Noosh – A Sensual Intro­duction to Afghanistan

A recently opened Afghan eatery gives a taste of the warmth and tradition in a region likely to be off-limits for years to come

afghan restaurant

Clay “walls,” and framed photos of the homeland give Noosh a living room-esque feel | Photo: Noosh

Noosh looks like nowhere else in Vienna. Large, bulbous, coloured lampshades hang down to different depths from the ceiling. The manager, Khaled Khushdel, who designed the décor himself, calls them “Afghan tears”. The inner walls are lined with thickly plastered brown clay that gives the large single room a cosy feeling. “My partner was against it,” says Khaled, “the clay is expensive and I had to import it.” But it’s not just that it’s traditional, he explains, the clay breathes, absorbing humidity and cooking smells.

 

A culture of comradery

As I sip black tea spiced with cardamom and munch on an exotic dessert of pumpkin dumplings with honey and cinnamon, Khaled tells of the forgotten delights of his troubled homeland. He talks of the juicy grapes of Nuristan in the north that once made excellent wine for export and he beams with nostalgic pride as he describes the citrus gardens of Jalalabad in the south, a verdantly fertile oasis where trees bear rich fruit in winter, even though the region is just a three or four hours road journey from the frosty minus temperatures of ice-cracked and bare Kabul.

Khaled talks of the culture of hospitality in his homeland, which dictates, according to a thousand-year tradition, that unknown nomads or even suspected enemies must be welcomed into homes and treated as friends. He points to the black and white photos taken by the Austrian Afghanistan aficionado Dr. Max Klimburg in the 1950s that show full teahouses and families relaxing among beautiful, intricately carved furniture. He tells of a laid-back people, adding with a chuckle, “sometimes we are too laid back!” This is the Afghanistan that attracted the hippies in the 60s and 70s – an enchanted, mysterious place.

It is, of course, a paradise lost. Nowadays the image we have of Afghanistan, from global news coverage, is of an austere, bloodied and fierce country. Eighteen years ago, Khaled fled the political instability himself; gradually building up a life in Vienna – firstly as a refugee and then as an asylum advisor for the charity Caritas – while dedicating any spare moment to his art. His paintings and carbon prints of Afghan life adorn the walls of Noosh and by appealing to our eyes and mouths, he hopes to soften the image of his benighted homeland. “Yes I wanted to serve food and make a business,” long-lashed Khaled says with a smile, “but I also wanted to introduce people to my culture and help them understand more.”

Khaled, who opened the restaurant with his business partner Gulab Nikiar, had initially hoped to serve assorted dishes of the day made from fresh traditional ingredients chosen from local farmers and outside markets, which would be explained orally by the waiters. But early customers found this disorientating and now there is a small written menu.

 

Nutritious secret ingredients

The food is hearty and served in generous portions. With the abundance of lentils, cardamom and curried meats, the cuisine has much in common with Indian food, but it is not as spicy. It’s also akin to Persian cuisine with its yoghurts and eggplants, but, Khaled insists, it’s less bland.

It is also encouragingly healthy. I started with a vitamin-saturated first course of spinach drenched in olive oil and crumbly white cheese (€5.80), which I scooped up with flatbread, whereas my friend chose a warming pumpkin soup, flavoured with ginger (€4.20). For mains we had Palau (€11.80) a mild beef curry with spiced chickpeas and more spinach (call me Popeye) accompanied by a mountain of rice cooked in broth and mixed with lentils, raisins and julienned carrots.

The kitchen area is half-hidden by an irregular grid of Islamic trellis and behind the long bar, which has been shaped roughly and asymmetrically out of cherry wood, there is a panel of calligraphic tiles. The room is partly warmed by a wood-burning stove surrounded by rattan sofas and nearby, a carpeted cubbyhole where you can sit cross-legged and sip your spiced tea.

Most enjoyable, though, was the service. Casual yet obliging, the waiters seemed genuinely tickled pink when we complimented the food and brought out mysterious tangy relishes whose ingredients were either too complicated or too secretive to explain. The staff represent the four corners of multi-ethnic Afghanistan, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Pashtun working together in a way that Khaled says is sadly uncommon in Vienna’s divided Afghan community. Later, we saw the staff gathering around the sofas by the fireplace to feast on the dishes themselves, all in all, a homey feeling that makes you want to return.

 

Noosh
7., Zieglergasse 29
Tue. – Sun., 11:00 – 23:00
khaled.maidani@gmail.com
0699 1925 1142, noosh.at

 

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