This is an attempt at it, anyway . . .
FINE DINING WITH A TWIST – EATING OUT IN KABUL
There was no signpost out the front, but it wasn’t hard to find the restaurant where I was meeting a friend. Although (like every restaurant that caters to foreigners in Kabul) L’Atmosphere is tucked away behind a 2 metre-high brick wall with barbed wire strung along the top, a sandbagged guard-house manned by two AK-47 wielding guards unmistakeably marked the entry. They evaluated me critically before waving me through the door, just like any bouncer in Sydney’s King’s Cross.
But that was only the first layer of security. I stepped into the ‘air-lock’ where I was carefully frisked and asked if I was carrying any grenades. I was asked to remove my camera from its holster – slowly and gradually. Then to hand over my passport. Finally (but only after everyone was completely satisfied I was ‘clean’) I was waved through to join my companions in the garden of the once-grand villa, that now houses the casual French bistro-style restaurant.
No-one goes to Kabul for the food – but that doesn’t mean there’s nowhere to eat. A large army of diplomats, aid-workers and contractors have ensured that the small restaurant scene is flourishing. And – although only behind the high walls and wire – it Is possible to have a nice, cheap and friendly bottle of French wine with a meal and the service (once you’re inside) is warm and generous. It’s no wonder that all of the capital’s thousand’s of transient inhabitants seem to have their favourite spots, each with their own mood and style.
Nevertheless, spending a few weeks in Afghanistan helps you to quickly re-focus on the one critical factor that makes for a really good night out – company. Eating out is, of course, supposed to be about the food. And the restaurant’s of Kabul offer their own, quite adequate interpretations of most popular western dishes. But no one raves about the pasta being served up at Bella Italia or the nachos on offer at La Cantina: it’s really all about the moment, who you’re eating with, and the mood exchanged across the table.
The price of admission is cheap, because the repast is about much more than just food. The searches at the door remind you of the tenuous nature of life outside. It’s more like a rite-of-passage, allowing diners to feel as if they’ve entered another country which, effectively, they have, because alcohol isn’t permitted on the streets outside (although everyone carries guns).
That’s why a review of the food at L’Atmos (as everyone still calls it, despite many attempts to re-name the place Le Divan) is irrelevant. Pronouncing it “pleasant, and well worth a visit if you’re in Kabul”, fails to conjure up the excitement of a night spent discussing how societies can’t exist without trust and the critical need for a legal system that’s not available to the highest bidder. Was there food as well? Yes, there was. My chicken was cooked through and one of my companions insisted his fish was delicious, although after seeing rubbish floating on the river that runs through the centre of the city I would have been far more apprehensive about attempting anything that had ever swum in the water.
The real food of the country, of course, can’t be found in the exclusive, barricaded restaurants that cater to the international elites passing transiently through Kabul. To sample this it’s simply necessary to wander through the streets of the capital . . . although even something as apparently easy as this requires careful planning if you want to avoid being kidnapped or worse. The problem is that westerners represent a dual target of choice. If held for ransom they can be worth a tidy sum of money and their capture can also provide useful propaganda for insurgent groups. That’s why those who live in the capital always travel by car and vary their routes and timings – anything else is just too dangerous. Nevertheless, the advantages of wandering through the city streets are just too great to pass up.
Exposing yourself to the real Kabul outside the carefully guarded compounds opens an entirely new side to the city; one I found well worth the small (yet significant) risk attendant on doing so. Early one evening I hadn’t got more than 100 paces after visiting an embassy when the warm aroma of freshly baked naan bread emanating from an open earthenware oven ridiculed my resolve not to deviate from my carefully planned route. Moments later I’d been literally pulled through the bakery window and was standing at the lip of the tandoor, tasting bread freshly plucked from the walls only seconds before.
Although the city has been packed with itinerant soldiers, diplomats and journalists for almost a decade, a foreigner displaying interest in the routines of daily life is still unusual enough to provoke outbursts of marvellous hospitality from those working in the city. The baker had to be firmly pressed before he’d accept anything in return for the most wonderful bread I’d ever tasted. This was my second lesson. Food doesn’t need to be tricked-up and turned into a delicacy to be delicious . . . the simplicity of this loaf, made to the same unchanging recipe for the past thousand years, offered something that couldn’t be valued in any currency.
By the time I’d walked to the end of the block I’d sampled kebabs smoked in front of me in an upturned 44-gallon drum that once held fuel and purchased spices – they smelt far too wonderful to pass-up – from another stall. Watching two laughing men hand-churning Sheer Yakh (Afghan ice cream) proved similarly too good an opportunity to walk past. The café specialised in deserts and sweetmeats. A smooth cone of Yakh, decorated with nuts and bathed in goats milk, was delivered to the table with a flourish equal to the arrival of a flambé at a Michelin-starred French restaurant in Paris. I ate Kabul’s atmosphere with relish.