There is a certain method to having the chainaki, a wholesome meat soup made in a teapot, called “chainak” in the Afghan language of Dari.
First, you take the large naan that comes with every serving and break into tiny pieces; fill your bowl with as many as you like. Then, you open your teapot filled with a deep red-orange lamb soup made with tomatoes, onions, fat, and spices, cooked over a slow fire, and pour it over the bread.
“You cannot just dip your bread into the bowl of soup; that’s not how it’s done,” I was told the very first time I sat down to have this traditional delicacy of Afghanistan, a country unfortunately known more for its conflicts than its diverse cuisine. As the soup soaks into your bowl of naan, you dig in before the bread goes soggy, an unlikely scenario — few people can resist leaving the soup in the bowl long enough.
For centuries, chainaki has been the ultimate comfort food for Afghans during harsh winters, and in recent decades, a culinary escape to simpler, happier times amid violence.
While variations of this soup can be found all over the region, including in the neighboring country of Iran, residents of Kabul proudly claim it as a dish native to their province. However, little is known about the origin of this soup that is served in what is perhaps the oldest surviving restaurant in the capital city, Bacha Broot, which in Dari means “boy with a mustache.” It was named after its founder, who perhaps had facial hair as a young boy. “Our family has been running this place for 70 years; my grandfather started it and we have kept the business going, even during the worst of times,” Bacha Broot’s lead chef, Ustad Waheed, said.
As the soup soaks into your bowl of naan, you dig in before the bread goes soggy, an unlikely scenario — few people can resist leaving the soup in the bowl long enough.
The restaurant has only one offering on its menu — the chainaki.
“We served it during communism, we served it during the Mujahideen wars, and we served it during the Taliban. Some of our customers have been coming to us for decades,” he said while preparing the next batch of chainaki in the hundreds of teapots lined up on the large kitchen platform in a colorful symphony. He didn’t share the number of chainakis he sells daily; the last time he revealed that number on a local TV show, the tax department gave him a hard time.
The loyalty of his clientele was confirmed by 60-year-old Malik Zafar, from the Paghman district of Kabul province. “Since God brought me to this world, I have been eating chainaki,” he said. Once his pot was delivered, he stopped talking, focusing his attention on his prized soup. “My father would bring me here when I was a kid, and now I bring myself whenever I can for the meal,” he said, finishing off the last of his bread and pouring chai to wash down the hearty meal.
While Bacha Broot serves up Kabul’s most sought-after chainaki, many Afghans will tell you that the best chainaki is found not in the packed urban streets, but high up in the hills outside the city. One such place is a small tea shop in Istalif, a village of potters and artists about 20 miles outside Kabul city.
The drive through the Kabul countryside is a gratifying experience, with long stretches of vineyards on both sides of the road, the landscape dotted by farms and traditional mud houses, and the Hindu Kush mountain range as the backdrop. There are many stories of how the Taliban burned down the vineyards during their battle for Kabul, destroying the crops and leaving hundreds of families destitute. Now, depending on when you take this journey, you can find fresh grapes sold on handcarts by the side of the long road. In winter, grapes preserved in clay molds are available on the tiny wagons.
The remnants of the Taliban’s destruction were more prominent as we approached Istalif over the winter. This village of artisans was among the toughest fronts against the Taliban in the late 1990s. “In the five years that Taliban ruled this country, they never got control of Istalif for more than a week,” 62-year-old Sayeed Amin claimed as we sat in his chaikhanna, or tea shop, in the main market of the village, which is known for its signature blue and green handmade pots. “We are a community of artists, but we picked up guns and defended our village when it was needed,” he said. However, the village was destroyed by the Taliban in 1998.
Like most of the shops on that street, Amin’s chaikhanna has no name and is one of only two such restaurants in the village of nearly 9,000. Apart from chai, Amin sells just one delicacy, the chainaki, and has been running this single-meal restaurant for 50 years. But his family has been in this business for over 200 years.
“We can trace our lineage to this village for centuries, and as far as I can tell my grandfather also owned a chaikhanna here,” he said as he seated us in his shop on cushions placed on raised platforms. The shop is decorated with colorful posters of famous Persian paintings, alongside portraits of Mujahideen leaders who fought during the Soviet invasion and later the Taliban. The shop is filled with the chirping of many little birds that Amin keeps in cages in the sunlit shop, which cannot host more than seven to 10 people at any time. But his clients come from all over Kabul province for a serving of his famous teapot soup.
Lately, however, business has dwindled, not just for Amin but for Istalif as a whole. “Most people here do pottery or chapandozi and other embroideries and rug-making professions. People used to come from all over Afghanistan for our products, but now it hasn’t been easy to sell our wares,” he said while preparing our chainakis. He served steaming soup, turning the entire pot over our bowls of broken bread, garnishing it with spices and lemon juice.
In the dry mountain winter in the hills of Istalif, the chainaki is an elixir for the soul, warming you up from the inside. The strong flavors of spices and tomato blended beautifully with the soft, buttery fat. The meat, cooked for over six hours, broke apart on contact as I lifted it along with the soup-soaked bread, using my fingers — prescribed by Amin as the right and only way to have chainaki.
Unlike the clay pots at Bacha Broot, Amin’s teapots are made of sturdier material, like steel and aluminum, which he admits is not the most authentic way to prepare the soup. With far fewer resources and less income, he has to be careful with his investment. He does have a collection of brightly painted teapots lined on the wall behind his chef’s table. He is preserving them for a special occasion, perhaps in the return of the glory days of Istalif.
“Istalif is known as the ‘mehman khana’ [guesthouse] of Afghanistan, and former kings would host their visitors in mansions around the hills,” Amin recalled. However, much of the old Istalif, including the fancy mansions, were destroyed in the decades of wars in Afghanistan. “We fought the Soviets and then the Taliban, but we never abandoned our homeland,” Amin said. “Every time the Taliban took over the village, they would burn our houses in revenge. They burned two of my family’s homes, forcing us to leave for Kabul city. But we would fight back and defeat them, and return to our homes and rebuild them.”
Istalif remained in a tug of war between the locals and the Taliban throughout the group’s five-year regime, leaving the village in ruins. Even today, despite years of rebuilding efforts, the hillside is marked with broken homes and shells of what used to be homes of local artists. In the years following the fall of the Taliban, many international organizations attempted to help the locals revive the traditional pottery and art, but a recent increase in violence has proved to be a major hurdle in attracting long-term investments or visitors.
Amin and his shop soldier along. “We start the process right after the first morning prayers, around 5 a.m. We cut up the meat and fat and divide them equally into the pots, add large sliced tomatoes, onions, and spices, and fry the mixture on the fire for a little while. Then we add water to the pots and close the lid and leave them on the large charcoal grill to cook slowly,” he said. The soup is ready to serve around noon, when Amin’s regular customers start pouring in. “There is a certain method to having chainaki,” he told us, “and that is to never eat it alone.”
‘There is a certain method to having chainaki,’ he told us, ‘and that is to never eat it alone.’
A chainaki costs just 150 afghani, or about $2, but Amin said the business is more about tradition than profit. He is now training his son to take over but has no plans to quit anytime soon. If anything, this culinary artist is ready to fight the Taliban again, if needed. He is keeping a close eye on the ongoing American negotiations with the Taliban.
“If they come in peace, we will welcome them, but if they come with the same agenda, we will resist and fight again,” he said. “This village is full of culture, and they might try to change the essence of our life here. We won’t allow that.”