When my friend Kathleen invited me to a Afghan Cuisine and Banquet Hall in Federal Way, the first image that popped into my head was of the ubiquitous Afghan restaurants in Peshawar, Pakistan, where I lived before I came to Seattle.
Millions of Afghan refugees fled to Northwest Pakistan after the Soviet War in the 80s, and another wave came after 9/11 and the US invasion. When they came to Peshawar, they brought their culinary skills with them and started setting up restaurants.
Instead of individual tables, the restaurants only have one huge slab of concrete or wood, where the customers sit down together, eat and chat. As you walk into the restaurant and sit down, the waiter runs his fingers through his long grey beard and, fixing a towel slung over one of his shoulders, walks up and says in Pashtu ‘Sa Haal De’ – ‘what’s up?’
He rattles the menu off from memory, takes orders immediately, and then rushes back to the kitchen where a chubby chef will be waiting.
The scene at Afghan Cuisine and Banquet Hall, tucked away on Pacific Hwy South in Federal Way, was not quite the same as my memories of Peshawar. But there were a few hints of nostalgia.
Ali Ahmed is the go-to guy if you want to know about Afghan barbecue. It’s actually one of the simpler dishes in his repertoire, but the spice-crusted chicken, with a combination of creamy yogurt, pungent garlic, and smoky pepper flakes has made the Afghans undisputed grill masters for years.
In general, Afghan food is like a cross between Turkish and Indian cuisine. As I started to work my way through the menu, I was told the bolani, a Naan like bread with filling and two dipping sauces, mint and yogurt, was the best place to start. Then on to a beef or chicken kebab.
They also make a great lamb dish with special rice made with raisins and carrots called qabili pilao (for the city of Kabul). It’s the crown of Afghan cooking, traditionally served to special guests or on special occasions like weddings.
So how does the food compare to the Afghan joints in Peshawar?
Well, it may not be perfectly authentic, but I must admit Ali Ahmad’s kebab tastes better. It’s not the oversized greasy beef kebab of Peshawar that is fried in bone marrow or lard, so you probably won’t need to drink as many cups of sugar-free green tea after eating to push the sticky layer of greasy food down.
Afghan chefs take great pride in their cooking. It’s not about exact measurements. The ingredients and amounts of all of spices can be adjusted to suit individual tastes and no two Afghan chefs prepare the same dish exactly the same. It’s this creativity that contributes to the wonderful flavor.
Dishes at Afghan Cuisine and Banquet Hall are a little more pricey than the two or three dollars I was used to paying back home, but at $8-$14 for an entree, it’s still reasonable.
The restaurant is at 31140 Pacific Hwy South, Federal Way, just northwest of 1-5 exit 143.