At an East York Afghan restaurant, one family has perfected the art of the kebab.
When they opened Bamiyan Kabob in 2002, the Hakim family knew that they had a chance to change perceptions of their homeland at a difficult time in its history. Afghanistan had recently been invaded by Western powers seeking to overthrow the Taliban, and the images on the nightly news were of a poor, war-torn, miserable place. The Hakims chose to name their kebab shop after the city where the Taliban destroyed giant seventh-century statues of Buddha, and they decorated their restaurant with colourful posters of the country’s beautiful mountain landscape, mosques, temples, and people—not to mention an “I [Heart] Prophet Mohammed” bumper sticker.
At the time, they were one of the only Afghan restaurants in the city. Today, there are dozens of similar kebab spots: A majority of them, like Bamiyan Kabob, can be found in East York’s Thorncliffe Park (where many Afghan families live), but shops are increasingly appearing downtown and in the suburbs. Over the past 11 years, the Hakims have expanded their business into a five-location chain with a reputation for serving the best kebabs in a city that’s no stranger to meats on a stick. “We’re very proud that we introduced Afghan food to the Toronto community,” Leeda Hakim says.
The Hakim siblings—four brothers and three sisters; Leeda’s the youngest—are originally from Kabul, the Afghan capital. Their father worked in the government, but when the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979, the family fled, first to India in 1982, then further abroad. The men ended up in Long Island, New York, where they opened a short-lived restaurant. After they relocated to Toronto, the rest of the Hakims immigrated here, opened Bamiyan Kabob, and quickly began building a restaurant empire.
The appeal of Bamiyan Kabob’s cuisine is straightforward. Each day, the cooks marinate several different cuts of fresh, good-quality meat in a variety of marinades that are heavy on pepper, coriander, onion, and lemon juice. The meat is grilled over hot charcoal and gas, paired with freshly baked Afghan naan, a thick bread that’s crisp outside and soft within, dimpled in places, and studded with slightly salty black nigella seeds. Cubes of tandoori chicken, coloured a bright red with Kashmiri chili powder and turmeric, are tender and incredibly juicy, the heat building with each bite. Choppan kebab is a perfectly grilled lamb chop cut into strips, its fat rendered into a caramelized crust by the flame of the grill. One of the highlights is the chaplee kebab, sort of the Afghan equivalent of the hamburger: an oval patty of coarse ground beef packed with fragrant spices, including big chunks of cracked coriander seed. Each order is cooked perfectly, with the outside seared to the point where it’s just crusty and the meat inside remaining pink and incredibly moist.
Bamiyan can be seen as the Chipotle of halal Afghan restaurants. You can get your kebabs as a dinner (with rice, salad, and naan), as a plate without rice, or wrapped in a tortilla. They’re all served with a spicy tomato-and-pepper purée and the house sauce, which bears a distinct resemblance to Kraft French dressing. But it’s worth thinking outside the kebab. Try the boulagnee, a pan-fried pancake stuffed with mashed potato, green onion, and chili peppers. With a flaky golden crust, it’s just spicy enough to show off the chilies, though the pancake is nicely tempered by an accompanying yogurt sauce (much like a thicker tzatziki). Kabilee rice is another standout: Tender brown basmati rice grains are cooked with soft shredded carrots, plump raisins, and slivered almonds, and flavoured strongly with green cardamom. It tastes like a rice pudding moonlighting as a savoury dish.
The Hakim siblings own and operate all of the Bamiyan Kabob locations, and they have every intention of keeping the business in the family, despite requests for franchises from as far away as India and Dubai. “When a family runs a place, they are responsible for every aspect, like they are for their homes,” says Leeda. “When you cook at home, you want to make sure that your wife and kids eat healthy and well. We are very fortunate. When we started, we had a small dream, but now it’s grown, because we’re a strong, united family. We support each other.”
62 Overlea Blvd, 3A, 416-429-7514 (plus four other locations), bamiyankabob.com.