Dining Out: Afghani Kabob Express
Afghani Kabob Express
Address: 249 Bank St., 613-593-8880, afghanikabobexpress.ca
Open: Daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: wraps $5.99 and $6.99, platters $8.99 to 17.99
Access: one step to front door
For those who regard at least some meals out as culinary journeys abroad, I have two words: “boolani” and “mantoo.”
Maybe you’ve tried these dishes the last time you were in Kabul, or were treated to them fresh from your Pashto neighbour’s kitchen. I sampled them for the first time when I recently visited the latest fast-food counter to hit 249 Bank St.
Boolani, a veggie-stuffed flatbread, has become my latest craving. Mantoo, a dish of meat-filled dumplings, prompted a bit of research about the culinary history associated with Silk Road trading — even if I like it less than I like boolani.
Sorry. I’ve got ahead of myself. Both of these dishes are available at Afghani Kabob Express, which opened four months ago where, previously, Lebanese shawarma shops were open for business.
Perhaps you think that a kabob is a kabob is a kabob, and that it doesn’t matter if the chef came from Beirut, Lebanon, or Istanbul, Turkey (almost 1,000 km northwest), or Kabul, Afghanistan (more than 3,000 km east). I would elaborate on the national differences between kabobs, but would need a side-by-side comparison first. Until then, all I can say that Afghani Kabob Express grills some fine examples, using lamb, chicken and beef, either cubed or ground and then threaded on to large skewers to be grilled à la minute. The meats I’ve had — halal in all cases — have emerged tender and flavourful. Of the restaurant’s meaty offerings, only a braised lamb shank ($12.99) let me down — tender it was, but underseasoned too, and lacking the benefits of a preliminary sear. That said, you’re generally paying about double the price for a comparable but more upscale dish at an Ottawa bistro.
The no-frills eatery lives to the “express” part of its name. One of the friendly women at the cash or the cook in the ball cap takes your order and a few minutes later, you’re tucking into the meat accompanied by rice, fresh salad and sturdy Afghani naan bread, or, if you’ve a smaller appetite, wrapped in a grilled pita with lettuce for about half the price.
At this time of the year, if you’re eating “for here” rather than “to go,” you’re probably feeling a little bit chilly, too. If you’re like me, you opt for the warmest part of the 40-seater restaurant, at the back, surrounded by Afghan carpets on the wall.
While the rice and salad on the kabob platters aren’t bad, the meats strike me as what you write home about — the wraps, accordingly, are better deals. I’d divert the difference to try one of the stewy side dishes of chicken, beef or eggplant qorma, which are more simple, tomato-based and oilier than the richer, nuttier kormas of Indian restaurants.
More intriguing still are the mantoo and boolani. Mantoo are steamed dumplings — think ravioli or won ton, if you must — stuffed with mildly spiced ground beef, topped with diced carrots, peas, lentils, a yogurt sauce, a dusting of sumac. It’s an interesting dish, although, for me, more interesting than how it tastes is what it suggests about the migration of dishes and recipes over the centuries. The Oxford Companion To Food notes the similarities and discrepancies between the Central Asian mantoo, the Tibetan momo and the Chinese mantou — that’s not to mention Korean mandoo — and speculates that the proto-dumplings that started it all “probably originated in Central Asia rather than China itself.” But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that according to Chinese legend dating back 1,800 or so years, mantou was the name given to a kind of filled bun in China. I await a dumpling scholar’s treatise to sort all of this out.
What I can unequivocally state is that Afghani Kabob Express makes some delicious boolani. The spinach-and-leek-filled rendition of the flatbread is crisp and flaky on the outside, warm and savoury inside, served with a thick, tangy minted yogurt for dipping. There’s also a potato-and-onion version of boolani that I’m keen to try, but on two return visits, neither of the boolanis was available. Two families came and bought most of them one day, I was told. Best to call first to avoid boolani-based disappointment, I was also told.
Given my new boolani fixation, I might have to put the restaurant on my speed-dial list.
If a meal feels incomplete without dessert, your options here include ferni, a simple, slightly sweet custard topped with ground pistachio, or small bites of baklava.
They are humble and even sub-$2 endings to an equally unpretentious dinner, that for all its lack of airs and fanciness is connected to food as it has been eaten for centuries on the other side of the world.