(L–R) Afghan Naan, Chicken Kabob, Mantu and Qabili Palau are four out of many delicious dishes at Afghan Kitchen.

A Cross-Cultural Embrace at Afghan Kitchen


1465 S. State Street
Mon–Sun 4:00 p.m.–9 p.m.
801.953.1398 | afghan-kitchen.com

3142 S. Main Street
Mon–Sun 4:00 p.m.–9 p.m.
385.229.4155 | afghan-kitchen.com

Afghan Kitchen’s Wali Saleem offers beef Mantu, a palette of colorful flavors.
Photo: Bonneville Jones

It takes immense courage to uproot one’s life and start over on unfamiliar soil. It takes even more courage to enter the restaurant industry in a country whose mainstream culture isn’t familiar with, or is even fearful of, your heritage and cuisine. Wali Arshad Salem and Naeem Amel persevered through culture shock and a hostile political climate when opening Afghan Kitchen in 2015.

The two childhood friends moved to Salt Lake City a decade apart, drawn by its similarity in landscape and climate to their home city of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. Salem had spent years working on cultural revitalization projects and as head of HR for the United Nations, which put a target on his back with the Taliban. He started as an online bank teller after arriving in Salt Lake City, but found his work devoid of fulfillment. Amel approached Salem about opening a restaurant with a goal “to present our food, and let people know Afghanistan better.” Salem saw an opportunity to return to his roots and share his culture with the Salt Lake community. 

As an epicenter on the Silk Road, Afghan culture has millennia of cross-cultural influence. Their food is richly spiced and fragrant, based around various preparations of rice. At first, the going was quite rough. Despite having great skill as a chef, Amel had little managerial experience, and Salem knew nothing about the ins and outs of restaurant ownership. Another challenge was narrowing down which Afghan dishes would appeal to Utahn palates. Naeem learned to cook from his mother, and emulates her recipes in Afghan Kitchen’s menu. “[We] cook them with passion. Everything comes out of love,” he says. To their surprise, the community embraced these traditional meals. The result has been a streamlined menu of Afghanistan’s best offerings, giving Salt Lake City a transportive dining experience. Salem’s menu item of choice is a dish called Borani Banjan, which is an amalgamation of fried eggplant stewed with tomatoes and topped with a tangy, garlic-yogurt sauce and mint garnish. 

Qabili Palau, Afghanistan's national dish, features a slow-cooked lamb shank served with caramelized carrots and raisins over basmati rice, accompanied by a house salad and savory eggplant doused in garlic-yogurt sauce.
Photo: Bonneville Jones

Seven years and two locations later, Salem and Amel continue to provide a cornerstone for the Middle Eastern community in Salt Lake City. Outside of sharing their culture via the restaurant, Afghan Kitchen takes an openhanded approach in their local leadership by sponsoring events for a home-grown nonprofit called Women of the World. Founded by long-time Utah resident and Iraqi immigrant, Samira Harnish, the organization serves to empower women of all nationalities—regardless of status—to build social and economic independence. A pillar of Afghan Kitchen is creating reciprocal support to immigrant and refugee Utahns through collaboration and compassion.

Afghan Kitchen is a testament to what it means to thrive in the face of adversity. Salem and Amel stand as courageous and dynamic representatives of a misunderstood and misrepresented culture. Their hope is that by utilizing food as an avenue for connection, they can rewrite the media’s narrative around Afghanistan. “I want people to know that [Afghanistan] is a country full of rich culture… People have never seen or heard about the true culture, [and] it is an amazing place,” says Salem.

Afghanistan is a country as warm and welcoming as its cuisine with mountains not unlike our own. Fostering a deeper understanding of Afghanistan’s traditions, hospitality and history begins with taking the time to savor and learn. For more about Afghan Kitchen, head to afghan-kitchen.com and @afghankitchenslc on Instagram.

Read more about Salt Lake restauranteurs bringing their cultural heritage to the forefront of their food:
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