Not all of us are blessed with wallets full of VC money, which can make semiannual foreign trips out of the question. Fortunately for us moderate-income folks, people from foreign countries come to the Bay Area, and they bring their food with them, giving us a portal through which we can glimpse their culture.
I’ve always known there had to be more to Afghani culture than the narrative I was sold growing up as an American in the 2000s, and it was eating food in Fremont’s “Little Kabul” that helped confirm this for me.
When Ahmad, an Afghani friend of my brother-in-law, heard I was interested in exploring Afghani culture, he enthusiastically offered to take me to his favorite restaurant for his culture’s food. I’d heard from a few people that De Afghanan on Fremont Boulevard was the place to go for authentic Afghani food, so I wasn’t surprised when that’s where Ahmad asked me to meet him.
[jump] I arrived precisely at noon, which is when the restaurant opens on Sundays. The restaurant was already half-full, and I could smell why. The air was intoxicating with aromas of grilled meat and flavorful spices, and I could swear there was a brick oven in there somewhere. Before even trying anything, I started wondering whether 45-minute drives to Fremont just to eat here again were in my future.
The next thing I noticed was the decor, which without having been to Afghanistan, felt very authentic. People ate at tables, and not on the floor, but it had the same atmosphere as walking into a family’s home to dine. The servers furthered my impression, as they were friendly, helpful, and gracious, but placed no artificial hierarchy-based wall between us, which is always such a treat.
The menu isn’t giant, but it doesn’t need to be, because there’s nothing on there you won’t want. Ahmad was able to guide my decisions, suggesting the mantu (pasta filled with ground beef), bolani kachaloo (potato-filled pastry), and then lamb, beef, and chicken kabobs served with rice. Every item we selected had its own story from Ahmad’s childhood growing up in an Afghani household.
The food arrived quickly, and I could immediately tell it was a cuisine in a league of its own. It certainly wasn’t Indian, generic Middle Eastern, or Persian, but somehow a combination of the many cultures who had attempted to colonize Afghanistan over the millennia, built upon Afghani traditions. Everything had a homemade touch, and all the ingredients were clearly very fresh. As is the Afghani way, everything was served more or less at the same time, leaving me salivating and unsure about what I should eat first. It all looked so good and smelled so good — I couldn’t leave any of it on the table.
We tried the mantu first, and Ahmad shared how his mom would make these for him when he visited his family during college. The bread De Afghanan serves is just like what he would make with his family every Sunday, filling their home with the fresh aroma the way only homemade bread can. It tastes best when slathered in chutney, a spicy cilantro glaze for which I wouldn’t hesitate to pay big money. The bolani was a personal favorite, and to my delight was the recipe Ahmad would choose for school potlucks growing up.
The lamb was a clear winner when it came to the meat, but that’s not to say the chicken and beef weren’t phenomenal as well (because they were). I could see Ahmad’s point in that eating a combination of these foods had the ability to transport you back to a certain time in history, all of them distinctly Afghani.
Each menu item was undeniably accessible, and certainly didn't fit the stereotype for “Middle Eastern” food. Nothing was too hot, none of the spices made my stomach turn, and even the meat was light, tender, and easy to eat. Afghani recipes are not considered American staples, which is a shame considering the way they cook their fresh ingredients and bring out such delicious flavors, all while making you feel like part of the family.
As we ate, Ahmad casually told me about how his parents escaped Afghanistan to Pakistan when the Soviets invaded, forced to flee their homeland via the backs of donkeys. When the opportunity arose they made it safely to Fremont, home to the largest Afghan population in the United States, and ultimately settled in nearby Hayward.
It was impossible to not be mesmerized by Ahmad’s story, because every spice I ate, every flavor I experienced, every interaction with the food told the saga of Afghan culture. Upon leaving it was easy to answer the question I had posed to myself earlier: there was no doubt in my mind I will be returning to De Afghanan to take in all the wonders that Afghani culture has to offer.
De Afghanan, 37395 Fremont Blvd, Fremont, 510-857-1009.