One thing I really love about living in the tri-state area is the diversity! Everywhere you go, there are people from different cultures and countries walking around you, people speaking different languages, living their daily lives differently from their neighbors next door. And as a foodie, I just absolutely love the abundance and accessibility to different ethnic cuisines and ways of cooking. Moving from NYC to the Philly area has made one thing absolutely clear to me – you can try any type of food you want, at anytime of the day, on the same street and each restaurant offers a different type of cuisine to try. It’s incredible, amazing and I just love it!
Ariana happens to be one of those places where you will walk by, during the day, in a moments notice, if you don’t look up. But at night, the lights go on announcing “hookah” and “fine Afghani cuisine” right off the awesome cobble stone streets of Old City in Philly.
And when you walk into Ariana, you will be greeted by Bihiahta Hashmi, a very pretty and petite lady who owns the restaurant with her uncle. They have been around for 19 years and is family run. Bihiahta is from Halmund, Afghanistan and is so easy-going and friendly from the beginning. She will seat you at a cozy, small table and offer you a warm smile and friendly greeting, welcoming you to Ariana. Around you will hang traditional lamps with multi-colored beads, there will be Afghani art on the walls and each tablecloth is a piece of hand-woven tapestry – the entire ambiance is just relaxing and warm. In the background is soft Hindi and Afghani music playing.
Speaking of Indian and Afghani – did you know that the cultures, traditions and foods are very similar to each other? Of course, the language is different for the most part, but when I heard Bihiahta speaking Farsi with her family, I could understand some of the words and comments being made because it sounded so similar to my North Indian dialect. As a matter of fact, here are a few food-related words that are very similar…
Samosa Sambosa (doughy pastry filled with potatoes or meat)
Jalebi Jellybee (Indian style funnel cake soaked in sugar syrup)
Chawal Chalow (rice)
Subzi Sabzi (curry)
Dal Dal (lentil soup)
Gosht Ghosh (meat)
Pretty similar right? Well I thought it was cool.. :O)
So to start off my evening, I ordered the Afghan Ice Tea. It was black tea with lemon and a hint of cardamom and then served chilled. It wasn’t very sweet at all but you could taste a hint of sugar and cardamom in the tea, which made it refreshing and a good palate cleanser before starting to eat.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to order for an appetizer, so Bihiahta made us a combination platter consisting of a few different types of Sambosa and dumplings. We had Aashak, which is an Afghani type of meat dumpling covered in yogurt sauce, scallions, a meat sauce and chili powder. It was just delicious! The dumplings were soft and flavorful. The sauces on top were perfect with the yogurt because you had a really good balance of the heat with the chili powder and the cooling effect of the yogurt in your mouth. I would definitely get this again and recommend this to you too! The other apps were a Sambosa filled with potatoes and chickpeas and another one filled with scallions. All served with freshly made yogurt and a mint-chili sauce. I have to say – the Sambosa were great. They were light, crispy on the outside and not overstuffed. Definitely delicious, but the Aashak was my personal favorite as the appetizer. I happened to love items drenched in sauces and filled with different levels of flavor in one dish, so this one was a winner in my book of eats!
For Dinner, we tried the Lamb Palow, which is the Afghani version of an Indian Biryani dish, and we also had the Lamb Kabobs. The Lamb Palow consisted of long-grain basmati rice with tender pieces of lamb underneath and then covered in dates, raisins, carrots, pistachios and almonds on top. It doesn’t have any sauces on it, but the flavors were intense. I’m not a big fan of dried fruits and nuts in my dishes but I was really surprised at how good it tasted in this dish. A pleasant surprise! The rice was fully cooked (I’m just not an al dente girl), and seasoned really well. The lamb was tender and flavorful. I would recommend this dish to someone new to Afghani food and wanting to try something very traditional yet simple.
Now the Lamb Kebabs are another story. AMAZING! The spices and seasonings on the lamb, along with the char-grill marks on it made this dish spectacular! It had large and tender chunks of lamb that were juicy and perfectly cooked. The grilled onions and peppers along with it tasted great too. I would order this again in a heartbeat! It was served with basmati rice on the side and their mint sauce. Soo good!
For dessert, we ordered the Firnee (Afghani Milk Pudding) and Afghani Chai. Lets just say, I have never seen a dessert disappear so fast in my life! Haha!! Firnee is a very simple pudding made with milk, rose water, sugar and crushed pistachios on top. Simple yet so delicious! I loved it so much that I got the recipe from Bihiahta’s uncle and am going to try making it at home now! (If its successful – maybe you’ll see the recipe and my attempt in a future post! lol)
My experience from beginning to end was really great. Bihiahta is a wonderful host and very attentive to her customers. She kept coming over to check on us, ask if all was good or we needed anything. I really enjoyed my food, the décor and just the comfortability factor (yes, this is a made up word, but I know you understand its meaning! haha) of the entire restaurant.
What I would have loved to see though, was more people inside the restaurant. I understand Afghani food is not the most common option people will try but it is definitely worth exploring. The flavors are great, the meats are really tender and the culture and people are so friendly and inviting that you will be happy you took the opportunity to try something new and closeby! I hope you will consider going to Ariana in the near future!
For more information on Ariana please check out their website at http://www.arianafineafghan.com