Afghanistan has historically been an important intersection of trade between the bordering areas of China, the Middle East, Europe and India. The cuisine that arose took influences from many of these places, as well as being shaped by the harsh 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.
Mantoo and Afghan salad
Mantoo are dumplings, which are made in various forms and carry different names, throughout many countries in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia. Afghan mantoo 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. Mantoo are traditionally served with a yoghurt and garlic sauce, as well as a tomato and yellow split pea sauce flavoured with garlic and onion. I topped my mantoo with dried mint, and loved how my very amateur dumpling shapes looked like little butterflies. Mantoo 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 mantoo. 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. I also made an Afghan salad, mixing corn, tomato, cucumber, carrot, red onion, coriander and mint, dressed with oil and lemon juice.
Mourgh with yoghurt dip, flatbread and salata
Mourgh is a preparation of chicken marinated in yoghurt, salt, garlic, lemon and pepper. It is then grilled over a high heat until the outside is charred. The yoghurt marinade tenderises the chicken, as well as keeping it moist and adding a sweet rich flavour. Although traditionally it should be prepared over an open flame or charcoal, I didn’t have the strength to fire up my barbecue on this particular day, so resorted to pan-frying. The result was still wonderful – yoghurt takes on a whole new flavour when it’s cooked that gives a great flavour to meat. I served it with a dip made of fresh yoghurt and garlic, as well as a thin Afghani flatbread called lawash. Bread is an important staple in Afghanistan, and is traditionally cooked in a tandoori oven, similar to Indian naan. As for many countries in this region, bread is often used in place of cutlery, to scoop up liquid curries and stews and ensure a neat delivery to the mouth. I also made salata, which is an Afghan salad of tomato, cucumber, onion, coriander, salt and lemon juice. This combination raises its head all over the world, and with good reason; it’s infallibly delicious and complements any meal.
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, and pulao refers to a rice dish. It consists of steamed rice combined with raisins, onion, garlic, carrots, almonds, pistachios and lamb. A spiced syrup 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 rice and it is cooked with a tea towel placed under the lid to absorb some moisture and create a crust on the bottom of the rice. 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.
Afghani lamb qormah curry with rice and naan bread
Afghani qormahs are stews or casseroles, mostly involving a base of onions and meat, flavoured with dried fruits and sweet spices. I included pepper, cardamom, coriander seeds, cumin, garlic, ginger, chilli, turmeric, paprika and cinnamon to flavour mine. For the base, I used lamb, onions, tomatoes and yoghurt, then stewed everything together until the flavours were infused. I adore this combination of spices, especially cardamom, which is a strong contender for my favourite spice of all time. I served my qormah with rice and a thicker variety of Afghan bread, as well as a squeeze of lemon. Traditionally a lamb qormah would be made with mutton, as the hours and hours of stewing on a low heat makes even the toughest meat tender and delicious. This is just one of the many ways cheap ingredients can create magic when combined appropriately, and perfectly represents the flavours and attitudes underlying Afghani cuisine.