The interior of Ariana Afghan Kebab House (787 Ninth Avenue; 212-262-2323) is small but comfortable. Richly colored tapestries and iconic photos (including the since-destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan) hang above dark wainscoting. About a dozen tables line both walls of the slender room, and owner Rafi (who prefers to go by just his first name) weaves throughout them, chatting and, possibly, dancing (more on that in a few) with guests.
If you want to know more about the food, Rafi will walk you through the menu. Ask him about the kadoo bolanee ($5), fried pumpkin turnovers served with dill-scented yogurt sauce, and he’ll respond, “You’re gonna love it.”
Pumpkin, or calabash squash, is a staple in Afghan cuisine. Given the large vegetarian population, items like cauliflower, eggplant, spinach, okra, and potatoes are found throughout an array of dishes. Somewhat similar to the kadoo bolanee, spinach samusas ($4) incorporate spinach, garlic, and spices into a homemade dumpling before going into a fryer. Order both and you’ll get two chutneys, a spicy cilantro-based green one and a slightly milder and sweeter red-pepper version.
Vegetarian curries ($14 to $20) are another staple of the fare. Ingredients like eggplant, potato, pumpkin, and okra are slowly simmered with fresh tomatoes, herbs, and salt and pepper. Unlike more familiar forms of curry, the Afghan rendition uses only fresh ingredients, no powders or dried spices. Here, each one is served with brown basmati rice and a small salad.
The menu at Ariana focuses on dishes most Afghans eat on a regular basis. That’s why you’ll find so many vegetarian options. “It’s a mostly vegetarian country,” says Rafi. “I’m not sure how it is now, but it was when I was there.” Still, meat is available, in many cases for special occasions. Aushak ($7 for a small app, $15 for the meal) is one of those dishes. Most commonly found at engagement parties, weddings, and other celebratory events, it’s an Afghan boiled dumpling filled with leeks and spices, topped with a yogurt and meaty tomato sauce with a hint of dried mint.
Kebabs, the namesake dish of the restaurant, are another special-occasion meal. Lamb shish kebab ($18) is the most popular, with delicately seasoned tender leg meat broiled with onions and peppers, then served with brown rice and salad. In Afghanistan, it’s most frequently found in restaurants and outdoor food stalls. “You find a woman or a man and go out for kebab,” says Rafi. “Kebab is something you eat in the summer for a barbecue or in the park, when people’s friends get together.”
With much of the fare based on rice, wheat, and other grains, chalow — parboiled then baked rice — is a big part of the cuisine. At Ariana, you’ll find variations like the quorma chalow ($15), chicken stewed with onions, green peppers, and tomatoes with the simple chalow-style rice. Palows, one the other hand, are more intricate, focusing more on flavoring the actual rice with meat, stock, spices, or herbs. The most common is Kabuli palow ($16), the national dish of the country. White basmati rice is cooked in a broth that renders it brown; it’s then baked and served atop stewed lamb (or beef, here), then finished with julienned carrots, raisins, almonds, and pistachios. Again, ask Rafi about this dish, and he’s sure to respond, “People love it.”
Finish the meal off with firnee ($5), a time-honored custard scented with cardamom and topped with almonds and pistachios.
Aside from the authentic Afghan cuisine, this place is worth a visit for Rafi alone. If it’s slow enough, he’ll walk you through the menu of dishes you need to know. And if you get lucky, you just might get a show. On a visit during one of the recent storms, Rafi and some regulars turned the dining room into an impromptu dance floor to the sound of Afghan tunes.
New York has residents from just about every country in the world, and many of them have opened restaurants dedicated to their homeland’s cuisine. We’re celebrating the resulting diversity of this city’s dining scene by eating around the globe, from A to Z, without leaving the city limits. Every week, we’ll be hunting down a restaurant that represents a different country, from Afghanistan all the way to Zimbabwe, and everywhere in between.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.