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  Afghan Food and Cookery

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by Helen Saberi

Editor's Note: This is the introduction to Ms. Saberi's fine book Afghan Food and Cookery. (click for review)  Anxious to share her love for the country and the food, she has kindly let us reproduce her work. We are extremely grateful to have a guide to the nuanced food and cookery of Afghanistan. Please also read her personal story to learn more about the human heart of Afghanistan. (click here)

Afghanistan is situated at the meeting place of four major cultural areas: the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Far East. It is because of this geographical position that Afghanistan became the crossroads for many invading armies from different places each with their own culture. These marauding armies, often passing through Afghanistan, journeying further afield, realised the advantages of maintaining strongholds here and paused for a while.


In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan on his way to India; in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD, Afghanistan was plundered by Genghis Khan and the Mongols en route to the Middle and Near East. Babur, founder of the Moghul Empire in India and a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, began his rise to power in Kabul and is buried in his favourite garden on a hill in Kabul, the Bagh-e-Babur Shah.  The conqueror, Nader Shah Afshar invaded and conquered Afghanistan in the eighteenth century on his way to India recruiting Afghan fighters to serve with his troops.   The British in India were twice invaders in the nineteenth century.  Afghan dynasties, in their turn, have flourished and at various times extended their influence to parts of Central Asia, India, Iran and even China.


From the Kushans, to the Ghaznavid sultans, to the Durrani rulers such spheres of influence have contributed much to the rich patterns of civilisation.Because of its special position in Central Asia, Afghanistan was also a crossroads on the ancient Silk Routes connecting Europe with the Far East. Traders and merchants from many countries travelled there, including the famous Venetian traveller Marco Polo. This traffic brought many imported items such as Chinese tea and Indian spices, all of which have had a big effect on Afghan cuisine.The numerous different ethnic groups living in Afghanistan - the Tajiks, Turkomans, Uzbeks, Baluchis, Pashtuns and Hazaras are just some of them - have also left their mark on Afghan traditions and food.

In short, Afghanistan has been a melting pot for a large number of cultures and traditions over the centuries, and these different influences can be detected in the variety of Afghan food and the regional specialities. Readers of Afghan Food and Cookery (click for review) will find many similarities with Greek, Turkish, Middle Eastern, Persian, Central Asian, Indian and even Far Eastern foods and dishes.

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Climate of Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a land of contrasts - vast areas of scorching parched deserts, large areas of high, cold and inaccessible mountains and extensive green plains and valleys, some of which are sub-tropical. Generally the summers are dry and very hot and the winters very cold with heavy snowfalls especially in the mountains. It is this snow which provides the much needed water for irrigation in the late spring and summer. The plains and valleys are very fertile so long as there is water, and a wide variety of crops can be cultivated; it is these crops which determine the everyday diet of Afghans.

Cereals such as wheat, corn, barley and even rice are the chief crops. Rice is grown on the terraces of the Hindu Kush in the north and in the Jalalabad area. Cotton is grown in the north and south west of the country, and cotton factories in Kunduz and Lashkargah produce edible cottonseed oil. Sugar beet is grown mainly in the Pule Khumri/Kunduz area and is processed in the factory at Pule Khumri. Sugar cane is cultivated in the Jalalabad/Nangarhar area.

Because the range of climatic conditions in Afghanistan is so wide, a great variety of vegetables and fruits grow in abundance. Afghanistan is particularly famous for its grapes, from which green and red raisins are produced, and for its melons.

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Social Customs and Traditions in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a poor country but it is rich in traditions and social customs. Unfortunately it is not possible to describe the Afghan way of life in great detail in so short a space, but I have endeavoured to pick out the most interesting and important aspects relating to food and cookery.  As many food bloggers and travelers will say, the best way to experience a new culture is to sit with some locals and try some of the native cuisine and take an active role in their customs.

Hospitality is very important in the Afghan code of honour. The best possible food is prepared for guests even if other members of the family have to go without. A guest is always given a seat or the place of honour at the head of the room. Tea is served first to the guest to quench his thirst. While he is drinking and chatting with his host, all the women and girls of the household are involved in the preparation of food.

The traditional mode of eating in Afghanistan is on the floor. Everyone sits around on large colourful cushions, called toshak. These cushions are normally placed on the beautiful carpets, for which Afghanistan is famous. A large cloth or thin mat called a disterkhan is spread over the floor or carpet before the dishes of food are brought. In summer, food is often served outside in the cooler night air, or under a shady tree during the day. In the depth of winter food is eaten around the sandali, the traditional form of Afghan heating. A sandali consists of a low table covered with a large duvet called a liaf which is also big enough to cover the legs of the occupants, sitting on their cushions or mattresses and supported by large pillows called balesht or poshty. Under the table is a charcoal brazier called a manqal. The charcoal has to be thoroughly burned previously and covered with ashes.

