Afghan Cuisine's Thanksgiving Parallel

The international language of leftovers.

What's the best Thanksgiving food you ever ate? Was it a jiggly jelly turkey, cookie-cut from a tray of chilled cranberry sauce? Was it a green-bean casserole, so hot from the oven that your host insisted on serving it so you wouldn't have to touch the Pyrex dish? Or did you fall hard for a scoop of crusty sage stuffing? I'm guessing no, no, and no. The fondest Thanksgiving food memories are usually forged long after the dishes have been cleared. It's the midnight snack of mashed potatoes and gravy, the next-day lunch of turkey and cranberry sandwiches, the cold slice of pecan pie swiped from the refrigerator after work, and the bubbly turkey Tetrazzini that define Thanksgiving cuisine. Soulful, home-cooked foods—especially those with an avalanche of ingredients—almost always taste better on the second go-round. There are scientific explanations for the phenomenon involving heat and molecules, but the principle is intuitive: Flavors behave like middle-schoolers at a Sadie Hawkins dance. They show up alone, overexcited, and jumpy. As the hours pass, they mellow and mingle. Continents removed from Turkey Day, curries, chilis, and stews likewise improve with time. But my nominee for the dish which benefits most profoundly from a long nap in the refrigerator might be the mantoo at Afghan Cuisine and Banquet Hall, a two-month-old Halal restaurant in Federal Way. The mantoo is pretty bewitching straight from the kitchen. Floppy, tissue-thin dumplings crammed with chopped onions and stupendously rich ground beef, seasoned with garlic and cumin, are smothered with a tomato-based meat sauce studded with lentils. The plate's perimeter is draped with a tangy garlic yogurt that nestles into the crevices between the drooping mantoo. The shebang of meat, vegetables, and legumes is sprinkled with plenty of dried mint and branded with bright sprigs of cilantro. It's an alluring mess of colors and textures, but there's nothing crude about its preparation. Successfully blending so many food groups on a single plate requires a sophistication that keeps mantoo off most Afghan dinner tables. According to a Wikipedia page authored by an Afghan food enthusiast, mantoo is reserved for "special guests and special parties due to too much work." I wouldn't recommend rushing an order of mantoo into a Styrofoam to-go box, as the slippery dumplings are too delicious to pack away immediately. But the dish acquires a new resonance overnight, much as Afghan Cuisine's folksy stewed vegetables and rices do. It's not surprising that Afghan food made right needs time to settle. The cuisine is a mishmash of cultural influences. Afghanistan currently borders six different countries—geography that's politically precarious but edibly exciting. An Afghan menu reads like Central Asia's greatest hits: The curries and naans probably percolated up from Pakistan, the dumplings may have sidled over from China, and the rices have corollaries in Uzbekistan. The tomato dishes could have come from Turkey by way of Iran. Generations of Afghan cooks have borrowed their neighbors' spices and seasonings with the nonchalance of a girl taking her mother's sweater. This is rich territory for culinary genealogists, assuming sleuths can find an Afghan restaurant in which to conduct their investigations. There are U.S. cities where Afghan restaurants thrive, but many major metropolises get by with just one or two. In Seattle proper, there's Kabul in Wallingford. Down south a stretch, Afghan Cuisine and Banquet Hall is Ali Ahmad Ibrahimi's first restaurant, but he's confident Seattleites will embrace the place. "We have nice people, good service, and very reasonable prices," says Ibrahimi, who arrived from California three months ago. "If you come one time, you will love it." Like many first restaurants launched on a limited budget, Afghan Cuisine—a boxy, stand-alone building wedged between a Jack in the Box and a Dollar Tree—is tidy but underdecorated. There's a television on a cart, and the back wall's hung with an underwater-scene poster that looks as if it might have been designed to paper a fish tank. The main dining room seats 45 guests; the adjoining banquet hall—which was still being laid out when I visited—holds 260. Afghan Cuisine opened just weeks before Ramadan started, draining the restaurant of its core clientele. Yet service, which so often totters when there aren't enough customers to keep staffers sharp, didn't falter. My server was attentive and well-versed in the menu. When forced to report the kitchen had run out of a potato dish I requested, he seemed genuinely disappointed. Deprived of potatoes, I turned my attention to other vegetable dishes. Afghan cooking makes promiscuous use of lamb, but Afghan Cuisine's menu includes a few winning meatless items. There's roasted eggplant, sautéed spinach, and a lovely rendition of bamia that isn't intended for the okra-skittish set: The finger-length pods aren't slimy, but they're cooked mercilessly until they're left limp and simpering in a pool of subtly sweet tomato sauce. To sop up the flavorful stew's complex seasoning, you'll need an order of naan afghani, the housemade bread that Afghan Cuisine sells by the bagful. With its punctured top crust and golden color, Afghan Cuisine's naan resembles a giant graham cracker. Sliced in neat rectangles, the firm bread is thin, but not so thin it can't be balanced on its edge. It doesn't look like Indian or Pakistani naans, nor does it look much like the naans pictured in stories about bread crises in Afghanistan. I don't know how to account for Afghan Cuisine's naan. When I asked Ibrahimi about it, he would say only "It's a big naan." The naan isn't very flavorful, but it's utilitarian, especially when a serving of cilantro chutney outlasts the pakaura, slices of potatoes dredged in chickpea flour dyed red as Monument Valley and fried. The oily chutney, which accompanies a league of appetizers, is zippy and bright. Afghan Cuisine serves four different kebabs, which arrive on a comal strewn with sautéed onions and garnished with wilted slices of cucumber and pale pink tomatoes, a rare instance of less-than-fresh ingredients emerging from the kitchen. I tried a chicken kebab, which was decent, but suffered from halfhearted seasoning and the acrid singe of a grill. For more razzmatazz, there's kabuli pilao, a tricolor dish as revered as mantoo. Its base layer is soft basmati rice, boiled in broth until moist and beige. The rice is larded with a torrent of bright-orange carrot threads and glossy black raisins, and pushed aside to make room for a glistening lamb shank. The supremely tender meat, which slides gracefully off the bone, makes you want to eat nothing but lamb forevermore. Afghan Cuisine offers two desserts: baghlawa and ferni, a rubbery, ivory-hued pudding seasoned with rosewater and cardamom and topped with ground pistachios. My server was very enthusiastic about the dense dessert, but I only pried out a few spoonfuls before losing interest. I was still thinking about the beef dumplings and basmati rice. Eyeing these leftovers, I figured I could eat more later. Price Guide Pakaura $4.50 Mantoo $10.50 Bamia $6.50 Chicken kabob $9.50 Kabuli $10.50 Ferni $2.50 hraskin@seattleweekly.com

 
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