KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — To the outside world, Afghanistan is an unsettled war zone, where Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters lay ambushes, where warlords carry out bloody personal vendettas, and where the revival of opium is quickly turning this country into a narco-state.
But here's some good news: Kabul now has a great steakhouse.
Attracted by all those diplomats, peacekeepers, UN officials, aid workers, and foreign correspondents - and their dollars - culinary entrepreneurs are coming to Kabul in droves. Their services comes at a price - between $15 and $25 per person at some restaurants - and is beyond the means of most ordinary Afghans. But for foreigners, the restaurant boom is a welcome alternative to the holy trinity of Afghan cuisine: kebabs, rice, and bread.
For entrepreneurs, the arrival of nongovernmental organizations (or NGOs) with well-paid staffers is the sort of stuff that Nightly Grand Openings are made of. But every good conflict-related aid boom must end, particularly when donor countries start feeling "compassion fatigue." This means that restaurateurs in conflict zones need to move quickly to make their bucks. After all, very few conflict zones have enough of a middle class to keep such exotic restaurants going, after the aid workers have gone.
But in Kabul, the bust is still a long way off, and the boom couldn't come at a better time. Most aid groups now forbid their foreign staffers to travel outside Kabul, because of the increasing frequency of kidnappings or attacks in the countryside. Just last month, two Turkish engineers were rescued by Afghan National Army troops after being held for nearly two months by pro-Taliban fighters near Ghazni.
Yet it's this very reason - danger - that caused Led Trajico Taguiam, a restaurateur from Manila, to come to Kabul.
"I like to take risks and reach out for new activities," says Mr. Taguiam, manager of Kabul's latest hot spot, an American style steakhouse called Hot and Sizzling. "I think this is a good time to invest. This is a healthy environment for investment. Kabul and Afghanistan in general are vibrant, and the government encourages investment."
The inside of Hot and Sizzling is designed to make diners forget they are in a conflict zone. In the entry, there's a small wrap-around bar made of bamboo and formica, held down by a quartet of regulars who would not be out of place at a truckstop in upstate New York. Actually, the term "regulars" is perhaps premature, because the restaurant has been operating only since December, and most of Kabul's aid workers and others are here only on six-month contracts.
Further into the restaurant there is a lounge with plush chairs, and four separate karaoke rooms, where diners can choose from nearly 7,000 songs in 12 different languages, including Taguiam's mother tongue, Tagalog. Taguiam also has plans to create an outdoor seating area, just inside the razor-wire topped gates, along with areas where guests can barbecue their own steaks, which are flown in frozen each week from the US.
"We want you to consider this your third home," says Taguiam, giving a tour of the restaurant. "The first home is your house. The second home is your office. The third home is here, where you can relax and can stay from morning to evening and nobody will rush you out."
Across town, there is also a new German restaurant called the Deutsche Hof, where one can get a magnificent pork chop, along with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, for around $20. Budget minded diners can try the bratwurst for around $12.
At Lal Thai restaurant, you can get a delicious bowl of tom kha gai soup for $5, and a superb plate of Chicken Choo Chee curry, all served by waitresses from Thailand and Cambodia who speak little English, let alone either of the two national tongues, Farsi and Pashto. Pointing at the menu is encouraged.
At Popolano Italian restaurant - Kabul's only chain restaurant, with two branches - the prices are much more down to earth. 350 Afghanis (or $8) will buy you a medium chicken tikka pizza. Chicken tikka, of course, is a tangy Indian concoction that's as necessary to any pizza menu in Asia as pepperoni is in the US.
The international flavors are a reminder of Afghanistan's golden age, in the 1960s and early '70s when Kabul was considered one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Islamic world. The restaurants also reflect a contemporary Afghan reality: After agriculture, the aid industry is the second biggest sector of the economy, according to the Essential Field Guides: Afghanistan.
For most of these restaurants, the key ingredient is security. US embassy staff, for instance, were banned from visiting local restaurants because they were perceived to be prime targets for terrorist attack. But now restaurants that cater to foreigners have taken on that paranoid-comfortable Fort Knox feel, complete with armed guards, iron gates, and closed-circuit TVs.
All of this, unfortunately, is outside the price range of ordinary Afghans. Those pork chops, for instance, would cost about a week and a half's salary for a recruit of the new Afghan National Army (and pork is verboten by Islam anyway). Some restaurants serving alcohol, such as Hot and Sizzling, won't even allow Afghans to enter, out of respect for Afghanistan's strict Islamic traditions, and to avoid being shut down by Kabul police.
Yet even for Afghans, today's Kabul is a far cry from Taliban times, when the Afghan capital had just two restaurants - the Herat and the Khalid - and a scattering of smoky, open-air kebab shops. At the New York Restaurant, a kebab stand in the central park district called Shar-e Naw, 150 Afghanis (or $3) is enough to buy kebabs for a family of five. And at Moussa Burger, which doesn't actually serve burgers, one can buy spicy fried chicken and fries for two at about the same price.
But there are some things that don't change. The menu at the Herat, once a favorite spot for Taliban commanders and Arab fighters - particularly those from the elite Brigade 51 of Al Qaeda - still has excellent meat-filled manto dumplings for about 50 Afghanis, and rice pullao for 70 Afghanis. The flatbread is free. There is a separate purdah room for female guests, a VIP room for anyone who considers himself a VIP, and a dining room complete with a raised platform where Afghan traditionalists can dine cross-legged, on the floor, leaning up against cotton-filled pillows.
"I'm so happy there are more restaurants in Kabul," says Herat owner Azim Niazi, somewhat surprisingly. "During the Taliban times, there were fewer restaurants, because there were fewer people here. Now, the Afghan people are coming back, because it is peaceful here, and the number of restaurants is increasing. That benefits everyone."
And while most of the staff at these restaurants are themselves foreign - Chinese waitresses at the Chinese restaurants, Thais at Lal Thai, Indians at Delhi Durbar, and Filipinos at Hot and Sizzling - Mr. Niazi says that all of this foreign restaurant business does have a trickle-down effect on the economy, eventually.
"The economy is like a chain; if the chain is complete then it is strong and it benefits everyone," Niazi says. "So if a foreigner comes to town and opens a restaurant, he may buy his food from outside the country, he may hire his waiters from outside, but he still has to hire a few Afghans to cook food in the kitchen, to clean up the tables. I may not get the benefit from that personally, but some Afghans will get the benefit."