5 Delicious Things You Need to Know about Afghan Cuisine

Afghanistan’s rich and varied cuisine draws from a broad range of geographic influences and is steeped in a cultural tradition that is more than two thousand years old. Though it was relatively unknown outside the country’s borders until recently, more and more people around the world are now discovering the unique and flavorful charm that Afghan cuisine has to offer. If you’ve never encountered Afghan cuisine before, here are five delicious food facts to inspire you to give it a try.

Afghan cuisine reflects the country’s position as a cultural crossroads.

Landlocked Afghanistan has long been an important point of convergence for historic trade routes between Europe, India, China, and the Middle East, and centuries of varied travelers and traders passing through have had a strong influence on local food and ingredients.

India, Mongolia, and Persia (Iran) have made particularly important contributions to the evolution of Afghan cuisine. Key spices like saffron, chilies, pepper, and garam masala (a spice blend including cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin) came from India; Persia contributed strong herbs such as coriander and mint, as well as the practice of cooking with spinach and other green herbs; and the influence of Mongolian cooking helped shaped the Afghan appetite for dumplings and noodle dishes.

Consequently, contemporary Afghan cuisine is a fascinating and delicious fusion of Central Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern tastes and flavors. Many Western palates also appreciate the fact that, unlike some of their neighbors, Afghans do not like their food too spicy.

Rice is a key ingredient.

A staple element of Afghan cuisine, and often considered to be the best part of any meal, rice features heavily in a great many Afghan dishes. Basmati rice is the type used most often, in one of several variations. “Classic” basmati rice has been matured for up to two years in order to give it a more intense flavor and to produce a lighter and fluffier cooked grain. It’s this type of rice that is used to make chalau, a simple steamed rice dish which is often eaten with accompanying stews like korma.

“Sella” basmati rice, a slightly yellow-colored grain which has been first steamed and then dried to produce grains that are perfectly separate when cooked, is popular among Afghan cooks for making pulao (also known as palau or pilao). One of Afghanistan’s flagship dishes, pulao exists in dozens of different variations around the country, but its main components include slow-cooked meat, gently spiced rice, lentils, raisins, carrots, nuts, and spices like cardamom. Rice also features in many sweet dishes like the local rice pudding known as sheer berenj.

Lamb is one of the most common meats.

kofta

Image by Michelle DT | Flickr

Due to factors such as religious rules that prevent the eating of pork and a terrain that makes cattle farming difficult in many areas, lamb (as well as mutton, its more mature counterpart) has emerged as one of the most common meats in Afghan cuisine. To get supremely tender, flavorful meat, lamb or mutton will often be minced to make dishes like kofta, or meatballs, or marinated for many hours. One of the most popular ways to eat lamb is as a kebab, or kabob, a widely enjoyed street food in which chunks of meat and vegetables are threaded onto long skewers, grilled over charcoal, and served accompanied by naan bread. Some kebab variations take the form of shavings that come from a large cylinder of minced lamb.

Afghans are known for their use of dried fruit and nuts.

Dried fruit and nuts feature prominently in Afghan cuisine, whether as an ingredient in main dishes, offered after a meal as dessert, or simply eaten as a snack. In rural Afghanistan, for example, nuts and dried fruit are often eaten instead of a heavy midday meal. Green raisins and sultanas are usually a key part of rice dishes, and dried plums are frequently used in many dishes for their unique sweet, yet tart flavor. Some of the most popular nuts in Afghanistan are almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and pine nuts, all of which are used in both sweet and savory dishes. Dried fruits and nuts are also a staple of festive or celebratory meals: New Year celebrations, for example, feature a specialty called haft mewa, which is a dish composed of seven different dried fruits and nuts.

Food and hospitality are closely linked.

In Afghanistan, food is as much about hospitality as it is about nourishment. Afghans have a deep respect for guests and take pride in serving them the best food possible as a sign of their esteem. Tea is a particularly important expression of hospitality, with strong traditional rituals defining how tea should be served. This focus on presentation is important when it comes to food as well: during meals in a family home, for example, the best dishes will always be placed nearest the guests.

