A KFC to Give the Colonel Indigestion

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Jeff Stern

A man walks past Kabul Fried Chicken in Kabul, Afghanistan.

As the sun sets in Kabul and the wail of the muezzin issuing from loudspeakers mounted on minarets calls the faithful to evening prayer, the fryer at KFC is being fired up for the evening rush. But Kabul Fried Chicken has little in common with the U.S. chain whose initials it copied: The chairs are a little too high for the tables, and the delights depicted in photographs mounted on the walls — big milkshakes, braised ribs, lattes — are conspicuously absent from the menu. The fare on offer is more egalitarian. Kebabs, pizza and, of course, fried chicken.

Kabul Fried Chicken is, if he is to be believed, the brainchild of Mirwais Abuldrahizmi, who long ago observed that the young people of the Muslim world like to express their cosmopolitan yearnings through their consumption habits. And returnee Afghans, like himself, bring with them visions from exile of girls without headscarves, shopping malls as social hubs, and the rituals of fast food. Many of today's young Kabulis are as nomadic as those who traveled the silk road hundreds of years ago, as the return of thousands forced into exile by successive wars enables an uneven cosmopolitanism to take root in the city.

Mirwais' own wartime travels took him to Kuwait, where he opened a doner kebab restaurant, and learned that young people were bored with their household fare, and expressed their worldliness by eating things their mother's couldn't cook. So after serving Turkish cuisine in Kuwait, he turned to serving soul food in the erstwhile stamping ground of the Taliban.

"The Colonel was a visionary," Mirwais says. "He was the first to envision fried chicken as a commercial food. I see myself as the Afghan Colonel Sanders." Indeed, Mirwais' chicken tastes, at least to the expatriate palate, remarkably similar to its American inspiration — and he's not disclosing the source of his recipe.

Mirwais is not the only Afghan pretender to the Colonel Sanders mantle in Kabul. Another is Jamshed, who uses only one name, and runs one of three rival KFCs. Jamshed's recipe for success includes more than just a secret combination of herbs and spices. Young men are drawn like flies to the music videos blasting out of his store's open doors; the slack-jawed patrons watching Shakira, onscreen, writhing while covered alternately in mud, men, and nothing are sampling a bite-size package of Western decadence.

Jamshed spits a bit when he talks — hopefully he cooks in silence. He claims that after being told by the (real) KFC regional HQ in Lahore, Pakistan, that opening a franchise in Kabul would cost him a few hundred thousand dollars, he opted to go the pirate route. He claims to have bought the U.S.-based KFC's secret fried chicken recipe on the black market for $1,200, although obviously that claim can't be verified. "You can get anything at the bazaar in Pakistan," he says. And he filched real KFC iconography off the Internet for his restaurant's promotional materials and decorations.

Over at Mirwais' store, even the staff seem to believe they're actually affiliated with the real KFC, and when Mirwais is absent, one employee explains in detail an arrangement with KFC corporate that includes a five-year contract period, stipulations about naming rights, and training trips to Dubai — all of which Mirwais summarily dismisses. Nor have the authorities raised intellectual property concerns with the various local KFC imitators; officials from various arms of government are more likely to come looking for bribes.

Jamshed and Mirwais have something of a rivalry between their respective Kabul Fried Chicken outlets. They refer to each other euphemistically as "friends more than partners," though in reality they're neither. Each claims to be Kabul's original KFC imitator, and accuses the other of stealing the recipe from him. Imitation, of course, is endemic to Afghanistan's business environment. "We're an underdeveloped country," Mirwais says. "So we can't come up with our own ideas."

But while both owners defend their own knocking off of a global brand, they share a moral flexibility that allows each to complain of the other's transgression. Each claims Kabul Fried Chicken was his idea (sort of). And now there are four.