South Asia Features
Dining out in Kabul with a critical eye (Feature)
By Can Merey May 31, 2009, 3:04 GMT
Kabul - Most Westerners think any foreigner travelling to Kabul is in mortal danger from Taliban suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices and firefights as soon as they arrive.
The Afghan capital is obviously more dangerous than London or Berlin and the tense security situation does limit the lives of foreigners living in the city.
But they still have to eat. A lively restaurant scene has grown in Kabul and is scrutinized by Rosemary Stasek, the country's only restaurant reviewer.
These days, the dozens of restaurants in Kabul have something for almost every foreign taste: curry at Lai Thai, falafel at Tavern du Liban, an oven-fresh baguette in Le Bistro, pasta in Bella Italia or Kabuli pilaf rice in the Afghan Sufi.
Unlike in many European capitals, diners can smoke in every Kabul restaurant, and Westerners can wash away the dust of the Afghan capital with a glass of wine or a cold beer before reading the menu. Muslims are not allowed alcohol in Afghanistan but non-Muslims can get it in licensed restaurants. Some unlicensed restaurants sell alcohol under the counter. On the bill, those drinks are then listed as 'special soup.'
Besides numerous kebab stands and snack bars like Afghan Fried Chicken, which has borrowed the name and logo of the US chain KFC, there are plenty of restaurants at the upper end of the price scale. Their customers are mainly foreigners who work for aid organizations, embassies or the media. Soldiers eat at the military bases.
Restaurant managers have erected high walls topped with barbed wire and installed metal doors flanked by Kalashnikov-armed guards to comply with UN security rules.
Stasek has invited to her favourite Chinese restaurant - Golden Key - complete with sandbags and automatic weapons out front.
'Please keep your weapon inside,' signs on the lockers in the corridor say.
In the garden, roses bloom, songbirds chirp in a cage and shisha pipes wait to be lit. The plastic swans are supposed to help the decor, but it is the menu that persuades the guest that this is a good restaurant. It offers duck with pineapple for 14 dollars or lobster with ginger and spring onions for 28 dollars. The 'mutton in hot pot' and the 'iron platter beef' taste excellent.
Stasek, a US citizen, has tested 37 restaurants in Kabul so far and published the results on the internet. The 45-year-old's reviews hardly meet the standards set by the internationally renowned Michelin Guide: They are short and to the point and help diners get their bearings fast.
The verdicts can be crushing - the 'service sucks,' Stasek writes, or extremely positive - 'the best lamb chops in the world.' Stasek readily admits that being a reviewer is not her main job. She used to be mayor of the Californian town of Mountain View.
Numerous Afghans live there. In 2002 - just after the Taliban regime was toppled - Stasek travelled with a delegation to the Hindu Kush for the first time. 'I fell in love with this place,' she says.
When her term as mayor finished at the end of 2004, she wanted to go to Kabul for a few months. She founded an aid organization for women, got to know a South African, married him and now has no plans to leave Afghanistan.
'One of the most common questions newcomers to the city ask is where can you have a good meal,' says Stasek. She decided to put the answers on her website.
On her website she says you can die a violent death in Kabul. But 'the most likely cause will be getting plowed over by a Blackwater [a private US security company] convoy.'
Stasek says people in the West have a false picture of Kabul and that she in fact lives a mostly ordinary life there. In the morning she gets up, feeds the dog and goes to work. When she arrives home in the evening, she sometimes cooks and watches television with her husband. Other times she goes out to eat with him.
'Very little of my life involves the Taliban,' she says. (Internet: http://www.stasek.com/rrr)