Dumplings, gözleme, lamb shanks and cream rolls but Afghan style
As soon as we sit down we’re approached by a tall man with a fastidiously trimmed beard and a pinstripe uniform. He guesses we’ve never been here before and he wants to tell us why that’s been a terrible decision. “You won’t have tried anything like this in Sydney,” he says with the unflappable confidence of a super villain on their night of triumph.
He’s half right.
Afghan cuisine isn’t exactly common in Sydney but Khaybar certainly isn’t the only restaurant. There’s around twenty restaurants on my last count, most of them scattered around Auburn and Merrylands. I may have tried a handful of them, but I doubt many of his non-Afghan customers have. My companions for instance have never had Afghan food in their life. If you’re in the same boat, it’s like a mix between middle eastern cuisines and recipes from the sub-continent. If you’re familiar with Persian cuisine, it’s the closest neighbour geographically and culinarily.
Not one to back down from a bit of banter, I mention to our keen waiter there’s many other restaurants like Khaybar in Sydney. He says, ‘our recipes are different.’ Still no sign of any cracks in his confidence. Ok then. Let’s find out.
He eagerly takes us through the menu and suggests a few famous Afghan dishes. Although it feels like we’re getting extra attention as the only non-Afghan customers here, it’s also a pleasant surprise to have a someone serve me who trusts I will enjoy what I’m ordering regardless of how white I am. The first thing he points to is qaboli pallaw (also spelt Kabuli palaw), a rice and lamb dish topped with carrots, raisins, almonds and pistachios. His suggestion is so enthusiastic it feels mandatory to order it, which makes sense, it’s essentially the national dish of Afghanistan.
A traditional Kabuli palaw sees lamb and rice steamed together in an enormous bowl-shaped pot. The rice takes on the flavour of the lamb and the long cooking time tenderises the lamb shanks. When it’s served it’s a savoury and slightly sweet lucky dip of rice, meat, carrots, raisins and nuts. Here it’s served in two parts. One mound of fragrant, prettily arranged rice and another plate with a glistening lamb shank sitting in a shallow stew. The different style doesn’t seem to affect the outcome. The rice is still as rich, and the lamb as tender. So far so good.
The next test is the bulanee kachalu (also spelt bolani kachaloo), a thin gözleme like flat bread creation that’s stuffed with potatoes and spring onion. It arrives volcanically hot but floppy, something which doesn’t seem to matter because it pairs well with the softness of the potato inside.
Finally, we’re delivered a basket of wide flat breads (baked in house) a plate of dumplings (they go by the name mantu in Afghanistan), and a plate of charcoal roasted meats lying intimately with a mass of white and yellow rice, the latter being spiced with saffron. The meat, a mix of skewers, is exactly as you’d want – juicy, simple but well-seasoned. I’m not going to rattle on about it because you’ll find a similar dish in many restaurants. The mantu on the other hand are Afghan exclusive. They’re filled with lamb and a zesty mix of spices, then steamed and topped with a garlic-spiked mix of yoghurt, dried mint and a rich tomato-based sauce.
It seems now that our waiter, who turns out to be one of the two brothers who run the restaurant, was not suggesting his restaurant is better than all others. He was professing his pride. All the recipes here are made from scratch, and almost everything the two brothers known and love about food is due to their mother, who learnt what she knows for her mother and so on down the generational line.
Once we’ve done our best to clean up all the best Khaybar family-recipes, our silky waiter returns to suggest we order dessert – maybe a sherpera (known as Afghan milk fudge), a cream roll or a homemade cheese – but we’re too destroyed by all the food to contemplate anything but a future barren of all food and activity.