Kabul by the Bay: Afghan culinary adventures in Northern California
One of the world’s most woefully underrated cuisines, Afghan food is superbly represented in Fremont, California – even if many Afghans in the San Francisco Bay Area's largest suburb long for the bread they ate back home
Fremont, which finds itself on the north-easternmost verge of Silicon Valley and is the largest suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area, rarely features in the news. With its bucolic, tree-lined streets, it is known mostly as a pleasant place to raise a family, and as a welcome respite from the sky-rocketing rents farther north. The name Fremont does cause excitement among one group, though: the Bay Area’s famously intrepid eaters, who know that it boasts some of the best Asian food in the United States.
At last count, more than half of Fremont’s 230,000-plus residents were Asian, but those numbers do not reflect the area’s most vital and culinarily thrilling community: the Afghans.
Thanks to United States census rules, Afghans are counted as Caucasians, so their exact numbers are difficult to pin down. Still, it is widely accepted that Fremont is home to the largest Afghan population in the country. And Fremont’s local businesses are a testament to the pervasive Afghan culture there: Afghan markets appear on nearly every corner of the city’s main drag; and Afghan restaurants cozy up to Chinese dumpling houses — the smell of flame-grilled meats enticing passing customers of every ethnicity. An Afghan mosque serves the faithful, and Little Kabul’s Afghan bookstores are bustling.
Sadly, Afghanistan has been a nation in turmoil for almost 50 years, and its diaspora reflects that, with Afghan immigrant families who have been settled in the United States for generations living side by side with new-comers, freshly arrived from the country’s more recent conflicts. Many began their lives in the United States on the east coast, usually in the New York borough of Queens, before coming West for the same reasons people have been turning up in California for more than a century: the opportunities, the weather, and the state’s reputation for happy, easy living.
Safi Haidary and his father-in-law, Karim Afghanzadah, are typical of the diaspora. Today they co-own Afghan Village Restaurant in Fremont. But in 1987 Haidary was a man in flight from Soviet-occupied Afghanistan – landing first in Queens, he later made his way to California. “The weather, the laid-back atmosphere and a sense of social acceptance of cultural diversity,” made the Bay Area particularly attractive, he says.
When it comes to cuisines, Afghan food remains one of the world’s most woefully underrated. For millennia, Afghanistan was a vital hub for global trade, and a cosmopolitan clearing house for the world’s best spices and ingredients. The country’s diverse ethnic makeup is expressed in its food, which seems to take only the best elements of its neighbors’ cooking: the phenomenal breads of Central Asia, the unrestrained use of spices from South Asia, and an abiding love of flame-cooked meats from the Middle East. In Afghanistan, these culinary traditions were refined and concentrated over centuries, creating a heady mix of richly flavored, deeply savory dishes.
While it has lavishly borrowed from its neighbors, the best Afghan dishes are Afghanistan’s alone: bolani, a kind of turnover of flatbread stuffed with vegetables such as chives, leeks or pumpkin, then served with yogurt and piquant chutney; aush, a tomato-based soup thickened with hand-torn noodles; and the “Kabuli burger,” the region’s answer to fast-food, which is composed of ground beef served with chutney and flatbread. Other regional dishes, Afghanistan merely perfected: mantoo, ravioli-style dumplings filled with lamb or vegetables, then topped with yogurt; perfect (and ubiquitous) kebabs; and the showstopper, Kabuli Palao, the country’s national dish of rice cooked in stock and topped with raisins, carrots, pistachios and – if you’re lucky – a braised lamb shank.
“Afghan people are renowned for their sense of hospitality. To live is to break bread together. Food and culture go hand in hand,” says Haidary. And Fremont’s Afghan restaurants often take on the feel of community centers: “Although we provide formal dining, we treat our guests like extended family. It isn’t uncommon for people to grab a prayer mat and pray while they wait for their food or come talk to the chef personally.”
For the most part, Fremont’s chefs are able to produce flavors that match or rival those of the old country. Even spices and ingredients that would be hard to find elsewhere in America are prevalent at Little Kabul’s Afghan markets — except for gandana, Afghan green onions or leeks, whose absence bedevils the area’s cooks. And recent arrivals are often bowled over by the variety of ingredients.
Still, remembering the old country, some cooks worry that what they have gained in choice, they may have lost in nutrition and even flavor. Aziz Omar, who emigrated to the US from Kabul, started in the food business by running hot dog carts in the Bay Area’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stations before opening his first Afghan restaurant in 1993.
