and dried fruits, and fresh meat (sometimes disorientingly fresh), and spices and grains in sacks, and for some reason a lot of cauliflower, and the largest and most vividly colored carrots I’ve ever seen (some nearly purple), and eggplants and onions and potatoes, and different kinds of sweets. While the greatest assortment could be found in the food bazaar near the river, I saw rich displays even in the poorest neighborhoods. People had no electricity, no plumbing, no heating, sometimes no roof, but they had food.

Qudratullah was able to get the best ingredients, and when friends would stop by, there was always enough to eat; he had an Afghan capacity to expand meals to accommodate whoever came. So it seemed natural, when a few musicians I’d met volunteered to play a little concert just for me, that I invite them to dinner at our house, where we had not only excellent food, but also that rarer Kabul commodity, heat, in this case from a wood stove. The ensemble, they told me, would include 11 musicians; I said they’d all be welcome. They would be playing Afghan classical music on instruments that were forbidden and lost during the Taliban years: the sarinda, the rabab and the richak, as well as Indian drums and the sitar, and always the harmonium.

Then I had a typical Kabul journalist day. I stopped by UNESCO and discovered that my contact there was planning a music festival (but had yet to meet any musicians), so I invited him to our concert. I checked in with Marla, the blond liberal who was staying at the Agence France-Presse house, and I invited her and her translator, who had done a favor for me the day before. I invited all the people who worked at our house — translators, guards and so on. Scott from Newsweek said he thought Antonia from German TV might like to come, and I was very pleased. And when some people from the Washington Post stopped by, we thought it would be a mistake not to include them. I invited a filmmaker I’d interviewed the day before. And so the numbers began to creep up.

When I told the cook we had company coming, he said he’d need some extra money to buy food and some more extra money to buy plates and a bit of further extra money to get someone in to help in the kitchen. I said I thought there would be about 30 of us, and I gave him $200.

My estimate, it turned out, was wildly off. Between the musicians and the house staff and some other people we’d met, we had a good 20 or so Afghans; plus the foreigners had all brought friends. By the time we had a dinner, at about 7:30, there were between 50 and 60 people. Qudratullah, praise be upon him, produced enough food so that all were handsomely fed. We had qabeli pilau, Afghanistan’s national dish, a sweet rice pilaf; roast leg of mutton, cooked until it was falling off the bone; roast chicken; borani, a flavorful eggplant dish made with yogurt and garlic; sabzi qorma, an Iranian dish of meat stewed with spinach; salad; and firni, an Afghan pudding made with cornstarch. Of course we had flat Afghan bread. The sweetness of the pilau offset the savory mutton; like many rice dishes, this one offered texture overlaid with flavor, somewhere between rice and rice pudding. The borani was refreshing and pungent, with the heady garlic right up against the sour yogurt, all muted by the rich eggplant. The sabzi qorma was lovely, neither stringy nor tough; the spinach flavor went into the meat and countered its slight gaminess. I was a rapid convert to the firni, though it got its taste mostly from decorative pistachios. The overall effect was a little Middle Eastern and a little Indian, as one might suspect from Afghanistan’s location. The most distinctive flavor, in all the meat dishes, was a spice that tasted like coriander — I was never able to get the full details about it.

The musicians played magnificently, and people began dancing. In Afghanistan, women and men don’t socialize together; even at a wedding, there are separate halls for women and men. Our Afghan guests, all men, showed us how they dance in a circle. The Westerners joined in, and also showed the Afghans how Western men and women dance together (at the party there perhaps 10 women). The music got more and more exuberant.

“My goodness,” said the UNESCO operative. “There is music in Afghanistan after all. I will have a festival, I will!”

“Why not eat more? There is more!” said my translator, Farouk. “Let’s eat until every plate is clean!”

“Do you think this is getting out of control?” asked Scott from Newsweek, who had official responsibility for the house. I had to admit it was.

At 9, someone showed up with a bottle of whisky, which in a Muslim country, where the law forbids alcohol, was the equivalent of showing up with pot at an American party. There was a lot of giggling, and a few of the Afghans made rapid progress toward inebriation. The next morning, I was to teach my translator the word hangover.

There is a 10 pm curfew in Kabul, so at 9:30 we reminded our guests to leave. But the musicians lived too far away to get home in time, so they stayed over. They played and played. As midnight approached, the instruments fell silent, one by one; but the sitar player kept faith by playing his delicate, mesmerizing rhythms on into the small hours. We sat transfixed.

A year ago — even a few months ago — it would have been unthinkable to throw a party in Kabul. The situation was sober and sad. But though the city bears the terrible scars of its recent history, it is full of people longing, at last, for a little bit of pleasure. The Afghans were so pleased that we liked their food and music; it seemed that we were accomplishing a diplomatic purpose simply by eating pilau and borani, by dancing to the sarinda and rabab and the richak. Afghan hospitality is legendary, and one of the things that was painful to many Afghans about their country’s war-torn state was that they had no opportunity to extend their hospitality to foreigners. I went to Afghanistan ready for hardship, and I did see horrible things, but I also felt a warmth, an embrace, and a sense of pride that lay not only in the reform of government, but also in the return to these small satisfactions, so long denied, now so easily and openly and generously shared.