Discovering the Royal Culinary Traditions of Afghanistan
by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
Restaurateur Omar Masroor and his family welcomed the Bailliage of Greater Washington, D.C. to their restaurant, Bistro Aracosia, on May 16, 2019 for a five-course dinner that impressed and delighted the sold-out gathering. “Aracosia” comes from the old Greek name for a former province in the southern part of Afghanistan, at the crossroads of Persian and South Asian cuisine. Following the great success of his first restaurant, Afghan Bistro, in Springfield, Virginia, Omar opened Bistro Aracosia in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington in October 2017, and it immediately earned high praise. Washingtonian magazine honored it with a spot in its 2018 “100 Best Restaurants” list, and TripAdvisor ranks it 18th of over 2,700 restaurants in Washington.
Omar was born in Kabul and is the grandson of Afghan royalty (the country’s last king reigned until a coup in 1973). Omar came to the U.S. with his family at the age of five. His wife, Sofia, is the restaurant’s chef and is also originally from Kabul. Sofia recalls that when she and Omar were married at a young age, she didn’t have any knowledge of cooking. But she has always loved Afghan food and wanted to cook in true Afghan style for her family. Over 22 years of marriage she has learned from her mother and mother-in-law the techniques and recipes that have been passed down in the family for generations. Sofia says she is eager to pass these recipes down to her own children.
The evening’s menu gave members and guests insight into the many facets of Afghan cuisine. Afghanistan’s geography in central Asia makes it a bridge between Asian (in particular, Chinese and Uyghur) and Persian, culinary influences. For example, there are dumplings in both Afghan and Chinese cuisine, and complex and flavorful rice preparations are found from China, through Central Asia, to the Eastern Mediterranean. The famed “Silk Road” was also the “Spice Road,” adding diverse spices – chili, cardamom, cumin, and saffron, among many others – to the flavor palette of the Afghan kitchen. Sofia elevates these traditions with a refined, modern style that she has honed over the years. Avoiding butter and cream, while emphasizing the freshest ingredients and using only the finest halal meats, Sofia creates dishes that are sophisticated and nuanced – hearty, but never heavy.
The decor of Bistro Aracosia’s two dining rooms is inspired by how Omar’s father succinctly described the character of an Afghan: warrior and poet. The Warrior Room depicts the classical kings and warriors of pre‑Soviet era Afghanistan, while the walls of the Poet Room bear quotes from Afghan-born Rumi, the 13th century poet, scholar, and Sufi mystic. Subtle aromas of exotic spices hint at the delights soon to emerge from Sofia’s kitchen
Hospitality is central to Afghan culture and Omar and his uncle, Daoud Rafiz, personally welcomed each arriving member and guest to the Bistro’s Poet Room in classic Chaîne style – with a glass of Champagne. Charles Orban Brut Cuvée Spéciale Millésimé Troissy 2006 offered notes of toasted oak and caramel that were delicious with a variety of bite-size boulanee passed by attentive servers. These light, crispy turnovers were pan-fried (each batch in fresh oil to keep them light) and featured a sampling of flavorful fillings – sambosa (beef and lentil), sabzi (greens), kadoo (butternut squash), and kachaloo wa nooshpiaz (potato and leek).
Once seated, members and guests eagerly discovered the sophistication and intriguing flavors of Afghan cuisine. The first course was mazza khameer – an assortment of steamed dumplings: Aushak, an Afghan classic, was filled with leek and scallion and topped with kofta paashaan (beef and lentil). Mantu featured a spicy beef filling with pea and carrot qorma (sauce) and garlic yogurt. The kadoo paired a butternut squash filling with minced beef, mint, and cayenne. A vegetarian version of the kadoo was topped with tangy garlic yogurt. With paper-thin wrappers and rich fillings and toppings, the khameer were light and satisfying – characteristics shared by Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV Champagne that made it a wonderful companion to the dumplings.
The next course highlighted the hunting tradition that has a long and storied history in Afghan culture and cuisine. Chopan e hahu was a marinated and masala-grilled venison rib chop finished with sumac and lemon. The venison, from Wyoming, was, in a word, perfect: lean, superbly tender, and cooked to a beautiful medium rare. The sumac and lemon lent a tart accent to the chop – an intriguing and delicious counterpoint to the rich, subtle flavor of the meat. A hearty pinot noir from Burgundy, Domaine Philippe Charlopin Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2010, provided the depth and acidity that the venison deserved.
A tasting of slow-cooked and braised meats followed. This platter included selections that demonstrated Sofia’s mastery of technique and flavor: Slow-braised oxtail moghuli was seasoned with garam masala and served with a roasted red pepper and tomato sauce that nicely complemented the tender meat. Beef zubaan was slow-cooked tongue with chickpeas and seasoned with cumin, coriander, house garam masala, and chili. The long cooking rendered a tongue that was spoon-tender and subtly flavored. Veal sabzi lawaan was boneless shoulder slow-cooked with spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip leaves, fenugreek, and dill. The freshness of the greens was spectacular with mild veal. Cardamom-infused basmati rice from Afghanistan with carrots and raisins, along with coriander potatoes and freshly baked naan completed this delicious exploration of braising and slow-cooking. Domaine Berthet-Rayne Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2015, with its ruby color and notes of black cherry, cassis, and spice, was a worthy companion for this course.
Next were tenderloin, rib, and shoulder of spring lamb from New Zealand. Omar noted that Bistro Aracosia serves only milk-fed – never grass-fed – lamb. In the Afghan culinary tradition, once a lamb starts eating grass, the meat is considered mutton, which has a different flavor. The three cuts were infused with Central Asian spices, charred, and finished with sumac, adding a delicious note of citrus. House-made raita – yogurt, cucumber, and dill – further brought out the flavor the luxurious meat. Wine for this course was the Elyse Syrah 2005 from Napa Valley, a medium body wine with notes of dark berries and a bit of earthiness that paired seamlessly with the spices and grilled flavor of the lamb.
Dinner culminated with akhsaam e baghlawa, an assortment of baklava notable for its crispy dough, rich fillings, and restrained sweetness. Saffron tea steeped with rosewater and cardamom was a perfect digestif.
As the evening concluded, Bailli Judy Mazza presented Omar and Sofia a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs plate to commemorate the event. Judy thanked Omar for his gracious hospitality and congratulated Sofia on creating a truly outstanding dinner – a feast in the finest tradition of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. Members departed with a newfound appreciation for the flavors, traditions, and subtleties of Afghan cuisine and were eager for their next visit to Bistro Aracosia, or to the family’s newest restaurant, Aracosia, when it opens in McLean, Virginia, later in 2019.