Day 70: Afghanistan
I’m feeling pretty self absorbed. I’ve been going out every day eating food from a different country, and doing so has created a schedule that makes the lives of everyone around me incredibly inconvenienced. Then, to top things off, the next morning I write about what I’ve been doing. So it already feels like me, me, me all the time, which is strange enough as it is. But today, to thrust my self absorption up to potentially catastrophic levels, I’m having lunch at an Afghani restaurant and eating the food while being interviewed by NPR for their show Day to Day. So what does that mean? Well, for starters, it means there is a microphone pointed at my face, literally two inches from my mouth, making sure to pick up every possible sound of me chewing. Then it pulls back slightly so that I can babble about what the food is like right after I eat it. It kind of feels like I’m playing Anthony Bourdain dress up.
I arrive at Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant in Pasadena with two extremely nice and delightful people: Andy, a producer for the show (who is also a real live Brit) and Alex, the reporter. So essentially, Andy is holding the recording equipment, which includes a long directional microphone that he points back and fourth while Alex asks questions and I do my best not to come off sounding like a jerk. Meanwhile, dishes are being served, we’re eating lunch and even our server gets to answer a few questions and talk about the food. We’ve placed the ordering in the hands of the restaurant’s stoic owner, Abdul, who informs us that lamb will be very prominently involved. That alone makes Andy very happy. “My wife hates the stuff. Can’t even stand being in the house while it’s cooking. So I only get to order it at restaurants.”
But there is one thing that is making this whole being-interviewed-while-I-eat process really simple and also quite a lot of fun: the food is outstanding. Kadu, sautéed butternut squash topped with a yogurt and lamb sauce takes the orange plant to a new level. It’s savory, tart, amazingly accessible and very hard not to like. But it doesn’t stop there. Battered eggplant, fried crispy, but soft inside, leads to Alex and I talking about how much it reminds us of the Italian version, all while Andy, with headphones on and holding the microphone, nods silently and happily off to the side. Even their version of samosas, which are like big fried, crispy wontons, stand out for their excellence and execution. Meanwhile, mantu, steamed beef dumplings covered with yogurt and vegetables, is another example of what yogurt can do to tie a dish together, and leads to me rambling on about how yogurt isn’t truly appreciated in the United States and that most people from this country think it can only be purchased in “corn starch” or “strawberry”. But I must be saying something right, since Andy is now nodding with passionate vigor, and as we pause to take a few bites (off the record), he chimes in with excited agreement.
Luckily, my blabbering has now become more natural, apart from the times where I have to turn my head and burp slightly, under my breath. All the while, even more food arrives. Gulpi, a delightful cauliflower dish stewed with tomatoes and onions is yet another treat, and is served alongside a juicy, tender lamb kabob with cardamom infused white rice (cardamom is huge in Afghani cooking, and is even a big component of the black tea we’re drinking). Quabili pallaw, a rice dish turned brown from lamb juice, topped with raisins and shredded carrots and filled with fork tender chunks of lamb, makes Andy especially pleased. “Whoever decided to put carrots on this is a genius.” But in case the food isn’t good enough as it is, there is a green, spicy chutney of vinegar, cilantro and jalapeños which adds an extra punch to any dish you toss it into the ring with. From an execution, quality and just-plain-taste standpoint, this restaurant is incredibly successful. I even have to quote Andy one more time as he sums up the whole meal quite succinctly, saying “I’m converted. This is amazing. If I ever come back to Pasadena I’m eating here.” Poor Pasadena. So much good food, so out of the way.
“Do you want dessert?” asks our lovely waitress Latisia, as Andy puts away the recording equipment. Isn’t that one of those Buddhist questions with no real answer that’s meant to clear your mind? We all sit silently for a moment, unable to speak. Eventually, one of us says yes and a thick, white, rosewater pudding with crumbled pistachios on top is set at the center of the table. Andy hooks the microphone back up, then tries to capture the sound of a spoon traveling through pudding. I’m not so sure that sound will come through, but I take a bite of the pudding anyway and find it to be sweet, creamy and floral with a nice added texture from the crunchy pistachio bits. But the microphone needs a reaction, so I describe it as “What you thought potpourri would taste like when you were a kid, but before you bit in and realized it wasn’t edible.” Then NPR picks up the tab, we shake hands, say our goodbyes and I head home, wondering who that guy was that looked an awful lot like me, sitting in a restaurant, getting a free meal and being interviewed for a national radio broadcast. If anyone finds out, I’d love to know.
Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant
110 E Union St
Pasadena, CA 91103
Food Breakdown: 2 non-alcoholic beverages, 3 appetizers, 2 sides, 2 entrées, 1 dessert
Distance From My House: 19.5 miles