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Local 16 owner Aman Ayoubi and his mom, Benazir Ayoubi, have been in the restaurant’s kitchen since 9 a.m., preparing dinner for a dozen family members and close friends (plus one reporter). Rather than the U Street NW spot’s regular menu of pizzas, sandwiches, and chicken tenders, they’re cooking up Kabuli pulao, ashak, and other Afghan specialties.
The ashak—boiled ravioli-like dumplings filled with leek, spring onion, and cilantro—arrive on a big platter topped with a bolognese-like sauce made of beef and lentils, a yogurt sauce, and mint. Kabuli pulao—fragrant rice with raisins, carrots, and saffron—accompanies lamb. The feast also includes a lentil and bean soup with lamb, a spiced eggplant with yogurt, and baklava with a hint of lemon and cardamom.
Ayoubi hasn’t been to Afghanistan in more than 30 years, but the food has always been home to him. Now, he’s attempting to document his mother’s recipes, which have never been written down, with the hope of someday turning them into a book. The meal is also a test run for a new Afghan menu that Ayoubi is officially introducing this week (in addition to Local 16’s standard menu). If it’s successful, he’d love to one day convert the entire restaurant to his native cuisine. “First we have to introduce it and educate people,” he says. “Let them taste it. Let them make the decision.”
Coincidentally, Ayoubi isn’t the only local restaurateur getting back to his Afghan roots. The Washington Post recently reported that the Popal family, who owns French restaurants Café Bonaparte, Napoleon, and Malmaison, have decided to convert their Adams Morgan spot, Napoleon, into an Afghan restaurant. (They’re not sharing the name just yet.) It’s set to open at the end of March, just after the Afghan new year Nowruz, which translates to “new day” and marks the beginning of spring.
Ayoubi fled Kabul, Afghanistan, in December 1979, two days after the Soviets invaded and at the beginning of a nine-year war that displaced millions. At 19 years old, he was the first member of his family to come to the United States. He first arrived in New York but soon came to D.C., where he worked as a busboy at the Capital Hilton. Within a dozen years, he worked his way up to the director of food and beverage before moving on to a couple of other hotels and eventually opening his own restaurants and nightclubs. Local 16 debuted in 2002.
Likewise, restaurateurs Zubair and Shamim Popal and their three children left Kabul at the onset of the war in 1980. Zubair Popal worked as director of sales for InterContinental Hotels, and so his family settled at the company’s hotels in the United Arab Emirates. “Our kids were very little. My daughter was only 6 months old,” Shamim Popal recalls. “Without the family, it’s hard to raise three kids without any help, but being in a hotel, it was a blessing for us, a comfortable life.”
The family lived in InterContinental hotels for eight years, during which time Shamim Popal joined weekly cooking classes hosted by one of the hotel’s chef. That was her introduction to cooking. “We were not allowed to go in the kitchen in Afghanistan,” she says, “because we had cooks and they were always like, ‘Get out of the kitchen! What are you doing here?’”
The Popals eventually came to America and settled in Alexandria. Their kids Omar, Mustafa, and Fatima went on to graduate from Georgetown University and George Washington University. Other family members had ended up in Germany, Holland, and France, so the Popals traveled to Europe every year and fell in love with charming cafes. Having grown up around the hospitality industry, the siblings wanted to open a cafe of their own. In 2003, they opened Café Bonaparte in Georgetown with their parents’ backing. Five years later came Napoleon, and last year, Malmaison.
Initially, it didn’t occur to Shamim Popal to open an Afghan restaurant. The French restaurants were successful, she says, so they stuck with that. Popal didn’t even really know how to cook Afghan food until she came to America and her mother-in-law, who lived with them at the time, started teaching her. She then began regularly cooking it at home. “I didn’t want my kids to eat [outside] of the house because it was really not healthy food,” she says. “I even prepared food for their lunch boxes.”
