Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Taste of Kabul

Uncle Kandahari’s soup is a legend in the Afghan capital.
By Abdul Baseer
There’s no sign on the building and no name on the door. But the old mud house with the blue windows in the heart of Kabul’s oldest district is known to all - it is Uncle Kandahari’s restaurant, which has been serving up soup for over 40 years.



The name comes from the early history of the place. When Ghulam Hassan came from Kandahar four decades ago and started making soup, he never thought to give his establishment a formal title. So neighbours and surrounding shopkeepers started calling it “Uncle Kandahari’s”, after his home province. The name stuck.



The dining room and kitchen are traditional Afghan: There are two large pots on wood-burning stoves near the entrance, where the soup is cooked. There are no tables or chairs: Guests sit on wooden platforms or "takhta" covered in rugs. The walls are hung with Afghanistan’s famous carpets, adding colour to the surroundings.



Plastic cloths cover the centre of each takhta. A meal consists of a bowl of soup, a chilli pepper, an onion and half an orange, served with a pot of green or black tea. Spoons and forks are not used – the soup is eaten by hand, with Afghan flat bread, or naan.



The menu is simple enough: just meat soup. But it draws such a crowd that there are often lines stretching outside waiting to be served.



Ahmad Shah, 64, said he has been coming to Uncle Kandahari’s for years.



”The owner and staff of the restaurant are very honest. No one else can cook such delicious soup in all Afghanistan,” he said. “Ghulan Hassan, the father of the present owner, had a passion for cleanliness. If a person in dirty clothes came into the restaurant, Ghulan would tell him he’d run out of soup.”



A short grey-bearded man, who identified himself as Anwar, said he worked at one of the Afghan ministries.



”I come three or four times a week to this restaurant to buy soup for ten people. Our superiors like this soup very much,” he told IWPR.



Even foreigners enjoy Uncle Kandahari’s soup.



Dr Thomas Hartmanshenn, a German national, is working as a vulnerability advisor to the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Rural Development.



Kneeling on the takhta, he said this was his first time at the restaurant. “I came with Afghan friends because I have heard so much about this place,” he said. “I am glad I came. It was really delicious.”



The staff made an exception for Hartmanshenn, and let him use a spoon to eat his soup.



The current owner of the restaurant, Mohammad Mehdi, 44, sits quietly in a corner, cutting meat on a wooden drum. He said his father built the restaurant 40 years ago.



“We don't do anything special,” he said. “We're just clean and honest in our work. When we cook, we invoke the name of Allah many times.”



The restaurant uses only lamb for the soup, he said, adding, “I walk around butcher shops until I find the best meat. Maybe the reason our soup is so good is that we only use meat from rams. Ewes are not as tasty.”



The restaurant is open only from 11:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.



Uncle Kandahari’s prices are a bit steep by local standards. Although the city sets a regulatory price of 35 afghani for a bowl of soup, Mehdi charges 65 afghani (about 1.30 US dollars) per serving. Still, none of the customers are complaining.



There’s one thing you won’t find at Uncle Kandahari’s restaurant - women. In Afghanistan’s conservative society, women are relegated to separate dining areas in restaurants, and Mehdi says this is just not possible here.



"We haven't enough room in here, so we can’t set aside a place specifically for women," he said.



Abdul Baseer Saeed is an IWPR staff writer in Kabul.