KABUL: The soft snap of customers breaking bread punctuates the silence in Waheed’s Restaurant in the heart of Kabul.
As the diners dunk pieces of hot and crispy naan into bowls of freshly cooked chinaki, or mutton stew, waiters can be seen craning their necks, looking for empty tables to accommodate those queuing outside the entrance.
The aroma of the traditional Afghan dish — made with lamb chops, lentils, onions, tomatoes, herbs, and spices — draws people to the restaurant every day, Abdul Waheed, the owner, told Arab News, adding that it is the least he can do to keep an authentic “Afghan tradition alive.”
“Other dishes like pizza, kabab and rice are much easier and take less time to cook,” the 43-year-old Waheed said. “But we are taking the trouble to keep the tradition alive despite getting the low returns on the dish compared with other meals.”
Chinaki is also known as teapot soup because of the vessel it was once cooked in — a teapot.
With a recipe dating back 150 years, the local dish is served by only a handful of Kabul restaurants and is one of the few remaining on menu lists as cafes and restaurants offering foreign cuisines take over.
Typical chinaki is cooked in small chinaware teapots, rarely available in markets and hard to mend after repeated use. Since the taste of the dish varies if cooked in a metal pot, customers are always on the hunt for restaurants that prepare the dish in the traditional style.
Depending on the number of pots, one or two cooks stand for hours to constantly stir the soup with a wooden spoon, adding a small amount of water at regular intervals to keep it from burning.
The arduous cooking process means the dish is cooked only once a day and served at lunchtime. Regular customers, however, know exactly what time to walk in.
“I come here at least four times a month,” Sher Ahmad said. “I like chinaki, it is my favorite food. I know people who have heard of this restaurant in other parts of the country and come to try it when they visit Kabul.”
Waheed said he hopes to keep his familiy tradition alive for as long as possible.
“I inherited the restaurant from my grandfather and father. We have been serving people for nearly 70 years,” he said.
The eatery is located on the second floor of a ramshackle building in an old and bustling part of a bazaar which was demolished by the British forces in the 19th century and destroyed again during fighting in the 1990s.
Waheed’s customers include MPs and government officials accompanied by armed guards for protection.
A former interior minister, Amruallah Saleh, who often travels in an armored vehicle, has been to Waheed’s restaurant twice, according to Feraidoon, one of the cooks.
“He liked it a lot and on one occasion ate twice in one day,” Feraidoon said.
Women wishing to eat rely on takeaways since there is no section for them in the restaurant — another sign of a male-dominated society.
In upmarket parts of Kabul, expensive restaurants have increased in the past 20 years, especially with the arrival of foreign troops and aid workers who brought along dishes from their countries of origin.
Abdullah Ansar, a manager for the Cafeteria, a leading restaurant in the city, said that although his menu features more than 300 foreign-style meals, local dishes were still a favorite for both Afghans and expatriates.
With more than four decades’ experience in the industry, Ansar has been host to regional and world leaders, including former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Ansar said he relies on local products, but also imports ingredients such as cheese, fish, prawns, olive oil and canned fruit from the UAE.
“Afghanistan has delicious local dishes. If peace comes, tourists will come here, and the restaurant and hotel industry will further flourish,” he said.
But like many Afghans, Ansar does not know when the fighting will end and stability will return to the country.