For Mursal Saiq, co-founder and director of the acclaimed Afghan BBQ restaurant Cue Point, the ability to recreate iconic Afghan dishes like Kabuli pulao or mantu is the closest thing to being home with family. “To me, Afghan food means comfort. It means flavour.”
The ability to convene in spaces with one’s own community also means an affirmation of self: “That affirmation is crucial when the world has denied you your identity,” she says. “And for those of us who can’t really go home, having these spaces or gathering places isn’t just a place to talk about issues that affect the community.”
About 70% of the Afghan diaspora in Britain are based in the capital, with the vast majority based in western boroughs like Southall, Greenford, Ealing, and Hounslow. As such, many restaurants that serve traditional Afghan dishes for their respective communities — predominantly Tajik or Pashtun — can be found here, with a growing contingent in East London.
Saiq explains that some Afghans, lacking the confidence upfront to sell their own cuisine, opened restaurants under the cover of Iranian or Persian eateries, a practice facilitated by the observation that “Afghans and Iranians share commonality in [our] food — you’ll find that our food cultures begin to merge,” she says.
“From my parents’ generation to the current crop of millennial Afghans, the community has come a long way. But London is only just getting there with Afghan food, and we’re at the forefront of the beginning of where people are just realising that there are restaurants here, that there are people here.”
As well as experiencing delicious Afghan cooking, frequenting Afghan-owned businesses can also have a direct impact beyond immediate pleasure. “It’s supporting the community generationally,” she explains. “So, making sure that you visit Afghan restaurants, and making sure that you take friends and family — because most likely their families are back home — any money that you put into their pockets will directly ripple into communities there. In a more cultural way, you’re also keeping an identity alive that is being shattered.”
“The other thing you can do,” she continues, “is to use your voice to show support to the community and be an ally. People say, ‘no one really cares,’ but they do. It may not change policy, but it makes a difference to the mental health of the global community.”
While she’s acutely aware that Afghanistan will struggle to exist independently of outside forces, she’s adamant that it doesn’t have to equate to resignation for British Afghans and others in her diaspora. “So many countries like Afghanistan will not be given justice,” she says, “but what we can do is to reclaim our identity, pride and dignity. We can give that pride back to our uncles, our aunts, our grandparents, our mothers, and ourselves, by representing each other. We can return that pride by not feeling alone in our communities.”
Here are Mursal’s favourite restaurants across London for classic Afghan cooking.
“Greenford has a huge Afghan community, and Taste of Afghanistan is one of the few restaurants that uses the name ‘Afghanistan,’” she declares. “So, it’s quite special in that sense because so many Afghans have been so afraid to put it out there.”
“I really like the mantu here. The dumplings are the thing that you’ll find across the nation, and every restaurant has a variation,” she explains. “You get two types – either the leek and spinach, or the minced lamb and onion. The second is my favourite thing in the world. They’re steamed, and come with an oil-based lentil qorma as a garnish, and a cold yoghurt with mint on top.” 187 Greenford Rd, Middlesex UB6 8QY.
“Sheer yakh translates to ‘cold milk’ — it’s the ice cream of Afghanistan,” she smiles. “[In Kabul] we’d go at night to get sheer yakh in the summer. It isn’t actually ice cream, but it is this cold milk dessert. It’s old-school, delicious, and creamy. To find a place that’s called itself that — again, in Greenford — means that the Afghan community is really growing.” 177 Uxbridge Road, London W7 3TH.
“Ariana is like our commercial train of restaurants that you also have in the U.S., in New York and Los Angeles with their huge Afghan communities. This restaurant is more Persian-Afghan fusion because you’ll find butter with the rice,” she says. “At the same time, you will find some of the most authentic Afghan dishes like pumpkin kadoo. Vegan dishes are quite popular in Afghan cooking — they’re oily in a good way, and incredibly flavourful.”
“You should also order the borani banjan, which is a low-and-slow cooked aubergine. And you should order the Kabuli pulao, the rice of the nation, which is rice, stewed meat, and fried carrots and raisins. You would definitely order the mantu, plus the okra and potatoes,” she beams. “When I brought vegetable dishes into Cue Point, I didn’t have to do anything because the dishes were already vegan.” 241 Kilburn High Rd, London NW6 7JN.
“Ariana in Mile End is where young Afghans, Iranians, and Tajiks come to relax. It has a similar menu to Ariana II [in Kilburn], but you come here to order platters; we’ve had many birthday parties here growing up. You can pre-order and ask for some rice dishes, some meat dishes, and some veg dishes, and then they will bring out platters with the grilled meat and tomato and an assortment of things.” However, Saiq notes that “if you want the Afghan items, you have to be a little bit more specific.”
“This Mile End restaurant has a lovely outdoor area where you can sit, and it’s very Afghan style with the carpets and the ornaments. It’s very beautiful.” 2 Midlothian Rd, London E3 4SE.
“As you enter Zaytoon, it’s the décor that gets me — it’s the reason I wanted my graduation party there,” she says. “You walk into this restaurant, and it has paintings and tile images of ancestral Tajik princesses, and in this space my family likes it because we’re all Tajiks; it has that focus on that Tajik ancestry and identity. Everyone speaks Dari, so you can speak to them. It’s like you’re going to a restaurant back home.”
More than the space itself, she also loves the food: “For me it’s the perfect amalgamation of Afghan and Iranian food — the mantu there is one of the best,” she notes. “And they do an excellent bulani, which is a pastry with three major fillings — potato and onion, leek and spinach, or pumpkin and onion. It’s served with a chapni and a yoghurt. It’s a street food snack that you’d have with the dumplings.” 94-96 Cricklewood Broadway, London NW2 3EL.
“Shinwari is where my sister, a young Muslim doctor, and her friends would go; it’s sort of like the young professionals’ Afghan restaurant,” Saiq says. “Before you get married, you’ll have a little party — and that party is called a ‘shinwari’. So, they’re ‘that party before your wedding.’”
“My family likes the chapli kebab, which is the best little burger ever. There’s a traditional element to this place, too, in that you can sit on a beautiful carpet and feast on grilled meat and delicious naan.” 229-231 Cranbrook Rd, Ilford IG1 4TF
“These guys have a stall in Victoria Park Market on Sundays, and they’re starting to talk about Afghanistan. They’re absolutely killing it with their Afghan street food wraps and Afghan rice boxes, which is like a Kabuli pulao with rice and chicken and salad, sort of like a commercial version of some very classic dishes.” Various locations — more info here.
“Watani Box is a brother-and-sister duo that started up during COVID-19,” she says. “What I love about them is that ‘Watan’ translates to country. It’s a little bit of each of the classic dishes — you’ve got Kabuli pulao, the chapli kebab, the lubiya, and the mantu. It’s all of the best things.”
“They just want everyone to have a taste of the ‘Watan’.” Saiq adores their chapli kebab as much as their entrepreneurial spirit. “For me, theirs is one of the best chapli kebabs because they’ve managed to get it out of there. They’re one of the most modern British Afghan companies. They have a little drive-through where you can come and pick up, or they’ll drive to you.” Delivery offered across London. Order here.
Read Mursal Saiq’s personal essay on the growing pride within London’s Afghan community here.
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