"Who's paying attention to little Albania?" Ray Bradbury, the science-fiction author and playwright, asked when he discovered that my husband was from Albania.
"Where are its champions?" he asked.
We looked about.
It was a question that could apply to other small and poor countries without champions in sight. Like Afghanistan.
So when I learned that Restaurant Magnolia serving Afghan cuisine had opened on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, and that the food (friends said) was good, I remembered Ray Bradbury.
The food at Magnolia is good. And the tiny, colorful restaurant is cozy and spotlessly clean. The decor? Veined mirror and wood panel walls, red and lace cafe curtains, feathers and fake flowers, but fitting.
The place is operated by Zab Rahmani, a young Afghan, who had come to the United States from Kabul (Afghanistan's capital) seven years ago because he had fallen in love with America.
On my first visit I went for the $3.95 all-you-can-eat daily luncheon buffet, which included a sampling of five or six typical Afghan everyday specialties, which are, in effect, Middle Eastern-cum-Indian in style and flavor.
Afghanistan, in case you need reminding, is a country about the size of Texas (and currently invaded by the Soviets). Wedged between Pakistan, Iran and the Soviet Union, it has been a crossroads between East and West since prehistory.
Politically and culturally, Afghanistan seems pulled by both forces. Culturally, Afghanistan is made up of bits and pieces of East-West influences from the waves of conquering civilizations beginning with Indo-Aryan invasions in the second millennium BC and, later, Hindu, Chinese, Islamic, Turkish and Mongolian invasions, among others. As a result, its cuisine leans heavily toward Middle Eastern (with both its Arabic and Turkish strains), but also includes Indian and Oriental touches.
Some of the dishes at Magnolia seem connected to these influences, but are considered strictly Afghan. For instance, you'll find a plate called asrak, which is basically a wet flat noodle topped with ground beef and yogurt-garlic sauce. Another intriguing dish is called sabosa , an Afghan version of Arabic and Indian samosa s and Turkish burek (Chinese fried won-tons are similar), using won-ton wrappers instead of filo pastry to wrap its spicy mashed potato filling.
The seasonings, as one would expect, are of Middle-Eastern-Indian persuasion--turmeric, cumin, chiles, paprika, mint, dill and cardamom. Cardamom, in fact, is a favored spice used also to flavor tea, with most pleasing results. Try it and see. Garlic is, happily, a prominent and exciting flavoring in most dishes, if you are an aficionado. Otherwise, be prepared.
You'll find the kebabs quite nice. There is shami , the ground beef frankfurter-shaped skewered kebab with tomatoes, onions and green pepper (versions are widespread throughout the Middle East), shish kebab, made with chunks of fillet of beef, and lula kebab, like shami without the vegetables. Entrees on both lunch and dinner menus are served with soup or salad, rice, vegetable and pita bread.
The six dishes on the eat-all-you-want buffet include a charming Kabuli rice specialty made with long-grain brown rice served with chicken or beef topped with raisins and carrot, or korma chalow made with white basmati rice, teka kebab served like a stew, and ashak, the macaroni specialty from Kabul. For lunch, there are omelets with a Middle Eastern accent (shish kebab omelet, lula kebab omelet), as well as the Western-style omelets. Chapli , a flat ground beef patty with spices is the Afghan cousin to the American hamburgers that are also offered at lunch.
Rahmani, who does all the cooking and makes his own desserts, offers a cornstarch pudding and a rice pudding typical of their Indian counterparts, and an occasional baklava a la mode. And don't forget, there is cardamom tea.
Restaurant Magnolia Afghanistan Cuisine, 2827 W. Sunset Blvd., (213) 483-8475. Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday open until 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. Cash accepted (major credit cards soon to be accepted). Underground and adjacent shopping center parking available. Luncheon buffet $3.95; a la carte lunch averages $5, dinner $6 to $7.