Majestic mountain ranges and deep valleys, sweet melodious tunes of the Rabab, the heart trembling beat of the dhol and ruby-like gems of pomegranates — this is what comes to mind when I think of Afghanistan. A landlocked country in the heart of Asia known for the Silk Road, The Kite Runner, and, of course, food, Afghanistan’s cuisine fuses flavors that’ll make your taste buds dance. Its cuisine has influences from all over — Persia, the Mediterranean, South Asia and China.
In the 1980s when their country was invaded by the Soviet Union, many Afghans sought refuge in different parts of the world. My parents came to the United States and my siblings and I grew up in New Jersey. Because my parents held their culture so dear, we had a lot of exposure to Afghan values and traditions. For instance, our dining area did not have a table. Foam mattresses decorated with velvet covers, called gorbachai, were placed around the perimeter of the room and used as chairs. A sturkhan, or tablecloth, would be laid out on the floor during mealtimes, with trays of food placed on it. During meals, we would sit cross-legged on the gorbachai around the sturkhan and were encouraged to eat with our hands, specifically, our right hand. Hungry or not, mealtime was family time, so we had to be present.
Culinary Culture and Traditional Foods
I learned all about Afghan food from my Mor (mom) and Agha (dad). When I traveled to Afghanistan more than a decade ago, I was re-exposed to it on a whole different level, seeing the process from farm to table.
In the U.S., my mom would buy albukhara, (dried apricots) from a store. In Afghanistan, fresh apricots (most likely picked from a tree in the backyard) are laid outside in the sun, and in a few days, voila — dried apricots, ready to use in stews and other dishes.
I recall speaking to my uncle about how we celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S. by cooking a turkey, confidently telling him I could make it. Expecting a packaged turkey like the one we get from the grocery store in the U.S., I was shocked the next day when I saw the live turkey he had procured, gobbling throughout the courtyard. Preparing that turkey was an unforgettable experience.
Afghan cooking wastes as little as possible, whether it’s an animal or fresh produce. Lamb, the staple meat, is grilled, used as jerky or put in a stew or soup. Shorwa, a bone and meat soup, is cooked in a pressure cooker for two to three hours on low heat. The broth is then strained over cut-up pieces of bread and the remaining meat is placed over the broth-bread mixture. Shorwa also can be made from trotters (animal feet), organs and skull meats.
Rice and naan-e-Afghani (bread) are a must in Afghan cuisine. Parboiled rice is soaked overnight, then boiled in salted water, strained, seasoned with cumin, cassia cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom and oil and then finally steamed. The key to the perfect rice is to wrap the lid in a towel and place it on the pot to absorb excess moisture. A famous rice dish is Kabuli Palau: onionand spice-flavored rice topped with julienned carrots, raisins, pistachios and almonds. Bread is practically used as a spoon: fold a small piece, scoop foods and eat them together. Fermented and leavened bread is preferred.
Most dishes incorporate yogurt in one way or another. If it is not part of the dish, you’ll always find a bowl of yogurt served on the side, decorated with chopped cucumbers and dried mint. Yogurt is even preserved into quroot, a boiled yogurt that is drained using a cheesecloth and then rolled into little balls that harden. Quroot is savored as-is or turned into a paste by soaking and then using as a sauce.
Fruits and vegetables play a big role in Afghan culture. Starchy vegetables are usually cooked into stews, which are made in a caramelized onion and tomato base. Non-starchy vegetables such as scallions, radishes, cucumbers, turnips, beets and carrots are generally eaten raw. These vegetables also are pickled into turshi, using a mixture of vinegar and boiled water, then seasoned with garlic, fenugreek and nigella seeds, and salt.
Fruits are an even bigger part of the Afghan diet, eaten throughout the day in many forms. In season, fruits are enjoyed raw. As the season comes to an end, fruits are preserved. Dried fruit, along with green tea and nuts, is a must after a meal.
Family and hospitality are at the essence of Afghan culture and both are catered to through food. Nushi-Jaan Ji Sah (“May it nourish your being”), my parents would say when their food was praised. The guests’ response: Kor moh wadhan (“May your home flourish”).