Behind the Scenes at Afghanaid

Despite the improved conditions within Afghanistan in recent years, decades of turmoil have left the nation in disarray. In an effort to address needs and shortfalls within the nation, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have partnered with local organizations to provide assistance and much-needed services to the residents of Afghanistan.

As a result, the country has seen an improvement in the daily lives of many, but the situation is still far from ideal. Thousands of individuals are classified as “at-risk,” a designation that indicates the extreme levels of poverty that still exist.

The at-risk groups include women, children, widows, and other displaced groups of people who face an uncertain future. Fortunately, NGOs such as Afghanaid are working to provide hope and help.

The History of Afghanaid

afghanaidlogoAfghanaid began in 1983 as an outreach of the Afghanistan Support Committee work in London. After two years of working closely with Afghans, the charity became its own entity and went to work in earnest. Since its inception, it has worked in nearly every province within the country and provided services to over 1 million Afghans.

Crisis Response

The earliest years of Afghanaid’s existence were spent addressing war-relief efforts. As war escalated in the early 1990s, Afghanaid was on hand to offer support and assistance to survivors in the aftermath of conflict.

The loss of food production sites and a breakdown in distribution lines created a food shortage that left thousands hungry. Volunteers from Afghanaid entered the country, finding families and providing food for over 70,000 people during the famine.

In addition, the country’s damaged infrasture, ambulance and other rescue personnel had a difficult time navigating the streets to bring medical relief to injured and sick persons. Afghanaid worked to raise funds for supplies and other medical necessities that helped decrease the number of casualties. In a few short years, however, Afghanid transitioned from war relief to helping people rebuild their lives.

Vocational Training

Establishing vocational training programs, such as the tailoring project, provided sustainable work and training for displaced farmers who needed ways to provide for their families. As part of the tailoring project, participants were provided with training and equipment to establish businesses that made school uniforms for children.

Other vocational efforts included beekeeping, kitchen gardens, and more. Through training and mentorship, participants in the program learn business skills, develop group lending policies, and offer financial support to others in the program. Self-sustaining programs such as these are essential to the rebuilding of Afghanistan and allow individuals within the community to develop viable business skills.

Afghanaid Today

More than 20 years after its work began, Afghanaid is still a powerful source of support and resources to the people of Afghanistan. The programs that were initiated during the war have been expanded to encompass additional areas of concern and concentrate financial efforts in the areas most in need of help.

The organization identifies vulnerable households in need of financial assistance and support and provides them with a voice in their own development. In this way, it is giving Afghans inspiration to work towards a brighter future, and encouraging others to participate in the rebuilding process and work towards a brighter future.

It concentrates its aid programs on four primary areas of concern:

  1. Basic support
  2. Improving job security
  3. Emergency response
  4. Disaster relief

The organization’s goal is a peaceful, thriving Afghanistan, and it is working to ensure that all Afghans are able to enjoy the benefits that result from peace. To support that mission, it has an overreaching theme of gender rights and governance that are underscored in every aspect of aid it offers.

Governance

By supporting local governance, Afghanaid encourages all citizens of Afghanistan to get involved in local institutions and politics. It has introduced community-based concepts such as community monitoring, social audits, and assemblies.

These efforts help to develop links between the local community and district authorities. In addition, by strengthening individuals, family units become stronger, which in turn helps to build communities.

Strong communities lead to improved relationships with other communities, and the entire nation benefits. When seen as part of a larger whole, every individual who receives assistance from Afghanaid has a role to play – both today and in the future.

Groups like Afghanaid are essential to the future of Afghanistan. With its 30-year track record in the country, it has established itself as a reliable means of support and assistance, and is a trusted component of the rebuilding taking place in the nation.

