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Try It, You'll Like It

At Parwana, Central Asian delights await the adventurous

By Peter Koht

Having been raised in a house that considered spaghetti an ethnic food, I've pretty much sworn off the tepid cuisine I grew up with, due to a combination of international travel and a great love of chile peppers. I'll try bat or eat a monkey before I will ever sit down to a bland, watery meatloaf again.

So the opening of Parwana back in 2002 was the beginning of a culinary love affair, even though the number of things I knew about Afghan cuisine could be summed up in a single Pashto integer: Sifer. Like most Americans, what I knew about Afghanistan came from either CNN or Rambo Part III.

But years of passing under the gigantic butterfly that figures prominently on the restaurant's facade have changed all that. Last week, with girlfriend and Metro Santa Cruz expense account in tow, I happily re-entered the familiar dining room whose combination of hexagonal lanterns and rich carpeting bears more than a passing resemblance to a Middle Eastern teahouse.

The comparison is apt, given that Parwana has no liquor license, and beverages consist of various bottled juices, some outstanding coffee selections and a tremendously diverse Book of Tea which features dozens of varieties from all over the world. While savoring a decanter of Moroccan mint tea ($1.50)—a sweet concoction augmented with fresh whole mint leaves—we made a conscious decision to avoid the dishes which have already become habitual favorites. For my recovering vegetarian girlfriend, that would be the sabsi challow ($8.95), a generous portion of marinated spinach served on top of a ridgeline of basmati rice, its spicy caramelized flavor enough to put Popeye right off the canned stuff. I typically fall into ordering one of the excellent kebabs. Both the kabob-e-murgh (chicken 12.95) and tekka kabob (beef 14.95) are served on ridiculously long skewers and encrusted with the most delicate spice mixture this side of Tehran. Each morsel of meat is so tender and delicious that it practically prohibits further exploration of the menu.

On this visit, we branched out in our dinner selections. Skipping the large-to-the-point-oif-ridiculous bolani-c-kachalu (Afghan pizza $10.75), which is now thankfully available in half size ($6), we chose the burance kaddu ($5.25) for our appetizer. This little dish consists of a slightly sweetened slice of pumpkin topped with a creamy garlic sauce and served with the ubiquitous sprinkling of dried mint.

Main courses arrived promptly after we demolished the excellent appetizer: The aushak ($4.95/ appetizer $9.95 entree), consisting of dumplings topped with ground beef and the same garlic cream sauce that accompanied our appetizer, proved to be an excellent stand-in for the kebabs. (Note for fans of Elisa Camahort: this dish is available in both vegetarian and vegan configurations.) Our other entree, gulpi challow ($7.95), featured fresh cauliflower turned a vibrant shade of orange after a refreshing bath in a tomato-based sauce. Like all of Parwana's vegetarian offerings, this meatless dish was a testament to the power of creative spicing, turning this ordinarily mundane vegetable into an expression of culinary excellence.

Our meal concluded with coffee and a serving of a custard called Firni ($4.25). Infused with both cardamom and rose water, it came in a shallow bowl and was topped with fresh pistachios. Though rose water always disturbingly reminds me of the nuns who educated me during seven years of Catholic schooling, it brought a nice aftertaste to the sweetness of both the custard and the cardamom.

The Turkish coffee ($2.25) that closed out our evening was a caffeine addict's dream. Served with an obligatory warning about the grounds, this delicious blend of Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi coffee comes both pre-sweetened and blazingly hot. Its flavor only intensifies as it brews in your cup.

Leaving the restaurant, both heavily caffeinated and greatly satisfied, I was reminded of the joys of exploration and the sublime pleasures of Central Asian food. It may still be a bit exotic for my parents, but a more rewardingly flavorful cuisine would be hard to find.

Address: 1209 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz
Phone: 831.458.1988
Hours: Tue–Thu 5–9:30pm, Fri–Sat 5–10pm, Sun 5–9:30pm, closed Mondays

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From the August 31-September 7, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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