Even in the unremitting bustle of Lajpat Nagar, it is hard to disregard the unexpected glow of Chopaan Kebab’s sign board. Much like its neighbours, it offers delicacies from Afghanistan. Unlike them, it also gives its diners a real chance to engage with the food of Uzbekistan and Iran. In recent years, the area has witnessed a proliferation of restaurants serving Afghan delicacies but Chopaan’s addition to the list marks a slight enhancement of the area’s diners’ interest in the cuisine. It gives some popular dishes a miss, instead offers culinary jewels from Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries that are are rewarding revelations.
The earthy milieu, with hand-painted glass lamps, mirrored walls and comfortable seating, is a world apart from the traffic snarl outside. The solace though is fleeting. At the table, shakers of salt, pepper, chilli flakes and a bottle of tabasco can be seen giving company to the cutlery. It is disheartening to see deference to Delhi’s obstinate palate in what could have otherwise been a novel culinary adventure. But what’s interesting is that their brief menu distinguishes precisely between the food of each country. Moreover, it dares to retain the names of its dishes that are normally bundled under generic labels to steer clear of confusion. Here, confusion isn’t frowned upon. Cordial staff members are quick on the draw and patiently take their patrons through the offerings. Ashak from Afghanistan, the vegetarian sibling of the much-favoured Mantu, is ravioli shaped and holds within its folds softened leeks and spring onions. Dressed in a runny dal and yoghurt with flecks of mint, the dish typifies the defining feature of Afghan cuisine — a delicate interplay of muted flavours. Green or black tea are known to cap meals for Afghans. At Chopaan, either can be ordered and are complimentary with the meal.
It is perhaps a nod to the abundance of sheep in Uzbekistan that almost every dish under the country’s section on the menu is lamb-based. Skewered meat cubes done medium-rare and served with a watery sauce — that looks more devious than it is — comprise a dish called Shashlik. On the next platter, chunks of lamb, fat cloves of garlic, chopped carrots, red chillies that are rather benign and swollen long-grain rice fuse to form the national obsession of Uzbekistan — the pulav or plov. Served mostly in large quantities, this glistening heap of rice is a meal unto itself.
A more interesting and less encountered tango of meat and rice is found in Iran’s Koobideh. Skewered ground meat that looks like mutton seekh but flatter, is served on a bed of rice. If one pays attention, one is bound to pick up secrets that are rather tart. The dish hides bits of zereshk or barberries that shock the tastebuds with their sharpness. It is accompanied by a thick yoghurt dip, its creaminess cut by the cucumber and mint it is mixed with. The decidedly subtle palette of flavours that produce this comfort food does not waver for the desserts either — Phirni (it comes with a dusting of pistachios and rose petals) and Baklava on the menu are not rare but must be tried at Chopaan, especially by those who prefer a mildly sweet end to a satisfying meal. Those on the lookout for inexpensive pleasures and a meal slightly unusual, take note.