A manto vendor spices up life in Kabul

It's a cool spring Friday afternoon in front of the Cinema Park movie theater. The air is chilly in the shade, but an aroma of caramelized onions, chili sauce, and tangy yogurt wafts from the pushcart of the grand old man of Shar-e Naw district: Safar Ali.

Customers call Mr. Ali "Baba," or father, because for 52 years, long before most of his customers were born, Ali has been selling onion-filled dumplings (called manto), hot and cold chickpeas, and other Afghan snacks from this very spot in this busy district of downtown Kabul. It's a trade Ali has plied since the age of 10, when his father bought him his first pushcart and told him to go out and make a life for himself. And now, as nearly three generations of Ali's family have entered the world, the street food trade has proved steady. It's been steady through good times and bad, through civil war and peace, in one of the world's poorest countries.

"Business is good, because people are getting outside more often," says Ali. "But business was also good under the Taliban, because people were poor, and my food was still cheap enough for even the poor."

Prepared at home by his family, Ali's street food is as fresh as it comes, and because he has a steady string of customers, it never sits around long enough to spoil. Most of all, the food is cheap. In a city where foreigners are buying T-bone steak dinners for $25, Afghans can buy dumplings at Ali's pushcart for 2 afghani apiece (about 5 cents), or a large bowl of chickpeas for the equivalent of a quarter.

Sitting on his haunches with a plastic plate of manto dumplings, Zekaria Khan, a regular customer, appears to be in absolute bliss.

"Baba, it's very tasty," he says, taking another spoonful of manto with extra chickpeas scattered on top. "Most Afghans love manto, and if they have a little money, they might go to a restaurant where the manto has meat inside. But I come here because the food is delicious." Manto tastes a lot like a Chinese pot-sticker or wonton, but Afghans then take it in a different direction by adding yogurt, red chili sauce, and chickpeas.

"I have my own business, a barbershop, so I can afford to go to a restaurant if I want," Mr. Khan adds. "But even if I become a big wealthy man, I will still keep coming to Baba."

Khan's friend and fellow barber, Ahmad Shah, says he and Khan come here every week before the Friday afternoon prayers at the nearby mosque. His favorite is red beans with chili sauce and vinegar, but today he's having fried potatoes for variety's sake.

"I like coming here for the sightseeing," he says. "I like to see the shops, the people, the traffic..."

"The pretty girls," Khan interrupts.

Shah laughs, his face blushing to chili-powder red.

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