Photo Essay: Afghan Refugees and Kabul Kabob House
As thousands of refugees find a new home in San Diego county from Afghanistan, a refugee-owned restaurant 'Kabul Kabob House' brings forth Afghan culture and cuisine to the city of El Cajon.
El Cajon City, once serving as a layover for gold miners just decades ago, now flourishes as a multicultural district of San Diego. With approximately ⅓ of the population being foreign born, it only takes a drive through E Main St. to come across billboards in Arabic writing for Arab restaurants, perfume business, jewelry stores, and more. Majority of the immigrants and refugees in El Cajon come from Iraq and Syria, however, the city is now experiencing the arrival of Afghan refugees. On that same drive down E Main St. is a restaurant, Kabul Kabob House, named after the capital city of Afghanistan. As an Afghan business established in the midst of the pandemic, Kabul Kabob House opened with the intention to show the local San Diego community Afghan culture, cuisine, and hospitality. Out of respect for privacy reasons, the owner’s name and picture have not been included but his story and work is enthusiastically shared.
Inside, the owner’s vision for the layout was to mix aspects of Western dining with Afghan elements. The ceiling paneled structure is representative of what is seen in modern Afghan buildings; there’s also a noticeable color scheme inspired by the colors of the Afghan flag. First stepping into the well-lit restaurant, you’re warmly greeted by the staff and instructed to sit wherever you like. The owner shares that multiple members of the staff are refugees from Afghanistan themselves, although he preferably refers to them as, “the newcomers.” Being a newcomer himself from Afghanistan four years ago, the owner of Kabul Kabob House pays special attention to cater to the newly resettled refugees. San Diego county houses the second largest Afghan population in California. The owner reflects, “The newcomers, they come and they are not as good with other foods. My restaurant is a place they can come and eat the food that they know.”
The owner deems it is a great blessing to be able to serve authentic Afghan food to the local San Diego community and also serve familiar dishes to incoming Afghan refugees. He shares that organizations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) order food from the restaurant in an effort to serve the Afghan refugees food that they are comfortable eating.
Afghan food represents a blend of spices and fruits that creates unique dishes that are representative of the culture in Afghanistan. The restaurant has three popular appetizers and dishes that have become representative of Afghan food to the wider public: Mantoo, Qabili Palaw, and Boolani. Pictured above, is Mantoo, an Afghani dumpling that is also known as the dumpling of the Silk Road. Filled with a blend of meat and spices and atop a creamy mint yogurt sauce, these dumplings are full of flavor.
Sprinkled atop of the kabobs and long-grain basmati rice is a spice that is shared among Afghan, Persian, and Arab cuisine called sumac, which is made of dried ground grape. Pictured in the middle shaker in the picture above, sumac adds a sour and sweet taste to the food. The owner shares that, “Afghan cuisine is not very spicy. We make our rice with raisins and carrot, it’s sweet.” Below in the top right of the image, is another one of the most popular dishes at the restaurant, Qabili Palaw. This dish consists of a bed of steamed rice cooked in a flavor meat broth mixed with caramelized carrots and raisins atop of a tender shank of meat. Boolani, not pictured here, is a stuffed flatbread, usually filled with spiced potatoes and meat.
The owner points out that people from multiple cultures have tried the food and greatly appreciated it, from the local Arab families to the weekly visits from the Somali community after the Friday prayer. The owner proclaims with a smile, “They come and they love the food!”
In the future, Kabul Kabob House hopes to open a Halal meat shop next door to the restaurant. Halal translates to “permissible” and in dietary terms, denotes the meat has gone through a process of religious guidelines that considers animal health, hygiene, and ethics. The owner has designed a banner for the restaurant that highlights the country’s flag and geographical outline filled with historical sites from the related Afghan provinces. The banner is pictured above and is in the works of being printed to hang up in the restaurant.
Before leaving, make sure to make a trip to the tea station where you can drink your choice of black or green tea. This station is a symbol of cultural hospitality, reminiscent of what is offered when you are a guest in an Afghan household. Kabul Kabob House, an Afghan refugee-owned restaurant, opened in an effort to conserve and represent cultural values in a flavorsome manner.