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Photograph by Paul Myers

Tender Is The Kebab: At Afghani House, nutrition and flovor go stick-in-hand.

Mint and Mindfulness

Afghan cuisine draws from a rich tradition, and eating it now has an extra tang

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

SINCE SEPT. 11, media images of Afghanistan have rarely, if ever, included broiled loin of lamb nestled on pillows of rice seasoned with clove and cardamom. But for my wife and me, a recent dinner at the Afghani House restaurant in Sunnyvale brought just such kind images, along with the taste of an ancient cuisine we both love.

The Afghani House moved from San Francisco to Sunnyvale eight years ago and opened in a freestanding building along El Camino Real. The interior is robed in traditional Afghan elegance, the walls are dressed throughout in tribal textiles of deep reds, and authentic pottery and other pieces rest on decorative ledges. Framed photographs of tribesmen, native costumes and jewelry reveal the rich history of this culture and the rugged beauty of its geography.

As we were seated, aromas from the kitchen filled the intimate dining area like an exquisite perfume. Wisely, the menu has not been overloaded with superfluous dishes. It's an easy read, and easy to understand.

I like the fact that Afghan cuisine rings with flavor and comes off as rich but is actually relatively low in fat and highly nutritious. The results awakened our palates to the herbs and spices and all the complexities that simple cooking can achieve when prepared by skilled hands.

Each course, right down to our dessert of milk pudding sprinkled with almonds and pistachios, placed another tile in the mosaic, depicting the pleasures and beauty of Afghan cuisine. Every dish presented to us by our soft-spoken waiter was sumptuous.

Our first course of dumplings filled with minced leek and scallion was spread across our plate like the wings of a butterfly. Over the delicate dumplings, called aushak ($5.50), was drizzled yogurt and meat sauce, sprinkled with mint. We enjoyed these with a second appetizer called pakawra-e-badenjan ($5.50), airy slices of crispy-fried eggplant streaked topside with bittersweet yogurt and more of the previously mentioned--and lightly flavored--meat sauce. Between the openers and the entrees, we were served salads with a tangy mayonnaise-based dressing that struck me as a concession to the American custom of always having a salad before the entree. The greens cleansed our palates but did nothing to expand our understanding of Afghan cooking.

What did enlighten us was the exquisite richness of the house specialty, dupiaza ($27): lamb loin ribs broiled to succulent perfection. On top of the thick, glistening chops were sautéed red onions and split peas, finished with a vinaigrette blended with sweet vinegar. At one point, we discarded fork and knife, and used our fingers to lift the moist chops to our mouths. Equally delicious was kabob-e-murgh ($15.50), which consisted of chunks of fresh chicken breast, seasoned, then fired until dark along the edges. Juice trickled from the meat with each cut of the knife. Over the top, we spooned a fiery condiment of coriander and green chiles.

From vegetable entrees, we ordered fresh spinach (sabsi; $5.50) sautéed with onions and garlic, turnip (shalgham; $5.50) cooked with onion and ginger, and a dall ($5.50) of yellow split peas in a sauce of onion, garlic and herbs. We also tried the traditional rice dishes, one called pallaw, seasoned with clove, cinnamon, cardamom and cumin and simmered in a meat broth; the other challaw, lighter in color and made without broth, clove or cinnamon.

The evening concluded with chilled milk pudding (firnee; $4), woven with rose water from top to bottom and crowned with crushed pistachios and almonds. We had planned on only tasting, but our spoons got away from us, and we indulged until only the sweet dregs remained.

The Afghani House serves up an elegant experience that feeds mind, body and spirit on the flavors of a legendary cuisine too-oft forgotten. The environment was quiet and lovely, the servers attentive to our needs, all questions answered with warmth and clarity. The place made us feel at home.

Afghani House
Address: 1103 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
Phone: 408.248.5088
Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm; dinner daily 5:30-9:30pm
Cuisine: Afghan
Price Range: $4.50-$27

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From the September 12-18, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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