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Parwana Afghan Kitchen cooks rice worth swooning over

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Parwana Afghan Kitchen cooks rice worth swooning over
 ADELAIDE, Australia — It was foolhardy to walk into Parwana Afghan Kitchen, in the inner suburbs of Adelaide, and assume that a table would be available. At 6 on a Tuesday night, the room was already half-full. Durkhanai Ayubi, a woman with huge dark eyes, shook her head firmly. “We’re about to fill up,” she said. “And we have nothing during the second seating either.”
My erroneous assumption was based on my experience of neighborhood family restaurants, and on my understanding of Adelaide as a dining city. There aren’t many high-demand reservations in the South Australian capital. But Parwana excels at many things, and defying expectations is one of them.
Zelmai and Farida Ayubi, the owners, fled the war in Afghanistan in 1987 with their five children. Parwana is a multigenerational affair, and dining there (which I eventually managed to do, by calling well in advance) mimics the boisterous energy of visiting a large family’s home. The restaurant opened in 2009 as a collaboration between parents who still treasured the food and traditions of their homeland, and children who had grown up almost entirely in Australia. Farida Ayubi is the chef, while her children and husband manage the front of house.
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The small storefront space has a striking aesthetic, one that is worthy of a design magazine but stays true to the history and culture of the family. The floors are tiled in bright geometric patterns; the walls are covered in old family photos and various vintage flotsam, backed by colorful paint in primary colors.
There are two seatings each night, one at 6 p.m. and another at 8 p.m. This style of service adds to the homey feel of the place, with all the food coming out in one great flurry. Alcohol is strictly bring-your-own, and customers can sometimes be seen sharing bottles with nearby tables. The menu is quite short — rather than offer lots of dishes on any given evening, the menu changes throughout the week. There are always dumplings, rice, stews and grilled meats, but they vary.
Besha Rodell reviews restaurants for The New York Times’s Australia bureau. She travels the country seeking out hidden gems, neighborhood haunts and the places that give Australia its culinary identity. Reviews are produced in adherence to Times policies: Restaurants are visited anonymously, The Times pays for all meals and the critic visits each restaurant at least three times prior to the review. Rice is central — practically everything else at the restaurant is meant to be built around it, and it may be Farida Ayubi’s greatest gift to the universe. It is not often that a dish as common as rice will knock me off my dinner chair, but the aged, long-grain narej palaw at Parwana left me agog. Shot through with slivered almonds, pistachios and a restrained amount of candied orange zest, its main attribute was the toasty fragrance of the rice itself — the other ingredients acted only as brilliant supporting characters.
I couldn’t keep myself from repeatedly bending over to inhale the steam rising from the platter, so much so that I started to make my tablemates anxious. To hell with decorum: If someone made a perfume that accurately evoked the rice at Parwana, I would bathe in the stuff.
It is best to come with a group, as the servings are large and can easily overwhelm. You will want to try the banjaan borani, a great puddinglike slump of eggplant cooked in fresh tomatoes and topped with garlic yogurt and mint. Depending on the day of the week, there will be chicken or lamb slow cooked in yogurt and spices, served with a deep-green herb chutney that tastes like photosynthesis splashed with lemon. (You can buy this as an extra to go with your meal, and I wish it also came in jars to take home.)
On Friday and Saturday nights there is ashak, half-moon-shaped fried dumplings stuffed with chives and topped with minced lamb and a drizzle of yogurt. Lamb meatballs cooked in a rich tomato sauce show up on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Thankfully, you can get the outrageously creamy saffron and ginger ice cream any night.
The language on Parwana’s website (which shares the beautiful design aesthetic of the dining room) is direct in its acknowledgment of the circumstances that created the restaurant: “At Parwana we believe that even loss and suffering can forge beauty and generosity.”
In crisp and colorful photos surrounding these words, Farida Ayubi, the chef and matriarch of the Ayubi family, stares stony-faced at the camera. Her stark expression is perhaps a reminder of the loss she has suffered, but it is also subversive, a reversal of the norms of restaurant marketing in which white male chefs are presented as formidable knife-wielding badasses, while women and immigrants embody smiling hospitality.
Parwana challenges the tidy and boring categories into which immigrant-run restaurants are so often shunted. Its most lovable attribute is its embodiment of the taste and style and multigenerational, multicontinental complexity of the Ayubi family. That Adelaide has made it one of the hardest reservations in town is a testament to the astute appetites of this city.