Imagine a magic carpet of food, sumptuous dishes scented with cardamom, cumin, saffron, mint and turmeric, plates of succulent meats, fish and vegetables, handmade breads and stuffed dumplings, followed by sweets and heaps of fruit.
This is the food of Afghanistan, which flies far under the radar in Los Angeles. There may be a handful of Afghan restaurants in and around the city, but these are drops in a very large bucket.
If you are lucky enough to have an Afghan friend, though, you may be treated to a feast at home, prepared with no regard for expense, effort and time.
Nargis Ghyasi of Garden Grove was up at 4 a.m. to cook so much food that she would struggle to find room for all of it on her table, and that's not counting a separate display of desserts, fruits and drinks.
It's not unfair to describe a meal that only her friends could eat, because this may change. Ghyasi says she's serious about catering, and this could have been a practice run.
Afghan food is new to me, but some things were familiar, although prepared differently from what I have seen. One is do piaza, which In India describes a dish with two styles of onion. For the Afghan version, Ghyasi paired beef with raw onions marinated in vinegar and sautéed onions with tomato. In the center she placed boiled beans.
Turkey's tiny manti became bigger mantu (above) that Ghyasi filled with chicken and vegetables. Turkish manti are boiled. Ghyasi steamed hers, then dressed them with yogurt, tomato, black pepper and mint.
Because turmeric is considered healthy, Ghyasi had put it in almost every dish. You can tell when turmeric is present even if you don't taste or see it. The telltale sign is a trace of yellow in the juices left on the plate. This is what revealed the turmeric in Ghyasi's spinach with mushrooms. Can you see it at the edge of the plate?
Another vegetable was borani banjan, eggplant so rich it seemed buttery, although butter was not part of the dish. Ghyasi said all she did was slice the eggplant and bake it with tomato sauce and garlic. It's in the foreground in the photo above.
Instead of plain rice, she had made Afghanistan's spectacular qabuli pulao (above). Starting with a layer of lamb on the platter, she added a generous mound of basmati rice and then carrot strands, raisins and nuts, which she had sautéed in oil and sprinkled with sugar and cardamom. Saffron and cumin added their fragrances too. Sweet and savory, the pulao was stunning.
There were also salads, including one that Ghyasi had made and an orzo salad brought by a friend.
Because Valentine's Day is coming up, she had traced hearts onto this saffron-flavored rice pudding. There were also a fruit platter and a cake. And a guest had brought a Lebanese rice pudding called mowgli, topped with nuts and flavored with ground caraway and cinnamon.
It took hours to eat so much, and the conversation went on until midnight, fueled by tea served Middle Eastern style in glass cups. Ghyasi had prepared all this without help and was planning another dinner for friends in a couple of days. That's how inexhaustible Afghan hospitality can be.