What You Need to Know about Afghan Food

Located along the historic trade routes between India, China, the Middle East and Europe, Afghanistan has a rich history of residing at the crossroad of cultures. The food of Afghanistan is a wonderful representation of the varied cultural influences. Today, after decades of conflict, the tradition of providing guests with hospitality and heaping servings of delicious food continues. Understanding the importance of the traditions and food in a culture can lead to a greater capacity for seeing the similarities between people around the world.

History of Food in Afghanistan

spicesWhile Afghan foods have a style all their own, there are distinct influences from surrounding nations that have merged with native dishes to provide a unique flavor. Traders from India brought spices such as saffron, chilies, and garam masala (a mixture of nutmeg, cloves, cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon). Iran’s contribution was the use of coriander and mint, as well as spinach. Mongolia shared its fondness for noodles and dumplings. These new flavors, combined with the meat-rich diet necessary for this landscape of harsh winters, provide a palate of delicious, varied foods.

Main Dishes

Afghan diets are based on rich, fatty meats and oils. Chunks of meat served on skewers could be identified as the nation’s “fast food” and can be found in nearly every street market. Long metal skewers are laced through lamb, cooked over charcoal, and served with naan. Meat dishes may also include ribs, lamb chops, or a variety of meatballs. Korma, a popular dish, consists of a base of onion and garlic, with vegetables, meat, and spices added to make a delicious stew.

Side Dishes

Rice, which is a staple of the Afghan diet, is regarded by some as the best part of a meal. Several varieties of rice-based dishes may be served at each meal, and formal occasions such as weddings may feature sweet and savory recipes. A popular dish, Kabuli pilao, consists of a dome of rice seasoned with cardamom, raisins and nuts, and slow-cooked meat. Other dishes may include fluffy, white rice or a creamy rice pudding.

Due to Mongolian influences, dumplings are often served in Afghan homes, but are generally reserved for private meals due to the extensive amount of time that it takes to prepare them. Ashak, a vegetable filled tortellini-like pasta, is served with a garlic yogurt sauce and spicy meat. Meat-filled pockets known as mantoo are covered in a tomato sauce and served along with rice.

Dairy Products

Considering Afghanistan’s agricultural lifestyle, dairy products play an important role in meals in the country. Nearly every meal includes some form of dairy. Yogurt is served as a sauce for meats, as an accompaniment to rice dishes, and as a dessert with dried fruit and nuts. Curds may be dried into small balls for cooking, and boiled curd is often served for breakfast.

Beverages

green teaTea, which is the beverage of choice in Afghanistan, is served with every meal. Depending on the occasion, tea may be served spiced, or with milk or cream. More formal occasions call for sugared tea to be served to honor guests, while informal meals may feature strong black tea. Tea time, which is another important Afghan ritual, consists of a midday snack of dried fruits, sweets, and pastries served with black or green tea.

Dining Customs

Similar to mealtime around the world, Afghanistan has its own set of customs and rituals that define a typical meal. Meals in Afghanistan are typically eaten with the right hand. Instead of utensils, diners use bread as a scoop. There are two types of bread commonly used. They include a naan bread, which is deeply grooved and which has sesame or nigella seeds sprinkled on top, or a large, flat bread.

One of the most important parts of any meal in Afghanistan is the dastarkhan, which consists of a tablecloth laden with the offerings of the meal placed on the floor. Diners are seated around the dastarkhan. Members of the dining party may have certain duties, such as tea pourer, and guests are often seated near the best dishes. Customs may vary based on region and tradition, but every meal in Afghanistan is centered around the tenet of hospitality and sharing. According to traditional lore, no one was ever turned away from a meal, even if the individual was a virtual stranger to the family.

For the people of Afghanistan, there is comfort in maintaining the traditions of centuries that focus on hospitality and shared meals. For the global community attempting to find common ground with a group of people who have largely been unknown, there is a sense of camaraderie around the table, whether it is a traditional dining room table or a dastarkhan. Learning about the customs, including the food of Afghanistan, can go a long way toward building bridges that unite—rather than divide—the world.