Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Seeing double

Walking up the street for Sunday lunch at Afghan restaurant Mazar felt a bit like a scene in the old Spiderman, where Spidey suddenly finds himself squaring up to an identically dressed doppelgänger. There, just across the road, no more than twenty metres away was Masa; a very similarly named Afghani restaurant with a similar interior and a similar menu. 

Even more confusingly, we had also previously eaten Sunday lunch at Masa - although I did find myself having to search the blog to confirm this, a perennial problem of eating out a lot coupled with general short-term memory loss – which added to the feeling of general discombobulation.

One thing that certainly did differ between our visits was the temperature. Previously, on our visit across the road, everything was festooned in tinsel and there were Christmas films on the TV (or so the blog tells me). Whereas this time the TV in the corner – another similar touch – was showing the European Road Cycling Championships, with Glasgow bathed in rare sun.

It was even hotter in Harrow, with the weather station down the road recording the highest temperature in the country. Only a few degrees shy of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Afghan city where the owner hails from and for which the restaurant is named.

The interior is a little more ramshackle that it’s slightly fancier rival across the road, with the decor somewhere between a takeaway shop – they also offer a menu of burgers and pizza - and a cosy family restaurant. The walls are dominated by pictures of Afghanistan, including one of the blue mosque, which the owner was very happy to come over and talk to us about when he saw the Ewing admiring it. In fact, she was so smitten with his descriptions that it went straight to the top of the holiday list, at least until she got home and saw the Foreign Office has advised against all non-essential travel there…

Thankfully, although a visit to this fascinating country remains off limits to all but the most intrepid explorer, there’s still a chance to experience some of the culture and Afghani cuisine in this corner of North West London. Eschewing the standard fast food options, we chose the family pack 1, a selection of different traditional dishes served with naan and salad.

A late start in the kitchen that morning meant we were warned it would be about an hour before the rice was ready. No matter, they had air con and the Ewing had her ayran, a slightly salty yogurt drink that, although the thought of it makes me feel a little queasy, is apparently just the ticket in the hot weather.

We started with Mantoo, Afgani parcels filled with lamb, onions and herbs and served topped with a sauce of yoghurt and dried mint. While these were likened to ravioli, a better comparison would be Chinese Jiaozi or Tibetan momo, dumplings with thick wheat wrappers stuffed with ground minced meat and then steamed.

Sabzi Palak, spinach fried with white leek & garlic, was very similar to a good saag bhaji, which I always think of as quite an understated achievement, seeing as most my efforts at cooking spinach end up oily or bitter or gritty or watery. And sometimes, most impressively, all of those things together.

There was also a dish of bamia – a stew of okra, another of my favourite veg. This little baby version had been cooked down with tomato and onions a lashing of olive oil, to form a rich sauce that avoided the gloopy gumminess that the ladies fingers can be prone to (behave at the back).

Skewers of marinated lamb and chicken were smoky and tender and were served with giant oval naan – it wouldn’t be a kebab without some bread - which was flatter and crisper than the more familiar puffy, tear dropped-shape. Its rigid construction made an excellent shovel for the remnants of the dish of strained yogurt, that the Ewing was determined not to waste.

Afghan food, our genial host told us, was better than Indian food as it was spiced, but not too spicy. Of course, I was too polite to challenge his point, but I was very thankful for a verdant dish of sauce - presented with an ominous warning - that proved the perfect blend of heat from chillies and freshness from coriander and parsley.

When the platter of  Qabili Palow finally emerged, it lived up to its billing of Afghanistan’s national dish. Meat (here lamb, on the bone) is slow cooked in stock and added to white rice, that takes on a deep colour from slow-cooked onions and spices, before being topped with plump raisins, slivers of fried carrots, and almonds. Whenever I think I’m not really a fan of rice, I eat a dish like this and have to reconsider my position. There were also plenty of leftovers to take home for dinner the next day.

For desert I was torn between the firni – traditional Afghan desert of set custard sprinkled with pistachios and almonds – and the hot ‘n’ crunchy pie, which I’m guessing is not a traditional desert, but had such an amazing name I wasn’t sure I cared. In the end it was a moot point, as I was far too full to eat anything else, although the owner very kindly gave us a dish of a barfi-like fudge with nuts and some sugared almonds, which the Ewing was very enamoured with.

Whereas when my favourite webbed warrior met his double, there was only going to be one winner, in the case of Mazar and Masa it’s win-win. Two great restaurants, twice the fun. I just wish one was a little closer.

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