Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

Afghani Food in Fremont

I decided it was time to go visit “Little Afghanistan”. The Northern California city of Fremont is home to the largest lubnah-2a1Afghan community in America. The impulse to drive there was prompted by two things.

First: In 1999 I had spent five weeks visiting other silk route countries but because of its relative isolation and civil war, I had not visited Afghanistan. It is the most remote and tribal of the old trade route countries. I wondered if Afghan food was simpler or showed influences of neighboring Uzbekistan or Pakistan.

Second: I just finished reading two books set in Afghanistan and the discussion of food gave me the urge to eat fresh naan bread and lamb pilau.

Fremont Ave. in the Centerville District of Fremont would not be worth a second glance if you didn’t know what you were searching for. Several Turkish carpet stores, one theater displaying Indian movie posters and a few food markets with Middle Eastern names huddle in the 37400 block.

The Mainwand Market is large and houses multiple shelves of packaged spices, custard mixes and 60 bins of dried legumes, beans and nuts. In the open butcher shop, men worked on whole hanging carcasses. One corner was dominated by a huge flat screen TV tuned to a show recounting recent political changes in Afghanistan, narrated in English. The volume was at the highest level and competed with the blare of Middle Eastern music from the video-CD counter at the other side of the store.

I looked through the frozen and refrigerated cases but saw no dumplings or savory pastry turnovers that Afghans use as feast foods. They had no fresh naan (bread), but I could smell it baking somewhere close by so I looked further.

I found the naan and a bit of cultural exchange in a smaller market down the street. Pamir Market has a small selection of household goods like china and aluminum pots. They sell food stuff typical to modern Afghani cuisine which means dried and packaged products from India, Pakistan, Iran and other neighboring countries. Afghanistan has only 12% arable land and cultivates just 6%. Much of that cultivation today is in opium poppies.

The shop owner and his son were having breakfast in the back of the market. They ate fresh naan with honey and green tea. I greeted them and asked about traditional dumplings. “Ah… they are called Mantu. Well, I have them in the freezer when my mother-in-law or my wife makes them. But we are going on vacation soon to Toronto. They will make them when we come back.”

I asked if there is a large Afghan population in Toronto. “Oh yes… everywhere in the world. I would say there are 2 or 3 countries without Afghans. I have even gotten calls from South Africa. Everywhere. During the war in 1997 many left.”

I asked about the fresh Syrian cheese in his dairy case. Do they add it to dishes and cook or just put it on the table. “We don’t cook with cheese. It is eaten at breakfast or lunch. Maybe at 4:00 you have cheese and bread with tea.” And what of the labne (thick yogurt), I asked. In Greece they top labne with olive oil, salt and pepper and dip into it with bread. “No, we set it in bowls on the table. It is very good with special rice. Just put it on top”.

This was consistent with what I remembered from my silk route trip. A bowl of fresh yogurt was presented like a condiment with each meal. While other silk route countries had flatbreads they called naan, this Afghani bread was exceptionally large. I asked to buy some to accompany the Syrian cheese and labne already in my hands. The shop owner’s son selected a warm, three-foot long slab of dimpled flat bread cooling next to the large oven in the back room. Naan is the true staff of life in Afghan villages where people often have only such bread and tea for almost every meal.

I asked the owner to show me the tea he prefers. I expected him to pick one of the plastic bags of loose leaves with a simple printed label. Instead he offered me a can of Twinings Gunpowder Green Tea. “This is the very best tea. One teaspoon in a small pot. Use very hot boiling water. Let it sit for the count of ten. Pour the tea into the cup, and back into the pot at once. Again, pour the tea into the cup, and return it to the pot. Do this three times. The fourth time you drink it. Afghans use lots of sugar.”

Next door to the Pamir Market I found my lunch spot for lamb Pilau (rice dish). The restaurant Salang Pass was busy with ethnically mixed groups of office workers. I thought this appropriate for a country centered on the old trade routes between the East and West. The lunch menu has simple vegetarian main dishes based on potatoes, legumes and eggplant. There are nine types of kebobs and stews, six appetizers, broth soups and salads. I ordered a salad and Qabili Pilau, Afghanistan’s national dish of baked brown rice with lamb and raisins.

The pilau was served as a mound of moist, lightly seasoned rice with three large pieces of braised lamb embedded in it. The braising liquid had been absorbed by the rice. An Afghan would scoop up the rice and meat with a piece of naan without using utensils. Like the other diners in the restaurant I used my fork and knife. A couple of times I caught myself holding a utensil in my “unclean left hand” and out of respect for my host country quickly changed it.

On each table were several condiments. An orange-red puree of red bell peppers with honey was slightly hot with chilies. I particularly enjoyed using the complex garlicky-tangy cilantro sauce (recipe below) to spark up the pilau. Afghanistan is a Muslim country so I drank only ice water with my lunch.

Although I wouldn’t rush back to the Afghan area of Fremont it was delightful to chat with the shop owner. And I enjoyed the naan, Syrian cheese and labne with Afghani cilantro sauce. I took these home to my back deck where I could enhance them with a glass of white wine, making this an even more global experience.

Coriander Sauce

Coriander sauce is a tart, tangy condiment that is spooned over grilled kebabs, chops, and chicken. This version is a permanent fixture on the Afghan table. Similar sauces are found as far east as India and as far west as the Republic of Georgia. Walnuts help thicken and bind the sauce.
Fresh cilantro, stemmed (about 1 cup loosely packed leaves)

3 Garlic cloves, peeled
1 Jalapeno, or other hot pepper, seeded
1/2 cup Walnut pieces
1/3 cup Fresh lemon juice OR white vinegar
1 tsp Salt, or to taste
1/2 tsp Freshly grated black pepper
1/4 tsp Ground cumin, (optional)
2 Tbl Water, up to 4, or as needed

Combine the cilantro, garlic, chili, and walnuts in a blender or food processor. Add lemon juice, salt, pepper, and cumin (if using) and process to a smooth paste. Add enough water to obtain a pourable paste.

Taste for seasoning, adding salt and lemon juice as necessary; the sauce should be highly seasoned. Serve within 4 hours of making to preserve the color. Serve at room temperature.
Makes about 1 cup.

The Syrian cheese and the labne are both made by Karoun Dairies in Sun Valley, California. The cheese is a fresh, pressed curds with a salted milk flavor and rubbery texture. The labne is rich, smooth and truly addictive.

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.

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