Panjshir: Afghan cuisine with a side of geopolitics

It isn’t often that a restaurant review presents an opportunity to learn about an unfamiliar cuisine and, at the same time, gain valuable insights into an international crisis, especially when the restaurant in question is within minutes of your home.

I wrote those words when I reviewed Panjshir on Nov. 7, 2001, just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks masterminded by Osama bin Laden, so I decided to revisit it last week after the al Qaeda leader was killed by U.S. special forces in neighboring Pakistan.

Except for the retirement of Aziz and Jamila Niazy, the Afghan couple who opened the Falls Church, Va., restaurant in 1985, those words are just as applicable today as they were 10 years ago, when Najib Aziz Amiri, founder of The Children of War, a nonprofit organization that collects money for Afghan refugees, was my guest.

At the time, it was exactly a month after the U.S. and Britain invaded Afghanistan to drive out al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors, so I asked Amiri how he would advise the Bush administration and Congress, if asked.

He said he “would ask them to stop the bombing [because] they might kill a few of the people they want to catch. But bombing Afghanistan will only kill those innocent people who are suffering and still suffer. The United States is going to lose if it continues the way it is now because every single Afghan will hate the United States.”

Last Saturday night, I asked the Niazys’ 40-year-old son, Esmat, who now runs the restaurant, about Amiri’s dire prediction. “It’s obviously a much different situation now because the American soldiers have a new strategy and have gone into the small towns and villages and tried to educate and help the people,” he said.

“The more we can educate the people, the better off they’ll be. But it takes a lot of time.”
Niazy, who has “close to 100 relatives” living in the area, praised President Obama for “doing a great job. The only thing now is, who’s going to be the next bin Laden?” he said.

Niazy and his four siblings were born in Kabul and came to Washington in 1979, four years after their father, when he decided to open a restaurant, which he named after an Afghan village that was the birthplace of Ahmed Massoud, commander of the opposition Northern Alliance who was assassinated by the Taliban just before 9/11. Niazy says his parents still come by from time to time.

The restaurant seats about 40 people in booths and tables, and there is a bar in the rear, a concession to Western tastes. Behind it is paper money from many countries and two ancient rifles, souvenirs from Great Britain’s futile attempt to conquer Afghanistan in the 19th century – and perhaps an unintended warning to the Soviet Union and the United States.

(Editor’s note: Al, this is supposed to be a restaurant review. What about the food?)

Sorry. I was so caught up in the geopolitics of bin Laden’s death that I forgot about it. The menu is unchanged from 2001, but as I wrote in 2001, “Panjshir’s food may seem unsophisticated by Western standards, but I found it delicious and satisfying. Best of all, it is surprisingly easy on your pocketbook.”

My guests, a college classmate and his wife from Minneapolis, raved about the food, which relies heavily on chicken, beef and lamb with familiar staples such as rice, fresh vegetables, nuts, raisins and yogurt. Most dishes are generously seasoned with herbs and spices including ginger, coriander and saffron. 

We started with complimentary bowls of aush, a deliciously spicy Afghan noodle soup with mixed vegetables topped with seasoned yogurt and ground beef, sprinkled with mint, and then a shared order of bulanee kachalu, turnovers stuffed with potato and ground beef and served with a moderately hot sauce on the side ($4.95) that was equally delicious.

Then we hit the kebab jackpot. All of the meat is halal – the Muslim equivalent of kosher – and served on a skewer with saffron rice. My college buddy had lamb, his wife lamb chops marinated in special spices and I had the combination beef, chicken and lamb. All were perfectly grilled and superb

We finished by sampling all four of the restaurant’s desserts, including an exquisite baklava; vanilla pudding with almonds and chocolate pudding with almonds, both topped with cardamom and pistachios; and gosh e feel, a kind of giant elephant’s ear pastry. 

Niazy has benefited from Groupon, the online discount service, which featured him in January. As a result, some 600 people have bought $15 coupons that are worth $30 at Panjshir.

At lunch on Monday, I spoke to a fellow diner, Eddie Saghafi, the Iranian-born son of an auto dealer in Leesburg, Va., who said he’s been a regular for 30 years. “If I lived in Falls Church, I’d come every day.”

Because about 98 percent of his customers are Americans, I asked Niazy if they discuss bin Laden and the war in Afghanistan.

“No, they just want to know if the pumpkin and lamb are fresh,” he said.