Afghan delicacy ‘chainaki’ and a master chef endure in Kabul

There’s a comforting invariability in the way Waheed Merzazadah prepares for his daily chores: methodically cutting sheep carcasses to size, preparing the veggies and spices, pondering patiently over his well-worn collection of chainaks, or teapots. Watching him in the one-bedroom kitchen of his two-bedroom restaurant, you’ll see him embody a consistency in a land often defined by its lack as he repeats the process by which he created superlative Chainaki manufactures.

What is Chainaki? The novice would claim it’s nothing more than a hearty lamb stew, because that’s what it certainly looks like. But those in the know know that chainaki is less about the ingredients and more about how, or more specifically, what you cook them in.

As the name suggests, if you want chainaki, you must have the chainak, which serves as the perfect vessel for the hour-long slow cook times the dish requires. And not everyone will do it — it has to be clay, because only these teapots produce the right thickness of sauce, tenderness of meat that melts with a hard gaze, and silky texture of sheep fat that makes proper chainaki.

Of course, if you plan to do it perfectly and with the same consistency – day after day, seven days a week, no matter what the season (except Ramadan) – that made customers and staff gift Merzazadah as an honorable “Ustad” or master, you also need a willingness to engage in a routine of constant movement and attention. Oh, and time. Lots of it.

Cook takes a break

Chef Waheed Merzazadah takes a break from his preparation of the Afghan comfort food known as chainaki.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

“I started when I was 13. At 25, I was ready,” says Merzazadah. A short, laconic 43-year-old with an ascetic air, punctuating his sentences with long silences while watching the hundreds of bubbles Chainaks lined up on the brazier in front of him.

Despite years of training, much of the restaurant is a testament to the insignificance of time before the discipline of an unchanging craft: the sparse but functional furnishings, Merzazadah’s efficient, practiced movements in the bare-bones kitchen, the scratches and dull patina of Chainaks have been in use for decades.

The restaurant has been a constant in Kabul, even though the city itself has been mired in conflict and has changed hands several times. The wars between the mujahideen factions after the Soviet Union left, the Taliban’s first term in power, the US occupation and now the return of the Taliban — none of it mattered, says Merzazadah. Even a rocket that hit the building 27 years ago couldn’t shut it down.

Customers eating in a restaurant

Customers flock to Waheed Merzazadah’s restaurant in Kabul for chainaki, an Afghan lamb stew.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Bowl of Afghan Lamb Stew

A bowl of Chainaki, a traditional Afghan lamb stew cooked in clay teapots.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

“We were here when it hit, but it didn’t explode. The next day we were back at work,” Merzazadah recalls. “It’s still up there. I leave it as a reminder that we experienced these situations.”

Merzazadah’s path to learning his craft dates back to his father Mir Mirza, a poor illiterate from Panjshir province. While he wasn’t an expert on letters, he was certainly one on Chainaki, so about 70 years ago he made his way to Kabul and opened his restaurant on the second floor of a run-down building in Mandawi Bazaar. It only served one dish: Chainaki. The only other menu item? Chai sabzi – green tea.

The place was a hit, attracting people from all parts of Kabul and became known as ‘Bacha Broot’, which means ‘boy with the mustache’ in Dari, a reference to Mirza’s seemingly gorgeous facial attire. In search of an heir to continue the business, he turned to his son.

Merzazadah explains it simply: “I was in school until the sixth grade, but I didn’t have much talent for studying. So I decided to join my father.”

Man slicing lamb meat

Waheed Merzazadah slices lamb to make chainaki, a lamb stew, at his restaurant in Kabul’s Mandawi market.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

When his father died, Merzazadah became the keeper of the family recipe and a zealot who made sure to keep the chainaki just like his father did. In any case, he succeeded. The only concession to the changing times under the Taliban this year, customers say, is that the restaurant’s loudspeakers play religious chants instead of classical Afghan music, and women sit in a separate area. (The Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islamic law includes bans on music and gender mixing.)

It’s perhaps a measure of the restaurant’s staying power that even though the Afghan economy is in free fall following last year’s US withdrawal and Taliban takeover, there’s still no guarantee you’ll get chainaki when you decide to have a late lunch.

The price of 200 afghanis — more than $2 — apiece isn’t cheap these days, but it’s worth it, customers say.

“I’ve been coming here for more than 35 years,” says 58-year-old Ezmarai Rasooli, eagerly destroying a bowl of chainaki. He tells Merzazadah that he remembers when his father was in charge.

“I came here as a kid because it was the best chainaki. The food is still great. If tastes changed, no one would come.”

Market vendors hang out

Market vendors while waiting for customers at Mandawi Market in Kabul.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

It is not easy to achieve this taste. Think about the process:

Merzazadah sets out for work before dawn, waking up at 3am to walk through the empty aisles of Mandawi Market to the restaurant, where he takes out the pieces of meat he cut up the day before. He prepares split peas, tomatoes, and onions, spoons them into each chainak, lights the wood for the stove, and then slow cooks for five hours. Since he uses no oil apart from sheep fat, nothing disturbs the taste of the meat.

“Afghans, we love lamb. For us it’s like hash – it gets you high,” he says.

During this cooking time, Merzazadah never stops for more than a minute, dipping an exploring spoon into the teapots or pouring some water in to make sure they don’t burn. For the finishing touch, he adds a spoonful of spices from an extra-large cauldron on the side of each chainak, a special infusion whose composition Merzazadah refuses to divulge, though you can occasionally spot a shard of pepper or a speck of garlic in the mix.

Merzazadah is careful with the teapots. Most date from when his father was in charge; the oldest is 40 years old. If they break, he has to fix them because you can’t find chainaks of the same quality these days, he says. Otherwise, God forbid, he has to use a metal teapot.

“It’s just not the same,” he says.

By midday, the roughly 250 servings of chainaki the restaurant makes a day are ready, the sauce sizzling with an almost iridescent layer of melted fat.

Cook pours lamb stew into a bowl

Chef Waheed Merzazadah pours some chainaki, a traditional Afghan lamb stew, into a bowl.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Old teapots

Chainaki, a traditional Afghan dish, is prepared in old teapots.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

If you want to keep it clean, line a bowl with chunks of fresh naan and then pour the chainaki over it, allowing the juices to soak into the bread. Those who are less into drenching can simply use the naan to reserve the meat and sauce.

However you choose to eat it, the result is superb, as the spices are cooked deep into the meat and the chunk of sheep’s fat (at least one in each serving) is soft enough to give it the creamy, fluffy texture of a savory tiramisu.

By 3pm – but sometimes earlier – all 250 Chainaks have spoken and Merzazadah is done cooking for the day.

“You can’t do it any longer. It takes too long and we would get too tired anyway,” he says.

But he has yet to cut the meat for the next day’s offering. He sits in a corner of the restaurant, arranges three sheep carcasses in front of him, slices the meat and arranges it in neat heaps. He won’t be finished until 8pm, then he’ll go home – only to start the whole process again eight hours later.

He is occasionally bored and sometimes regrets not continuing with school. But the work was good for him and brought him steady money when so many other businesses were shutting down.

“What is the point of learning? If I did that, I would be unemployed now, like so many others here,” he says.

Also, his appetite for the dish he serves others remains undiminished.

“I still love it. I eat some of it every day,” he says with a slight smile. “It’s a godsend.” Afghan delicacy ‘chainaki’ and a master chef endure in Kabul

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