Watching an eyeless drone fly over the rocky highlands of Afghanistan on CNN made me wonder what it might be spotting down there, food-wise. So I rounded up some friends and headed off to Balkh Shish Kabab House, one of the city’s top Afghani restaurants. Ablaze with neon, it bivouacs beneath the elevated N tracks in Astoria. Balkh is the name of a province in far northern Afghanistan that borders Uzbekistan—it was the cradle of the Zoroastrian religion, and most of the population still speaks Persian.
Demonstrating the primacy of meat in the Afghani diet, a refrigerated case just inside the front door features meat sticks marshalled like retreating Soviet troops (and, soon enough, American troops, too). Many of these kebabs feature minced meat ramified with combinations of chopped onions, parsley, and hot peppers. Though beef and lamb constitute 90 percent of the meat horde, chicken and salmon are also available—though it’s difficult to imagine salmon frolicking in the rocky freshets of Balkh. The kebabs sputter and grill over a flickering hearth, which rises behind the meat case like a desolate mountain peak.
The interior of the L-shaped room is hot-pink, lending a warm glow to the tables. The largest, accommodating a dozen or more diners, sits out of sight around the corner—a great place to hide from the drones. There’s plenty to look at on the walls, including a painting of the celebrated Green Mosque, photos of ferocious horsemen, and lots of hand-lettered signs warning you not to bring alcohol into the restaurant. Believe them. The focus of the room is a colorful map like a child’s jigsaw puzzle, showing Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
The appetizers are fabulous. To forestall the coming meat fusillade, your best choices are vegetarian. Don’t miss aushack ($5), dumplings of the sort found all along the Silk Road. These supple dough purses bulge with scallions and come smothered in herbed yogurt and tomato sauce. Another exceptional appetizer is bolanee kadu ($5), small handkerchiefs of flaky pastry folded over an orange pumpkin purée, then deep-fried until they blister. Besides the tomato purée and herbed yogurt, two more sauces sit on the table in jars. The red one contains a major dose of chilies, while the green one glints with finely minced scallions and cilantro. Both contain puckering amounts of white vinegar, which cuts the greasiness of the meat better than Formula 409.
While the flickering hearth may cause you to salivate for charcoal-grilled kebabs, boiled meats are Balkh’s hidden treasure. “Lamb shing” ($9) is a colossal, marrow-oozing shank freighted with lots of tender meat. The recipe seems positively medieval. Enough for two to share, the platter includes a massive drumlin of rice darkened with meat broth, and a simple salad that you should dress with a squeeze of lemon and the aforementioned herbed yogurt, which is provided in a squirt bottle. The shank itself peeps like a sniper from beneath a blanket of shredded carrots and raisins.
Who could resist an entrée described as “laundry (dry meat)”? More commonly transliterated “londi,” the word designates a spiced jerky that is braised with onions to make a stew known as qorma. The version at Balkh is a glorious boil-up of goat parts, including delicate ribs, cubes of rump, and other meat and integuments only a veterinarian could identify. The Afghanis show great enthusiasm for small birds. In contrast to Pakistani restaurants, where quails are rendered tough, but flavorful, in tandoori ovens, the Afghanis prefer to cook them in a rich pink sauce (3 for $15).
Most Aghanis don’t eat grilled kebabs at home; these are more often consumed from street carts or in restaurants that specialize in them, since they require a hearth to be cooked properly. Of the flame-grilled entities, pick the simple keema kebab ($5 individually, $13 entrée), which was obviously the favorite of a large group that sat one evening—the men in embroidered tunics, the women with dark headscarves—at the hidden table. If you like your birds bigger, the chicken kebab, not offered on a sword but roasted in the oven to amber deliciousness, is also wonderful.
Don’t neglect the vegetarian main courses, which have Persian names that identify their culinary origins. Sabzi chalow is a heap of spinach that would make Popeye drool, which is given an earthy flavor with scallions and other herbs. Gulpi is a plate of fresh cauliflower stewed with tomatoes. It won’t set your pants on fire, but is good in a very mellow sort of way.