Food is usually shared communally; three or four people will share one large platter of rice and individual side dishes of stew qorma, or vegetables. Home made chutneys, pickles, as well as fresh nan usually accompany the food.

The traditional way of eating is with the right hand, and with no cutlery. Spoons may be used for puddings and teaspoons for tea. Because hands are used in eating there is a handwashing ceremony before meals and for this a special bowl and jug called a haftawa-wa-lagan is used. A young boy or girl member of the family brings this to the guest, and pours the water over his hands for him, the bowl being used to catch the water.

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Special Afghan Occasions and Religious Festivals

Afghanistan is a Muslim country and religion plays a very important part in the way of life. Afghans observe all religious days and festivals, which are based on the lunar calendar. The two most important festivals are Eid-ul-Fitr (also called Eid-e-Ramazan) and Eid-e-Qorban (sometimes called Eid-ul-Adha).

Eid-ul-Fitr, which goes on for three days, marks the end of Ramazan, the month of fasting, and is celebrated rather like our Christmas. Children receive new clothing and families visit relatives and friends. Presents are not exchanged but in recent years the practice of sending Eid cards has increased considerably.

Eid-e-Qorban is the major festival marking the end of the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and lasts for four days. Again, children receive new clothing and friends and relatives are visited. At each Eid, tea, nuts, sweets and sugared almonds called noql are served to visitors and guests. Often special sweets and pastries are also prepared; halwa-e-swanak, sheer payra, goash-e-feel and others. Many Afghans sacrifice a lamb or calf at Eid-e-Qorban, which takes its name from the word qorban, meaning sacrifice. The meat is distributed among the poor, relatives and neighbours.

Another important day of celebration is New Year, called Nauroz. The Afghan New Year falls on 21 March, the spring equinox, our first day of spring. This special day, which celebrates new life, has its origins long before Islam, in the time of Zoroaster and the Zoroastrians. Special dishes and foods are made for the New Year: kulcha Naurozee, a biscuit made with rice flour and sometimes called kulcha birinji; and miwa Naurozee, a fruit and nut compote, also called haft miwa or haft seen by some because it contains seven (haft) fruits and the name of each fruit includes the Persian letter seen. Shola-e-shireen or shola-e-zard, both sweet rice dishes, are also made on this day for Nazer, a kind of thanksgiving (see p 00). Another traditional food at this time is sabzi chalau with chicken. The recipes for these dishes can be found in the relevant chapters.

Samanak is another ancient dish prepared especially for New Year. About fifteen to twenty days before the New Year, wheat is planted in flower pots and from this wheat a sweet pudding is made. The preparation for this dish is elaborate.

At New Year when everything is new and fresh and the bitter winter is finally over, Afghans like to go on picnics and many people visit holy shrines, ziarat.

Buzkashi is also played at New Year. It is the country's national sport and it resembles polo. Buzkashi literally means 'goat-grabbing'. The headless body of a goat, or sometimes a calf, is used in place of a ball. The game originated on the plains of Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif during the time of the Mongol invasions of Afghanistan, when it is said that the Mongol horsemen used (decapitated) prisoners of war instead of goats.

Children go out to fly their kites. These are made with colourful tissue paper on a light wooden frame, and the thread, specially made with ground glass, is extremely sharp. The kites fight each other in the air, trying to cut the thread of other kites.

Afghans love an excuse for a party. Births, circumcisions, engagements and weddings are celebrated in grand style, although many of the associated customs are dying out.

The birth of a child, especially the first male child is a big occasion, when many guests will be expected. Numerous dishes and specialities are prepared; aush, ashak, boulanee, kebabs, pilau and many desserts. Celebrations continue for ten days. On the third day or sometimes the sixth day, called Shab-e-shash, the local priest, mullah, comes to bless the child and the naming ceremony takes place. Relatives sit round a room and choose a name, which is then called into the baby's ear. On the tenth day (dah) after the birth, the mother gets up for the first time (until this time her women relatives have been looking after her and the baby) and goes to the public baths (hamam). This day is therefore called Hamam-e-dah. Humarch, a flour-based soup, which is considered a 'hot' or strengthening food is served, especially to the new mother. Other traditional dishes often made specially for this occasion because of their reputed strengthening and nourishing properties are leetee, kachee, aush and shola-e-olba, the sweet rice dish with fenugreek. On the 40th day after the birth, the sweet bread called roht is baked for close family relatives. Roht is also baked and rolled on the day the child walks for the first time.

