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On the Food Dude beat, diversity is an ostrich feather in the civic cap. Each year, I ask out of town reporters at the state basketball tournaments what’s new in their cities. Invariably, the number one bragging point is either Chinese or Mexican restaurants. In that vein, Des Moines’ first Afghani restaurant is a serious symptom of cosmopolitanism. To put it in perspective, Aryana gives us as many Afghani restaurants as greater Chicago or Minneapolis, and more than Kansas City.

Aryana is a family café occupying the real estate formerly known as India Star (which upgraded to a larger venue on Douglas). Afghani cuisine can best be understood by looking at a map. The country sits halfway between China-India and Turkey-Greece. So does their food. Most people think it resembles Indian, but one regular customer from Macedonia insists that Aryana is the closest thing he’s found in America. My personal experiences with Afghani cuisine in its native habitat were dated before the Russian invasion, when the country was fairly described as peaceful and gentle. If Aryana is indicative, the cuisine has been impervious to the ravages of war and fanaticism.

Dinner moves from east to west beginning with the Cantonese-like dumplings ashak, mantoo and bolani. These were the dishes I most fondly remembered, and also the best I found at Aryana. Ashak consisted of a pasta wrapper filled with leeks and topped with beef and lentils. Mantoo was stuffed with leeks, mint, coriander and beef then topped with lentils and a drizzle of fresh made marinara. Bolani resembled potstickers, stuffed with potatoes and onions and fried crisp. All these appetizers were served with two sauces, one of garlicky yogurt was drizzled over the dumplings while a second, tasting like salty Mexican salsa verde, was served on the side. When I asked what was in that sauce, I was told “sauce.” When I asked for more specifics I was told it was “probably vegetables.” I felt like I was back in a mid-20th century Afghani café again.

Soups and breads were reminiscent of India. Three different naans made me wistful for India Star’s clay oven naans. Aryana’s had too much white flour flavor and were too chewy, even hard to bite off. Yet they also lacked the oven-wall char that distinguishes the best naan. Qorma dishes will seem familiar to fans of mild curries. I tried a good chicken qorma in a tomato-yogurt curry, a better “nakhod qorma” of garbanzo beans and an even better “gulpi qorma” of cauliflower and potatoes.

Kebabs were the most confusing entrées on the menu. In Indian cuisine, “tikka” means that chicken, fish or meat is marinated in bright red spices and yogurt and then cooked boneless on skewers in a clay oven. This Afghani version did not appear to be marinated at all and was cooked over hot flames. To an Iowan, it will seem more Turkish than tikka. My lamb tikka was also severely overcooked — charred and dry, with no vegetables on the skewer.

Maybe the best dish here is a drink called “dogh” and pronounced “dew.’ It’s made with a sweet yogurt base and, according to legend, was given to the Afghani people by Alexander the Great who received it from the gods.

Side dish

Popular Downtown Farmers Market vendor Mohamed Ghobashi is open for business at Kabab House (6737 University Ave., Windsor Heights, 274-3222), but the place is still very much a work-in-progress. The amiable “MG“ is trying out different menus of Middle Eastern and Pakistani foods — to see what the customers want. He offers a mix between original scratch creations (several yogurt sauces and Hallal kababs) and his favorite prepared imports (e.g. - a unique falafel that is made predominantly of fava beans)… Yanni’s moved from Clocktower Square to a spot most recently occupied by Cazador on 22nd Street in West Des Moines (that’s behind Hooter’s, Joe Bob). CV

By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
Centro (2-1-07) KC BBQ (2-8-07)
Planet Sub (2-15-07) Trostel’s Greenbriar (2-22-07)
Acapulco (3-1-07)  

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