Some restaurant owners go into the business with an implicit idea of giving their neighbours a deeper view of where they’re from. This was a major inspiration for Basir Ghiasi, who came to New York from Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, and his son Mohamed, who began plans to open an Afghan restaurant in Brooklyn last year after the Taliban retook control of Kabul.
“There’s no country right now, it’s ruled by a bunch of terrorists, so how can I help keep the culture alive?” Mohamed Ghiasi said to a reporter for Brooklyn Magazine after Dunya Kabab House opened in March. “And the best way I know is through food.”
Most reasons for getting into the restaurant business are, on some level, personal. Ghiasi’ is understandable: If your family was from Afghanistan, would you really want the world to believe that the Taliban represents the best your culture has to offer?
Of course, culture is most persuasive when it’s good. Dunya Kabab House is. The elder Ghiasi contributed recipes he remembers from Afghanistan, and does much of the cooking. Gentle much of the time, forceful when it needs to be, the menu can guide you on an exploration of the pleasures of Afghanistan’s golden fritters, thin-skinned dumplings and aromatic stews, or it can come to your rescue when you are simply hungry for grilled meat.
If you are in the mood for delicacy, there is no better place to start than with a plate of the excellent bolani. These flat triangles of crisply fried dough can be stuffed with potatoes and cilantro, or with a sweet spread of pumpkin, but the most interesting bolani of all contain a layer of scallions and leeks. They are something like Chinese scallion pancakes, although they’re not made the same way at all. Sharing a basket with the bolani will be a portion of yogurt-mint sauce with garlic. It would probably be good on anything in the restaurant, but it has an especially transformative effect on bolani.
To make the eggplant dish called borani banjan, thick rounds of eggplant are fried and then buried under tomato sauce that has a whisper of heat and an understated dose of spices. This is topped with a spoonful of the same yogurt-mint sauce and extra dried mint. (If you’ve never understood why a recipe would call for dried mint over fresh, a meal at Dunya will show you the light.)
When Afghans dream of dumplings, some see mantu and others have visions of aushak. I had always been in the mantu camp, preferring their plump core of spiced meat to the leeks and scallions hidden inside aushak. Dunya’s aushak won me over, though; the flavour of the filling was more lasting and seemed to have more to say to the dark red gravy poured over them.
Lamb is cooked slowly with tomatoes and spices to make korma chalao, a stew that is both soothing and energizing. Some of the energizing power must come from Dunya’s lamb, which has a strong, almost gamy flavor that is very welcome in this dish. (Like the rest of the meat, it is bought from a halal butcher.) Korma chalao can be eaten on its own or, as part of a classic Afghan trio, it can be ordered with extremely long-grained sela rice and a green heap of spinach seasoned with fresh herbs and cardamom.
But this is a kebab house. Though I’m captivated by many dishes at Dunya, I always want a kebab or two at some point — usually as soon as I look through the kitchen window and see skewer after skewer of chicken and lamb being patiently turned over a shallow grill.
Dunya’s skewers would stand out almost anywhere. I’ve never been served one that was dry or tough. There are tender, juicy koftas of ground chicken and lamb. There are cubes of lamb or beef, or whole chicken thighs, which are tinted yellow from a long tenderizing soak in saffron and yogurt. And there are chapli kebabs, herb-seasoned beef patties that are not grilled on skewers at all but fried, and delicious.
A squeeze bottle of a creamy white garlic sauce is brought to the table so you can stream it over the kebabs. This substance may remind you of the white sauce that street-cart vendors around the city are always offering to squirt over your halal chicken and rice, and with good reason: The Ghiasis have been making and distributing the stuff for years. Essentially thinned mayonnaise seasoned with garlic and dried mint, it is especially good in combination with one or both of Dunya’s house chutneys. One is a thick red paste of sweet and hot chiles and garlic; the other is a green cilantro sauce that is milder but not quite harmless.
One of the Ghiasis is likely to show up at your table sooner or later, usually sooner. They are quick to steer customers toward what they consider the best dishes — there’s none of that “everything chef makes is excellent” drivel here. If you listen to their advice, dessert will be firnee, the cardamom-scented heavy-cream pudding with a green dusting of pistachios on the surface. — NYT