Circumcision is another occasion which is still celebrated. Relatives and friends gather together when the male child is circumcised. Traditionally, the local barber is responsible for performing this task. On such a day kebabs are made from the fresh meat of a lamb specially sacrificed for the occasion and are served with a variety of foods.

Engagements and weddings are elaborate and many of the celebrations vary between the different ethnic groups. They also vary from city to village. Any engagement or wedding is an occasion for a large party.

Engagements are called shirnee khoree, which literally means sweet eating. Traditionally the family of the groom bring sweets, goash-e-feel, presents, clothes, jewellery and other gifts for the bride's family. The bride's family in return prepares and organises the food and the party to celebrate the occasion. Large numbers of guests, depending on the social standing and financial circumstances of the bride's family are invited. Special kitchens are often set up in order to cope with the preparation of vast amounts of food; pilau, qorma, ashak, boulanee and many varieties of desserts; firni, shola, jellies, pastries and of course lots of fruit. The tea qymaq chai is usually served.

Weddings take place in two stages: nikah, the religious ceremony when the marriage contract is actually signed, takes place first and is followed by arusi, which is a combination of wedding party and further ceremony.

At the second stage of the wedding the guests are first served with food while the bride is preparing herself in a separate room. A wide assortment of rich dishes similar to those at an engagement are served. The arusi ceremony usually takes place quite late in the evening and after the inevitable tea.

The bride and bridegroom are then brought together for the first time (the bride was not present at the religious ceremony - her signing of the contract was done by proxy). The groom sits on a raised platform called takht (throne) and the bride approaches, heavily veiled with female relatives holding the Qor'an (Koran) over her head. The bride joins the groom and a mirror is placed before them. Several ceremonies then take place involving the tasting of sharbat (sherbet) and molida, a flour-based, powdery sweet. Henna is painted on the couple's hands or fingers. Sugared almonds (noql) symbolising fruitfulness and prosperity and other sweets, symbolising happiness, are then showered over the newly-weds, rather like the western tradition of throwing confetti.

Another less happy occasion when many friends and relatives get together is for a death. Food is prepared for the mourning family and guests, many of whom will stay for a number of days with the bereaved family On the first Friday after a death, and on the 40th day, relatives and friends gather together to hear the Qor'an being read, usually by the local priest (mullah), after which food is served.

Another custom which perhaps should be mentioned here is the Shab-e-mourdaha, which literally means night of the dead. These special nights are held on the eve of an Eid and New Year. The dead of the family are remembered and halwa is made and distributed to the poor.

Nazer is another important religious custom. It is practised by all, whether rich or poor, and is similar to a thanksgiving, but can take place on any day. Nazer is offered for a number of reasons like the safe return of a relative after a journey or recovery from a serious illness. Another important reason for nazer is to mark a visit to a holy shrine and the fulfilment of a prayer made on this pilgrimage. For these occasions special dishes such as halwa or shola are cooked and distributed to the poor. The most simple offering for nazer is to buy a dozen fresh nan and hand pieces out to passers-by in the street. The more affluent sacrifice a lamb or calf. Nazer is always accepted graciously as it has such religious significance.

My mother-in-law used to make a large pot of halwa. Portions of this were placed on a large piece of fresh nan. A large tray was set up and a servant or member of the family went out on to the street and offered it to anyone passing by. We also sent it to our neighbours.

Nazer is also held on other important religious days such as the birthday of Prophet Mohammad or on the tenth day of Muharram (the lunar month of mourning) which is the anniversary of the massacre of Hazrat-e-Hussein, grandson of Mohammad and seventy two members of his family. There is also Nazer Bibi, Bibi being Fatima El-Zahra, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad. On this occasion, rice or wheat halwa is served on round thin bread cooked in oil.

Of course, some traditions and customs have disappeared, especially in the cities. The towns and cities have become increasingly westernised, particularly the capital, Kabul. Tables and chairs are now in common use, as is cutlery, although knives are still not used much. Buffet meals are often prepared for large parties.

