Hospitality is a cornerstone of Afghan culture. In Farsi, it is referred to as mehmaan nawazi, roughly “guest-pampering.”
Afghan families of even the most humble means will offer whatever they have to make guests feel special. By tradition, a guest is even thought to be a gift from God — akin to the sacred.
Mehmaan nawazi truly is an art form, and if you’re looking for a taste of this, a visit to Ariana Authentic Afghan Cuisine, in downtown Kirkland is in order. The restaurant offers a variety of intricate dishes from Afghanistan.
To prepare correctly, Afghan food is very time-consuming and requires numerous ingredients that aren’t easy to come by, making this place a very valuable addition to the Eastside.
Launched earlier this year, the restaurant is already earning admiration in the neighborhood from locals who have never tried Afghan cuisine before. But Ariana is particularly popular with soldiers returning from deployment in Afghanistan who want more of the food they’ve tried overseas.
“People are curious. They’ve heard so much about Afghanistan, but they’ve never seen the food,” said one of three owners, Arien Shoa, of the restaurant’s new customer base. “We want to change the topic and just talk about food now.”
Situated at the junction between Iran and India, and bordering China, Pakistan and Central Asia, Afghanistan was once an important stop along the Silk Road. Those adjacent cultures didn’t fail to leave their mark on Afghan food. The various qurmas (curry dishes) are reminiscent of India. The heavy use of yogurt and fragrant meats has the mark of Turkey. A steamed dumpling dish, mantu, filled with ground beef, onion and an amazing concoction of spices, is evocative of Chinese dumplings.
The restaurant’s namesake “Ariana” refers to the empire that ruled over what is today parts of Iran, India and Afghanistan. The restaurant aims to recreate the complicated and distinct flavors of that region.
“The Afghan side has a little kick to it,” said Shoa. “It’s something in between, which makes it very unique.”
Indeed, the smells of spices — a blend of saffron, mint and coriander — hits you well before you reach the door.
In a traditional Afghan home, there are two living rooms. One is furnished with sofas, and the other with decorative, mattress seats reserved for guests who prefer to sit on the floor. Ariana also provides this option for customers. A space is furnished with thick, ornate Afghan rugs, on top which the floor spread, known as the destarkhan, is placed.
“We want to provide the real Afghan dining experience,” said Shoa.
The family-run business is a joint venture between Shoa, a project manager at Boeing, and his two brother-in-laws, Said Sajady and Abdul Muradi, who have prior experience in running restaurants.
Shoa, whose family immigrated to the United States in 1991, said he had a passion for cooking and business management, alongside building airplanes. After 17 years of mulling over the idea, Ariana came to fruition, first as a catering business, and then as a restaurant as demand grew.
“Sooner or later, I needed to meet my dream,” said Shoa, who believes there’s an untapped market for Afghan food in the Seattle area.
If you’ve never tried Afghan food before, the lunchtime buffet for $11.95 is a great way to preview many dishes and get an introduction. The draft menu currently has more than 20 dishes, but changes daily.
The qabuli palau, the most renowned of Afghan dishes, is a fancy heaping of Basmati rice cooked in a gravy of browned onions, whole spices and the juices of succulent lamb. After several stages of cooking, the rice is lavishly embellished with julienned carrots and sometimes nuts.
Rice is a major staple in Afghan food and just as Italians are very particular about their pastas, as Shoa put it, Afghans are very picky about the quality of their rice. The rice at Ariana undergoes several stages of cooking until it reaches the correct taste and quality. It is delivered from New York, boiled overnight, slow cooked until it reaches a certain temperature, cooked in a meat stew and, finally, has organic spices, such as cumin and saffron added. It is very important that the rice remains long-grain and is not sticky or broken.
Of the many kabob dishes served, the kubida kabob, a charbroiled ground beef skewer, is seasoned to perfection and not too dry. Be sure to also try out the chutney and the doogh, a refreshing yogurt drink seasoned with dry mint.
Vegetarian and gluten-free options include several qurmas of okra, spinach and eggplant. Ashak — a boiled dumpling filled with chives and topped with a minty yogurt and tomato sauce — is another alternative.
“We get really excited when people learn about the food and enjoy it,” said Shoa. “We love to have guests. Guests bring the light to the house. At home, people don’t call; they just knock the door and show up. This is the environment we wanted.”
Ariana Authentic Afghan Cuisine is located on 21 Central Way in Kirkland, Wash. Lunch buffet is served daily from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day.