Afghan cuisine is a blend of influences from many neighboring countries. Saffron from Iran, on Afghanistan’s western border, figures prominently, as do spices like coriander and turmeric, which are also ubiquitous in the curries of nearby India and Pakistan. Afghan food, though, isn’t very spicy. Grilled meats and rice dishes resemble what you’ll find throughout the Middle East, while yogurt brings to mind the Mediterranean. There’s even some influence from China—which shares a very small stretch of Aghanistan’s border—and Central Asian countries in the form of dumplings. In addition to ashak (the dumplings filled with leeks and green onions), another of Afghanistan’s most famous dishes is called mantu (in the same family as Turkish manti or Korean mandu). These dumplings are typically filled with lamb or beef and topped with a tomato-lentil-meat sauce and a yogurt-based sauce. “We love that dish so much my dog’s name is Mantu,” Ayoubi says.
The dish is one of about half a dozen Afghan staples Ayoubi is serving at Local 16. He’s also using pizza ovens (rather than the traditional clay ovens) to prepare stuffed bread with pumpkin or leeks called bolani, which Ayoubi describes as “almost like a calzone.”
Even though there are certain signature dishes, recipes—passed down through generations—can be highly personal and individualized from family to family. “Some of my recipes are really secret recipes,” says Popal, demurring when I ask her to share what’s on her menu, which is still in development. “If I go to my cousin’s home, she won’t cook the same way I cook, because the recipes are different… It’s the same thing with all the Afghan restaurants.” She’s personally writing the menu for the family’s new restaurant, which affords her some new liberties: “Every time [my kids] open a restaurant, I was involved in the kitchen, but I couldn’t say anything to the chefs because they’re chefs… It is exciting because I have the power of the kitchen.”
It wasn’t just her family that was keen on opening their own Afghan restaurant. Popal says it was the international crowd of diners at their French restaurants, too. “All the time we heard from customers: ‘When are you going to open that delicious Afghan food restaurant?’ Trust me, I heard it probably every week in the last 12 years,” she says. “Recently we were like, ‘You know, why not? Why can’t we change Napoleon?’”
Popal says the increasing competition, with the arrival of French restaurants Le Diplomate and Mintwood Place, wasn’t one of their motivations for the switch. But in D.C.’s growing foodie scene, diners are perhaps more enthusiastic than ever about lesser-known cuisines. (Just look at the hype around the city’s first Laotian restaurant, Thip Khao.) Of course, Afghan food is by no means new to D.C. Afghan Grill, for example, has resided in Woodley Park since 2001, and there are plenty of other destinations nearby. (Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother has owned an Afghan restaurant in Baltimore for years.) But the fact that two restaurateurs in prime District locations are converting their menus to Afghan food at the same time will no doubt give the cuisine more visibility.
Ayoubi says he’s wanted to do this for years. Local 16 has featured an Afghan dish or two on the menu in the past, but they were never really promoted. He’s also hosted Christmas parties with Afghan food and private Afghan-style lamb roasts on the roof. “I was always saying that if I ever open one more restaurant, it will be an Afghan restaurant,” he says. Instead of putting lots of money into a new space, Ayoubi ultimately thought it best to introduce a menu at his existing restaurant.
And with his 72-year-old mother getting older, he wanted to make sure he wrote down the family recipes. “If nobody’s going to document it, then I’m afraid one day, they will forget about it,” he says.
Both Ayoubi and Popal say America’s military involvement in Afghanistan has helped bring attention, or at least curiosity, to the country’s food. “Now everybody knows about Afghanistan,” Ayoubi says. “Now everybody wants to know about the culture, what these people are eating.” Ayoubi believes Afghan food will catch on in America the same way Korean or Vietnamese food did after waves of immigrants from countries arrived after U.S. wars there. Not only are there now more Americans who’ve been to Afghanistan, there are also larger Afghan communities in Washington and elsewhere around the country, Ayoubi says. “And I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
Photo of Aman Ayoubi (right) and his mom Benazir Ayoubi (left) by Darrow Montgomery