There is no special order for serving Afghan food and usually at a large party the table is set with all the main dishes; pilau, qorma, vegetables and salads are placed together with the desserts and fruits. It is up to the individual to choose whether to eat each dish separately or to eat all the dishes on one plate. However, the desserts are eaten last and followed by fruit. After every meal tea is served. Enormous amounts of food are prepared on special occasions. Second helpings are a must if you are not to offend your host. Often the host or hostess will come round and serve you with a large extra helping, insisting that you eat more of this or that delicacy.

Left-overs from these feasts are never wasted. There are always willing eaters in the kitchen who have been involved in the preparation of the food and who wait until the guests have finished. What they cannot manage can always be eaten the next day.

Afghans rarely eat in restaurants. There were a few restaurants in Kabul and in other large towns but these mostly catered for foreigners and travellers. Chaikhana, teahouses, on the other hand, are very popular and Afghans go there to meet their friends, exchange gossip and sit and drink tea. Food can be bought but it is mainly for travellers. Afghans do like to eat kebabs which are prepared at kebab stalls and they also buy snacks from street vendors known as tawaf or tabang wala. A tabang wala carries his food and utensils balanced on his head on a large, flat, round wooden tray called a tabang. He sets up a stall wherever or whenever appropriate, sometimes staking a claim to a particular street corner. He provides an assortment of food such as jelabi, pakaura, sliced boiled potatoes with vinegar, boiled chickpeas or kidney beans served with vinegar and boiled eggs.

A popular game played by children at Eid or Nauroz resembles our Easter custom of coloured eggs. The eggs are brightly decorated in different colours and the game consists in knocking together two boiled eggs with a friend. The owner of the egg whose shell cracks first is the loser. Sometimes a tabang wala sells dried fruits and nuts, fruit and nut compotes such as kishmish ab (raisins in water), and sweets.

Another game which both adults and children play involves the pulling and breaking of a chicken wishbone. Very often at a party a pilau with chicken will be specially cooked as an excuse to play this game. Unlike the game played with a wishbone in the west, it does not matter who receives the larger piece; the pulling of the wishbone simply marks the start of a game between two players, on which bets, usually for another party or money or clothing, will be placed. At any time after the wishbone has been pulled one of the players may try to win by handing an object, of any nature, to the other. The one who receives the object must remember that the game has been set in motion and must say Mara yod ast (I remember). The game goes on until one player forgets and becomes the loser. The winner marks his victory by saying Mara yod ast, tura feramush (I remember, you forget).

With the arrival of snow, the adults play a game called barfi, which also involves the giving of a party. A friend or relative sends a note in an envelope containing some of the first snow. It is usually delivered by a servant or a child. If you unsuspectingly accept the envelope you must pay the forfeit by giving a party for the sender and his family. Some Afghans take care to avoid answering the door during the first snowfall, but many will await the deliverer, for, if you can catch the person delivering the note, the tables are turned and it is the sender who must give the party. When this happens the deliverer has a black mark made with charcoal on his forehead or his hands are tied behind his back and then he is returned in disgrace to the sender's house. I was once caught out by one of my husband's young cousins. I think his family took unfair advantage of a foreigner who was not well versed in Afghan traditions!

A favourite pastime is a picnic called maila, especially in spring and summer, although in peacetime the people of Kabul went for picnics even in winter, sometimes an extended one lasting the whole weekend, down in the warmer climes of Jalalabad. In summer, picnickers would go to the cooler mountain regions of Paghman or the Salang in the Hindu Kush. In spring the picturesque village of Istalif and the lake at Sarobi were favourite haunts.

In true Afghan style, mountains of food were taken and prepared on the spot for these picnics. A fire would be lit and kebabs or fish grilled over charcoal and served with salads and hot fresh nan, bread. Sometimes the more adventurous would cook pilau. Afterwards tea was brewed and everyone would relax and enjoy the fresh air. Some Afghan picnics are quite lively affairs, and there is music and dancing for the more energetic. People bring their own musical instruments, or popular Indian dance music on tape.

Some foods and desserts are prepared only at certain seasons. In spring or early summer, faluda is made. This is a type of noodle dessert or drink, sometimes mixed with snow brought down from the mountains in large blocks, which is served with a variety of accompaniments ranging from a milk custard thickened with salep to just being sprinkled with rosewater. Locally made ice cream, sheer yakh belongs to the same season. Kishmish panir is another traditional food found only in the spring: a white uncured cheese served with red raisins. Winter is the season for the speciality called haleem, a dish of wheat mixed with ground meat and served with oil and sugar, usually bought from the bazaar. Winter is also the time for fish and jelabi.

 

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