So last night I was invited over to a co-worker’s house for a visit. They were having a few friends over to hang out, and I eagerly accepted the chance to get out of the compound for a bit. Of course, sometimes just the journey to a destination is worth making plans — it was interesting to check out Kabul at a new time of day.
We departed around 6:45pm and headed to the part of the city where my co-worker lives. The worst of rush hour was over, but there was still plenty of traffic as we made our way through crowded streets and busy intersections. Although none of the unlit, dusty traffic lights were working or doing anything to guide the traffic, occasionally a police officer stood in the middle of the road, forcing cars to stop halfway around a roundabout or crowded at the edges of an intersection, everyone inching forward and trying to get through. It’s probably hard to imagine both the chaos and skill it takes to maneuver through this city by car — if a road was originally built for two cars, they will manage to get five cars down it. If built for four cars, you’ll see six or eight pushing through! The biggest armored vehicles and largest buses tend to force their way through the packs of cars inching across roads and intersections, but the little compact cars never miss the chance to sneak into spaces between the rows and squeeze their way past the big guys. And yet, so far I’ve only seen one fender bender. These guys have mastered the art of squeaking by with less than an inch to spare! There also seems to be a little bit of daredevil or renegade in every driver, because while it is generally understood that one drives on the right hand side of the road, that seems to be the “norm” rather than the “rule” — it is not unusual to see a little car break for it and dash around a roundabout to the left, rather than the right, if he sees an opening to get ahead of all the traffic. Or, if turning left onto a divided highway where there’s no opening to get over to the side traveling in the direction he wants to go, a driver will simply go ahead and turn into oncoming traffic, keeping to the right-hand side until he can cross over the barrier into the correct lanes.
But what gets me is the pedestrians, who have no fear for their lives and walk out into traffic at every moment. They don’t just cross at corners and intersections or small streets, they cross major roads at any point that suits them. There were men walking around a major roundabout with six lanes of cars (and another two or three merging in), casually making their way across and not appearing concerned about the huge cars and trucks bearing down all around them. But what gets me squeaking and covering my eyes are the children that dart up to cars trying to sell things — scarves, candy, cigarettes, anything. Or the mothers that walk into traffic, holding their babies up to the windows and begging for cash. I’m terrified one will get caught between the narrow spaces as cars squeeze past each other or pulled under the wheels of an SUV. But so far, they just dart here and there, running alongside and shouting.
Last night, as we alternately crawled through traffic and sped through city streets, I was fascinated by the early evening nightlife that had sprung up. Stores were brightly lit up with neon, fluorescent lights, selling all the things that shops usually do — bread and food, clothing, phones, car parts, all kinds of random things. But there were also vendors who had set up carts every five to ten feet along the major roads. Each one was a variation on a theme — some kind of wooden cart or stand with a neatly stacked pile of fruit and a single fluorescent light for his display. It was very colorful and cheerful, full of life and energy. But within an hour or two it would all be dark, quiet, and closed, everyone gone home for the night.
There were just a few of us gathering, and it was a cheerful evening of talking and catching up. Around eight or nine o’clock, my co-worker brought in dinner, and everyone told me how excited they were because the food had been prepared by her mother, a fantastic cook. Of course, dinner LOOKED amazing, but I couldn’t eat much of it — it was the famous Kabuli Pulao (or Qabuli Palow)! This dish is served all over Afghanistan and is considered a national dish. It’s made with rice, lamb, carrots, raisins, and spices. Unfortunately, it’s not really something I can eat since the meat and rice are all cooked together, but I’m assured it is wonderful and delicious, and it did smell very good. I was able to eat a side dish that was made with spinach and reminded me very much of the kind of spinach served in Indian palak paneer dishes, and that was delicious, as was a fresh cucumber, tomato, and green onion salad. And of course, dinner was also served with delicious Afghan bread — yum! As we ate, my friends were worried about whether I liked the food and whether I had enough to eat (anticipating that I often can’t eat the main course, I usually snack ahead of time, so no worries!). We also talked about Afghan food culture. Laughing, they exclaimed about how much Afghans like their rice and meat and how much they crave it when they travel!
However, there is a very rich food culture in Afghanistan, and it extends far beyond the rice and meat they love so much. In fact, we laughed that Afghans love their food so much, they can not only tell you where (as in what town or village) to get a certain dish, they can tell you the exact street corner to find a vendor and the exact time of day you should get it! If I ever decide to start eating meat again, there is a certain kebab vendor on a certain corner who opens his stall at precisely a certain time of day — I’ve been advised to go there at the exact moment he opens to get the freshest, most delicious kebabs in all of Kabul. Similarly, if I’m ever allowed to travel to Mazar-i-Sharif, I know exactly where to go for Afghanistan’s best mango falooda, a milkshake-like drink made with shaved ice, ice cream, rose syrup, vermicelli noodles, and pistachios.
One of my friends has promised to recommend a couple of good Afghan cookbooks, so hopefully I’ll discover some good recipes to share. In the meantime, I’ll let you know if I come across any other culinary delights I discover while I’m here.