Afghanistan has historically been an important intersection of trade between the bordering areas of Pakistan, India and China to the East, Iran to the west, and the other ‘stans to the north. The cuisine that arose took influences from many of these places, as well as being shaped by the harsh cold and mountainous climate. The centuries of war and invasion further forced Afghanis to take advantage of cheap and readily-available ingredients to make the best of scarce times – circumstances that are generally considered to produce some of the best and most ingenious recipes in the world. Lamb and mutton are much used, with the fat of the mutton being an important component to sustain the population through freezing winters. Rice is also critical to the culture, and several different types of rice-based dish are expected to be served at large family celebrations. If you lived in Afghanistan and were expecting a small number of guests in your home, you might lay out a dastarkhan, which is a collection of dishes arranged on a tablecloth on the floor, commonly involving a tea-pouring ritual. It is considered the height of rudeness to step on or over the dastarkhan, and it is expected that the best dishes be placed near the guests. Although I don’t include drinks in my project, tea is crucially important in Afghani culture, including green, black or milk varieties, often flavoured with sugar or cardamom. I’m not usually partial to sweet drinks, but I found myself fantasising about these aromatic teas all week while feasting on the delicious cuisine Afghanistan has to offer.
Mantu and Afghan salad
Mantu are dumplings, which are made in various forms and carry different names, throughout many countries in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia. Afghan mantu are commonly filled with lamb mince, onion and spices, including coriander powder and pepper. This cooked filling is then wrapped in wheat-based dumpling wrappers and steamed until tender. In Afghanistan, the dumplings are traditionally served with a quroot and garlic sauce, quroot being a local dairy product that is a byproduct of butter production, for which I substituted greek yoghurt. They are also served with a tomato and legume sauce (I used chickpeas) flavoured with garlic and onion. I topped my mantu with dried mint, and loved how my very amateur dumpling shapes looked like little butterflies. Along with my mantu I served a fresh and healthy Afghan salad, mixing tomato, cucumber, red onion, coriander and mint, dressed with oil and lemon juice. I was touched to learn when researching this dish that mantu are the most commonly made dish of the organisation Ilham, which is run in Delhi by female Afghani refugees, and helps them to earn an income and rebuild their lives by using their culinary skills. I thought about them a lot while meditatively folding my mantu. I actually find myself often thinking about the women throughout history in all parts of the world carrying out similar tasks like chopping onions, kneading bread or making a feast for a family celebration. I suppose the desire to feed ourselves and our loved ones as deliciously and nutritiously as possible connects many of us throughout time and space.
Kabuli pulao and kababs
Kabuli pulao is a dish from northern Afghanistan, often considered to be the national Afghan dish. The meal is thought to be named after Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, or perhaps a derivation of a word meaning “excellent”, and pulao is a general term for a rice dish that is parboiled then steamed with other ingredients, creating a crust on its bottom. In Kabuli pulao, these other ingredients are traditionally raisins, onion, garlic, carrots, almonds, pistachios, lamb, and a spiced syrup, which is infused through the rice, made with sugar, lamb stock, garam masala and cardamom. Right at the end when the rice is almost cooked, hot oil is poured over the parboiled rice layered with other ingredients, and it is cooked without stirring with a tea towel placed under the lid to absorb some moisture and create the crust on the bottom. This is similar to the famous Iranian tadig – rice cooked with a crunchy crust. Some recipes suggest that you can substitute the traditional lamb with other meats, but I think the lamb was ideal – the strongly-flavoured fat coated the rice to create glossy grains with an umami flavour that complemented the sweet spices. In fact, prior to exploring the world’s cuisines, I wasn’t overly fond of lamb, but discovering these sorts of slightly sweet lamb and rice dishes has completely converted me – I assure you it’s the best way to eat the meat! Along with the stewed chunks of lamb leg I slow cooked with my rice broth, I also grilled lamb chops (kabab e chopan) and chicken thighs (kabab e mourgh) on a skewer, both of which had been marinated in yoghurt and various spices (e.g. paprika, saffron, ground coriander, lemon, garlic, ginger) for several hours prior. Kababs in Afghanistan are commonly sold from street vendors and restaurants, and can contain whole cuts of meat, mince, vegetables or even offal like liver. I won’t pretend their addition to the already-rich rice dish was necessary, but it certainly was appreciated…
I had never heard of this dish until it was cooked for me recently by my wonderful Mum. She does not have quite the same obsession as me for international cuisine, but nobody has a keener nose for new healthy, practical and delicious vegetarian recipes. Indeed, few dishes in my experience exceed all of those categories so admirably than aush. The first component that aids these goals is the inclusion of lots of fresh herbs. Not only does this add a lot of flavour in a nutritious way, it also solves my long-standing problem of how to use up leftover herbs, some of which may be looking a little wilted by the end of the week. Other than leftover herbs, the other ingredients predominantly consist of convenient pantry/freezer staples, like fettuccine spaghetti, vegetable stock, legumes of your choice (I used chickpeas, lentils and red kidney beans), fresh or frozen spinach/silverbeet and turmeric. My (mostly vegetarian) Mum stops at this to produce a wonderful hearty soup, but I went on with the more traditional inclusion of lamb keema, flavoured with onions, garlic, tomatoes, cumin, coriander and cinnamon, as well as a yoghurt and dried mint sauce. Seeing as the meat keema and yoghurt sauces are prepared separately, this meal even has the potential to suit vegetarians and vegans alike, who could simple omit the aspects that didn’t suit them. So simple, delicious and versatile is this soup that it is also found in many surrounding countries, sometimes disguised by different names, such as Iran and Turkey. Aush, its name in Afghanistan, translates to “noodle” in Afghani. Of course, my aush was nowhere near as delicious as my Mum’s, even with the more sinful additions of lamb and yoghurt, but I still marvelled at the deliciousness that such simple ingredients could create!
Qormah e nadroo
Afghani qormahs are a huge family of stews or casseroles, of which there are thought to be over 100 members. The name is related to the more internationally famous Indian “korma”, both names stemming from an Urdu word meaning “to braise”. The recipe predominantly involves a base of caramelised onions and tomatoes, either chunky or blended to a smooth and silky sauce, to which meat and/or vegetables and fruit are added, flavoured with sweet spices. I truly struggled to pick a single qormah recipe from the hundreds available, including qormah e gosht (simple red meat qormah), qormah e alou-bokhara wa dalnakhod (sour plums, lentils, cardamom qormah with chicken or veal) and qormah e shalgham (sweet and sour lamb qormah with turnips and sugar). All of them sound exotic, and wonderfully balanced between sweet, sour and meaty flavours, but I finally settled on qormah e nadroo, describing an onion, coriander, tomato and yoghurt-based sauce coating meat (I used chicken) and lotus root (nadroo). I served it with one of the many types of Afgani bread, nan e tawagy: thick circles of unleavened dough fried on a hot skillet. I wasn’t disappointed in my choice of qormah, as it was everything promised: subtly sweet, salty, spicy and with the lotus root imparting a mildly flavoured crunch like a water chestnut. I must admit, however, that I still have a strange feeling of loss for all the qormahs that I missed out on this week, even stronger than my usual regret at having to exclude dishes… I shall just have to add them to my ever-lengthening list of new recipes to try once I finish this project!