Hungry City: Afghan Delights, Delicate and Rugged, at Sami’s Kabab House in Queens
Larger dishes are simple, gratifying arrangements of meat, be it lamb chops, dark and thrilling, with the tips of their bones nearly charred through; knobs of ground beef, burnished chicken thigh or lamb torn off the shank, the flesh still harboring an instinct to resist; or lamb korma, the lamb left to unknit itself in a pot of yogurt, tomatoes and onions kept seething until they weep sugar.
Anchoring every plate is Kabuli palaw, the grains soaked and swollen with drippings from roasting lamb, then topped with fat, shining raisins and carrots, caramelized and chewy. Other vegetables come to the table in various states of surrender: a thatch of spinach with a sunny streak of preserved lemon; eggplant mellowed in the oven under tomatoes; okra, midway between crunchy and yielding.
Brass samovars, their legs topped with tiny lion heads, stand by the kitchen. Tea is green or black, with sugar traditionally added to the first cup and the last cup untempered, bitter and strong. Here, too, is the drink of Afghan summers: dough, pronounced with the “gh” hard and half-swallowed, tongue curled to the back of the throat. Its base is yogurt, only slightly thinned by water, its creaminess cut by cucumber and flecks of dried mint. The salt is refreshing; there’s not a hint of sweetness.
The meal might end with sheer birinj, rice pudding scented with rose water and cinnamon, under a dusting of crushed pistachios. Or vanilla ice cream striped with rose-water syrup, improvised by Mr. Zaman, who weaves in and out of conversations as he checks on guests, with a flourish of silver hair and a frank smile.
In Kabul, he was the youngest of 11 children, almost all of whom found their way to the United States, “to live free and be happy in the best country in the world,” he said. A framed verse from the Quran hangs on the back wall, and a sign by the samovars says, “God bless America.”
When he was 5, his father died; he had to learn to cook to help his mother. Now his wife, Sharisa, occasionally stops by the restaurant to cook alongside him. (The mantu are especially good when she is there, he said.) His older children also pitch in, waiting tables on weekends when they’re off from school.
One night, his youngest son, Abdul, 9, wandered past, mulling over a melody he had composed on his iPad. Would he share it with us? we asked. “I am tired and not of the mood for charming people,” he said with a sigh, then sat down at our table and proceeded to do just that.
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