Afghan Restaurant Serves Spicy ‘Homecoming’ Taste

Over the past few years, Scarborough Village has seen a rapid increase in dining establishments, both take-out and dine-in restaurants, which represent the diverse cuisines of North East Africa, the Middle East and South America. ‘Central Asia. It has notably become an epicenter of Afghan food.

North Kabab is one of the newer establishments, an unassuming restaurant owned by Nasir Ghousi and his brothers, Omid and Baser, which sits in one of Markham Road’s many lower squares. On weekends, the restaurant is usually packed, the parking lot is overflowing, and families gather outside, swapping plates of qabuli palao and mixed kebabs.

This is where I discovered the “Afghan burger”. While browsing the menu on a Saturday night, I heard many orders for the item.

The Afghan burger is a naan wrap, traditionally stuffed with marinated chicken or beef, fries and a variety of sauces. The naan is prepared daily on site and cooked to order in a large tandoor oven. The meat was the complicated part for the brothers.

“The meat flavor here is different, so instead we use bologna in our burger,” Ghousi said. Thick slices of grilled bologna, a handful of fries, a drizzle of sauces and then the spice mix.

Burger wraps are common in most shawarma shops around town, but here it’s mostly the bologna and sauces that stand out, the smoky qualities of the meat, balanced by the creamy, crispy sauces of the fries.

Members of the Afghan community often drive to Scarborough Village from Thorncliffe Park for a taste of home. “They come for the Afghan burger,” Ghousi said.

Asha, a dish consisting of spinach balls with chickpea sauce and homemade chutney.

One of the restaurant’s standout dishes is an appetizer of steamed spinach dumplings served on a bed of cold yogurt, then dressed in generous dollops of chickpea sauce that coat and cling to each dumpling. Mantu, the meatiest version of the dumpling dish, is seen in most Afghan places, but this version, Asha, is superior. The star of the dish is the sauce, a comfortably spicy yet rich sauce that complements the herbaceous quality of the filling, coaxed by the fresh yogurt underneath.

North Kabab is one of Scarborough’s biggest Afghan restaurants, and on weekends you’ll see most tables filled with platters of mixed kebabs. The dish includes three types of charcoal-grilled kebabs: tandoori-style chicken, ‘shammi’ ground beef kebab, and ‘shamali’ fillet kebab pieces. Ghousi marinates all meats for a day before they encounter fire.

“It’s a gathering meal, at least a few people sitting together and tearing pieces of bread and meat,” Ghousi said. The meats are served with freshly cooked naan, and it is customary to tear the bread and wrap the meat in it.

The kebabs are cooked on the grill at the Markham Road restaurant.

The Ghousi family hails from Shamali in northern Afghanistan, where Nasir Ghousi notes that the cuisine is heavily influenced by “spices and chutneys”. Ghousi’s mother prepares a special spice mix every few weeks for the restaurant, which has notes of sumac, coriander and a little fenugreek. “There are about 13 spices in there,” Ghousi said.

The sauce comes in the form of a thick green chutney made from three different chili peppers. It is vibrant, sour at first with a lingering heat that slowly dissipates.

According to Statistics Canada (2016), there are over 41,000 people of Afghan descent in the Greater Toronto Area, many of whom live in Scarborough. Anecdotally, you can trace this by the number of food establishments. Markham Road is a great example, one of Scarborough’s most food-rich streets, south of Lawrence Avenue East to Kingston Road, where there are a number of Afghan supermarkets, bakeries and restaurants.

After moving to Canada 13 years ago, the Ghousi brothers wanted to open a restaurant. By chance they stumbled upon the Markham Road location and were due to open in March 2020 – just at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nasir Ghousi from North Kabab serves skewers on naan.

“We weren’t so lucky, our timing was not good with our opening,” Ghousi said. As the brothers quickly transitioned from indoor dining to takeout and daily specials, they relied almost entirely on the local community to support them. “We wouldn’t be here without our brothers and sisters from Pickering and Ajax,” Ghousi said.

He is the only cook in the restaurant, presenting a menu heavily inspired by his mother’s family recipes.

“It reminds people of home, especially newcomers from the past year,” Ghousi said. Since last August, Canada has welcomed more than 16,000 Afghan refugees fleeing unrest in their home country. Ghousi still has family at home in Shamali, and some of the restaurant’s revenue goes to those family members. “Not everyone has the opportunity to come to Canada. They have no job, no money. It is the rich who have access to it. We try to help where we can,” Ghousi said.

Recently, I found out that Ghousi makes his own ayran, the fermented yogurt drink you can find bottled in most grocery stores in the Middle East. Ghousi’s version is wonderfully thick with chunks of cucumber, lots of mint and just the right amount of salt. A refreshing drink that wonderfully complements meat and spice dishes.

The Ghousi brothers may have found an audience with their Afghani burger, but in recent months, with the return of indoor dining, diners are in for a treat. The dining room feels lively, with families taking selfies in front of the sprawling murals before sitting down with a variety of dishes.

“The burger kept us in business and now we have a chance to show real Afghan food tradition,” Ghousi said.

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