A sophisticated taste of Afghanistan

On your right as you walk into Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant in Pasadena, a tapestry weaves a scene of Bushkazi, Afghanistan’s national sport, a sort of polo played with a decapitated goat carcass. On the wall on your left, a photograph shows players on their galloping mounts. (You can’t see the goat draped over a horse’s withers — a good thing for diners at the table beside the print.)

My dining companion on my first trip to Azeen’s had spent some time in war-time Afghanistan and had memories of a Bushkazi match, and of eating goat, though he assured me the goat on his plate was not the goat from the match. But on Azeen’s menu, we discovered a distinct lack of goat. What we found instead was a sophisticated sampling of Afghanistan’s cuisine, which shares many spices of Indian cooking — saffron, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and coriander — and meat-cooking methods of Persia.

The appetizer selection was so tempting, we opted to try as many as possible, ordering entree platters made up of three appetizers each.

Aushak, which is said to be one of the most popular dishes in the country, is leek and scallion dumplings, steamed and topped with yogurt, mint and a savory meat sauce that any Italian grandma would envy. The yogurt and red sauce were a perfect accompaniment to the strong leek taste.

Next to it on the plate was bulanee, a deep-fried turnover filled with leek, scallions and herbs. A vinegary mint sauce spooned on top gave the thin triangles an interesting zing — handy because the filling was underwhelming.

Sambosas, featured on two of the platters, are fat little fried wonders, filled with chickpeas and ground beef, sizzling and satisfying and much like the samosas you may know from Indian cuisine.

Pakawra-e-Badenjan is as fun to eat as it is to say. Batter-dipped and sauteed eggplant slices come as a crisp shell over the tender veggie flesh and covered with that revelatory combination of yogurt and meat sauce.

The star of the appetizer offerings is mantu. Who knew the world’s best ravioli might hail from Afghanistan? What look like unappetizing little lumps of dumpling covered with yogurt and carrots and peas are a surprising riot of flavors and textures. The dumplings are filled with savory ground beef, onions and herbs. Were the peas and tiny cubes of carrots frozen? Could be. But I’m still a fan. Mantu comes as an entree as well. I’ll be back for that.

For our next visit, we ventured into the entree section, which offers stews, kabobs and six vegetarian offerings.

Qabili Pallaw comes to the table looking like a Halloween special, with its coating of grated carrots sprinkled with raisins. Under the orange and purple you’ll find a mound of basmati rice, savory and sweet with a hint of cinnamon and cardamon. Fall-apart-tender pieces of lamb hide under the rice, but they’re surprisingly bland. After trying the juicy, spiced beef kabob, I wished I’d ordered the lamb in kabob form. The Kabob-e-Tika is served on savory rice.

Kadu, sauteed butternut squash, comes with white basmati rice as a vegetarian entree. We tried it as a side dish, the sweet, tender squash covered with yogurt and — here’s why we opted for the non-vegetarian version — the wonderful red meat sauce. I’m starting to think yogurt and meat sauce could make even okra appetizing.

Azeen’s offers three desserts, but the best-sounding, fried pastry dipped in sugar syrup, wasn’t available. Afghan tea with cardamom is a nice finish to an Azeen’s meal. It gives you time to study the richly hued tapestries and murals of the mountainous Afghan countryside that cover the walls. And to wonder when you might see a match of Bushkazi.

REBECCA BRYANT is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and Caribbean Travel & Life.


What: Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant

Where: 110 E. Union St., Pasadena

Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:30-2 p.m.; daily, 5:30-9:30 p.m.

Prices: Lunch menu: Appetizers $4.90, sides $3.90, entrees $7.90 to $12.90; Dinner menu: Appetizers and sides $5.50 to $6.50, entrees $13.90 to $21.90

Info and contact: azeensafghanirestaurant.com and (626) 683-3310

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