Afghan food tantalizes the American palate like a half-remembered melody, at once exotic and familiar. Flavors we have learned to love from Middle-Eastern or Indian cooking—cumin, —combine in exciting and different ways.
You only have to look at a map to see just why this is so. Tucked into the mountains between Iran and a whole host of “-stans” (Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), just one small country away from India and China, Afghanistan is not quite the Middle East, not quite Asia. Its cuisine has elements of each but is distinctively its own.
Focused on the televised images of war-torn Afghanistan, most Americans aren’t aware of the country’s vibrant culture or its rich cuisine, says Anwar Naderpoor, the owner of Samira Restaurant on Bloomington’s downtown Square. His memories of the pre-war, pre-Taliban Afghanistan he left 23 years ago are vivid and mouthwatering. He talks about the flavorful dumplings topped with yogurt sauce he would buy on the street and the other wonderful foods he loved, still savoring their long-ago taste.
Thanks to Anwar and his wife Mary, for the last eight years Bloomington has been able to sample many of those foods. Named after their daughter, the newly renovated Samira, with comfortable booths lining one side of the long, low-ceilinged dining room, serves superb Afghan food. From the paper-thin grilled eggplant, marinated in garlic, hot peppers, and olive oil that, with fabulous Afghan flatbread (naan), begins every meal, to the tiny sugar-dusted biscotti that close it, a meal at Samira is an exciting culinary journey.
Order, for instance, the samarok to start—mushrooms sautéed with onions, garlic, spices, peppers, lemon, and lots of cilantro. The resulting sauce is warming, tangy, and addictive. Or begin with the sambosa, flaky pastry filled with savory meat or vegetables, and served with a bright and tasty cilantro chutney, or baba ganouj, rich and creamy with the bite of lemon and garlic.
Entrees shine as well. Sizzling kebabs are served with brown basmati rice, fragrant with spice and studded with shredded carrot and raisins. Aushak and manto, steamed dumplings, like fat Afghan ravioli, are delicate and plump, with spicy meat or vegetable fillings.
Samira is heaven for vegetarians, serving not only meatless versions of the dumplings and appetizers but also wonderful vegetable dishes like a rich and luscious baked eggplant with yogurt sauce and a tangy lentil stew.
And if, after all that, you’ve saved room for dessert, the baklava is as good as it gets.