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Discovering Afghanistan


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by Helen Saberi

I became interested in Afghanistan at school after reading a book about the country and its culture and traditions. It sounded such a fascinating and interesting place that I became determined to visit it one day.

I had always been interested in foreign lands and had already travelled quite a bit. So after finishing school and secretarial college I applied for a job with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I worked first in London and then was posted to Warsaw. Soon after, I was posted from there to Kabul, Afghanistan. I was absolutely delighted and thrilled to be sent to one of the places where I had always wanted to go.I arrived in Afghanistan in March 1971.  I flew in a very small aeroplane from Peshawar to Kabul over the mountains and the famous Khyber Pass. It looked so barren, mountainous and dusty that I must admit I wondered if I had made a mistake in going there. However, after this somewhat daunting first impression I grew to love Afghanistan - its stark and

stunning scenery, its barren and dusty deserts, the brilliant blue skies, snow clad mountains, lush green valleys, and the colourful and bustling bazaars; but most of all I loved it for the wonderful, hospitable people.

During my first year I travelled around the country as much as possible and met many Afghans including my future husband, and after a short engagement we were married in England in 1972. When we returned to live in Afghanistan, I was offered a locally-engaged post at the British Embassy. I had the best of both worlds - I kept my links with Britain, while at the same time I became an Afghan. I quickly learned the language of Dari, and during the next eight years travelled around most parts of the country. I became very interested in the culture and traditions of the people and in their food and customs.We entertained a lot at home and even for our non-Afghan friends we nearly always cooked Afghan food.

I have lots of happy and fond memories of hours spent in the kitchen with my maid, and also my friend, Gulbadan, and my mother-in-law, preparing ashak, boulanee, pilau, and many other specialities and delicacies. I extended my knowledge of Afghan food and traditions in the best way possible, by being the guest of many families from different tribes and backgrounds and tasting all kinds of regional specialities on my travels.I lived in Afghanistan until March 1980, when due to the Soviet invasion and occupation, the escalating fighting and civil disturbances, we decided reluctantly that it was time to leave. However, although we left most of our material belongings behind and some of our family and dear friends, I am fortunate still to have my memories, together with a tremendous love for Afghans and Afghanistan.

One of my main reasons for writing Afghan Food and Cookery was to record Afghan culinary traditions and recipes, which I felt might be lost due to the war in Afghanistan. I also wanted to contribute, in a small way, to the Afghan cause and to help prevent Afghanistan being forgotten. Many men, women and children were without food, medicines or shelter and the war resulted in a massive exodus of refugees to countries all over the world and a consequent dispersal and erosion of their culture. Sadly, this tragic situation continued for many years. In a bitter civil war, Afghan fought Afghan; many men, women and children were killed; thousands of children became orphans; millions faced starvation; women's rights under the Taliban became non-existent; a whole generation knew only deprivation and war. However, what happened in New York on September 11, 2001, quickly brought about the start of a new and more hopeful era for Afghanistan. The Taliban have been driven away along with their allies from Al-Qaeda and there is wide support for the transitional government who now face the enormous task of cementing peace in place and rebuilding the country. I have had an opportunity myself to assess on the spot the magnitude of this task.

I have just returned from a visit to Afghanistan, my first in twenty-two years. My husband, an engineer, had already returned there some months previously to help with planning reconstruction, with plans and projects piled high on his desk. It was an emotional visit, tinged with sadness when I saw the amount of devastation and poverty. However, despite all the difficulties and troubles, I also felt optimistic for the future. Kabul seemed to be thriving: a bustling, busy city. People are returning and are busy rebuilding or renovating their homes, shops and offices. The noise of building work competes with the din of chaotic traffic. Shops and bazaars thrive. Although western goods are only available at prices far too high for 95% of the population, local produce abounds, especially the colourful vegetables and fruits which I recalled so well from living there.

In the bazaars, young men with their barrows sing out their wares - red pomegranates spilling out their glistening seeds, rosy apples, small sweet yellow bananas, melons, water melons (one or two also split to reveal their red juicy insides), small sweet white grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots and lots of green gandana (the leek-like vegetable so loved by Afghans). The street vendors (tabang walas) are as popular as ever. One can buy corn on the cob roasted over charcoal; eat fried pastries filled with gandana called boulanee; or feast on boiled sliced potatoes sprinkled with minty vinegar. You can take your choice from a row of jars containing brightly coloured chutneys, including the tangy green coriander chutney which is one of my favourites.

The chaikhanas (tea houses) are doing good trade. It is in them that men gather to gossip or discuss politics over tea or a quick snack. The restaurant scene is changing. There have never been many restaurants, of the western kind, but new ones are appearing and menus are becoming more varied and now include takeaway items. During my visit I was able to sample pizza, pasta, Chinese dishes and Indian food. There are a number of plans to restore and renovate some of the larger hotels of Kabul.

All in all, there are many signs of the Afghan people getting back to a normal life and their traditional ways. However, I think it is just as important now as it was in the mid 1980s to continue to record the foods, traditions, and recipes of the Afghan people. Certainly, Afghans think so. I have been greatly heartened by the response my book has had from many of them now living in different corners of the world. They have sent me much constructive, helpful advice and information about Afghan food and cookery in all the variety which the presence of so many ethnic groups in one country has brought about. I was particularly delighted when many told me that they had bought my book to give to their children, many of whom left Afghanistan at a very early age and do not remember much about the traditions and customs.

Written by Helen Saberi




Afghan recipes


click to read about Afghanistan - its food and its culture

click for review of Ms. Saberi's book, Afghan Food and Cookery



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