Now he runs perhaps the area’s most-loved restaurant, De Afghanan, and has opened five eateries in total, two in Fremont and three elsewhere in the Bay Area. He is still in awe over the choices America offers: “Even just the tri-tip I use for my beef kebab, now there are three types.” But he misses the ingredients of Afghanistan, where he says “everything is natural, the vegetables, everything.”
And, in their more candid moments, Afghans like Arzo Nazamy – who grew up in the area before opening a salon in San Francisco – and her mother Noria, confess that: “Actually, everything tasted better in Afghanistan.”
Even with ingredients and restaurants as authentic as Fremont’s are, there is one thing that keeps Afghans longing for their ancestral home: the bread. Bread is the cornerstone of the Afghan diet and Afghanistan is justly renowned for making some of the best bread on earth. While much of the traditional bread in Fremont is bracingly good, the bread Afghans remember from Afghanistan is unassailable and has been elevated almost legendary status. Some say the conditions of traditional Afghan ovens can’t be replicated overseas. Others — just like New Yorkers with their bagels — blame the water. Whatever the reason, bread, for Fremont’s Afghan population, has become inexorably linked to a sense of longing.
The Afghan community in Fremont remains vital, vibrant and proud, but it is also under attack. Like many American immigrant communities, this one is shrinking. It is neither persecution, international strife, nor even the increasingly racist and Islamophobic tenor of politics in America that are driving Afghans from their homes, but money. Like almost everyone in the Bay Area, Afghans are increasingly finding stratospheric rents and the ever-climbing cost of living untenable. They are eyeing communities farther from San Francisco, and leaving their tight-knit community in Fremont for cheaper pastures south and east.
Just as nobody truly knows how many Afghans have made their home in Fremont, nobody knows how many are leaving. Perhaps it is unfair to say that they will take with them the heart of the city if they go, but anyone who has spent even a day eating there would agree that Fremont would be a much blander place without them.
WHERE TO EAT IN FREMONT’S LITTLE KABUL
De Afghanan Cuisine
37395 Fremont Blvd, Fremont, CA 94536, Tel: +1-510-857-1009
De Afghanan is among the best-known and most-loved Afghani restaurants in Fremont. A perfect place to try spot-on renditions of Afghan classics. The dining room is decorated entirely with Afghan art, antiques, and artifacts collected by the owner.
37235 Fremont Blvd, Fremont, CA 94536, Tel: +1-510-796-3215
This market is one of Little Kabul’s best, stocking everything you need to try your hand at Afghan cooking at home. Maiwand boasts a great sweets selection but is famous as a destination for the area’s best home-made breads. Get there early, as the bread almost always sells out.
De Afghanan Kabob House
37405 Fremont Blvd, Fremont, CA 94536, Tel: 1-510-745-9599
This sister restaurant to De Afghanan Cuisine is a good choice if you are looking for something more fast and casual than a full sit-down meal. Afghani kebabs are the envy of the whole region, and after a stop at De Afghanan Kabob House you’ll understand why.
37012 Towers Way, Fremont, CA 94536, Tel: +1-510-494-9999
This intimate restaurant is a real family affair, making some of the best home-cooked Afghan dishes you are likely to find anywhere outside of Kabul. The mantoo (dumplings) and the korme kofta (meatballs served in a tomato sauce) are absolute must-orders.
Afghan Village Restaurant
5698 Thornton Ave, Newark, CA 94560, Tel: +1-510-790-0557
Afghan Village is the place to go if you want a more formal meal or are dining with a big group. The opulent restaurant also offers dinner buffet-style, making it a great choice for anyone who wants to try many different authentic and perfectly-prepared Afghani delicacies. One of the owners is a self-described Kebab master, but make sure you save room for the excellent desserts.
RECIPE FOR AFGHAN SABZI by Noria Nazamy
An Afghani meal would be incomplete without this ubiquitous side of cooked spinach served traditionally with yogurt.
1 box of spinach, frozen
1 bundle of cilantro
1 bunch of green onion
Lemon juice to taste
Garlic to taste
Ground Lamb (optional)
Finely chop the (not thawed) spinach, green onions, and cilantro all together. In a pan, fry one diced onion until translucent before adding the greens. Add salt and pepper along with minced raw garlic and lemon juice to taste — don’t hold back, Afghans love garlic. Cook down until soft and combined, almost a paste-like texture. If you prefer your sabzi with meat you can brown a handful of ground lamb separately before adding it to the cooked greens. Serve with chutney and thick Afghani yogurt on the side.