What You Need to Prepare Afghan Food at Home

While Afghanistan’s rich and flavorful cuisine is gradually becoming better known outside the country’s borders, it may still be some time before everyone is fortunate enough to have a delicious Afghan restaurant right around the corner from their home. However, if you’re a gourmand who doesn’t want to wait, don’t worry: many of Afghanistan’s tastiest dishes can be made at home with just a few extra additions to your regular shopping list. Read on for an overview of everything you’ll need to try your hand at making Afghan food at home.

  1. Herbs, spices, and flavorings

mintThe complex flavors of Afghan cuisine come from the liberal use of herbs, spices, and flavorings. These seasonings are often used in dishes that need to be cooked for long periods of time, allowing the flavors to blend and deepen. Some of the most important seasonings to have in your pantry include:

  • Cardamom—A relative of the ginger family, cardamom is available in green, brown, or black pods. Cardamom adds a distinctive flavor to rice and curries. If you don’t have a way to grind spices yourself at home, you can also find ground cardamom in the spice section of your grocery store.
  • Turmeric—Another member of the ginger family, turmeric is characterized by its deep, rich yellow color. Turmeric brings an earthy, peppery flavor to curry-style dishes.
  • Mint—One of the most popular herbs in Afghan cooking, dried mint is often added during cooking or sprinkled over the top of finished dishes as a garnish.
  • Rosewater—Distilled from rose petals, rosewater is commonly used to flavor many Middle Eastern dishes, especially desserts.

Other important herbs and spices that you probably already have on hand include cumin, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and chilies.

  1. Pantry staples

  • Rice—The centerpiece of almost every Afghan meal is rice. Afghan cooks are very particular about the type of rice that should be used depending on the dish being prepared. Fragrant and delicately flavored basmati rice, which is probably the least processed variety you can find, is an absolute must-have for your pantry. If you have the space, you’ll also want an additional long-grain variety, as well as a short-grain type.
  • Legumes—Dried legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and split peas are a very popular and versatile ingredient in Afghan cooking. They are often used to “fill out” meat dishes, as they are less expensive than fresh meat. In addition, they can be served fried and salted, as well as coated with sugar as a sweet accompaniment for tea.
  • Ghee—One of the most commonly used cooking fats in Afghan cuisine is ghee, or clarified butter. You can buy commercial ghee or you can make it yourself by simply melting a pound of unsalted butter over low heat in a saucepan and skimming away the milk solids as they separate. To ensure the ghee is as clear as possible, strain it through a cheesecloth before storing in a clean jar.
  • Besan—Also known as “gram flour,” it is made from ground chana dal, a type of small chickpea. It is often used to make traditional Afghan bread.
  1. Fresh ingredients

  • onionOnions—Some form of onion can be found in just about every savory Afghan dish. Most dishes rely on a cooked onion mixture known as piaz e surkh kada, in which onions are finely minced and then cooked in plenty of oil until they are a deep golden brown color. Some Afghan cooks make up big batches of piaz e surkh kada in advance so it’s ready to use whenever the cook needs it. Many recipes also call for leeks, scallions, or a type of onion called “gandana” that looks similar to a leek and can be found in specialty markets.
  • Yogurt—Afghan cuisine makes extensive use of thick, natural-style yogurt as a thickener for curries and stews, as a base for sauces and dips, and even as a drink. Plain-flavored Greek-style yogurt is a handy option to keep in your fridge.
  • Cilantro—Fresh cilantro—or coriander, as it’s also known—is used extensively in Afghan cooking, not only in cooked dishes, but also as a garnish or as a kind of chutney. It’s often referred to as “Afghan parsley”.
  1. Equipment

  • Sutak—Since rice is such an essential part of Afghan cuisine, it’s important to ensure that it’s properly cooked. A sutak is a thick cotton cover that’s placed either over a pot of just-cooked rice or between the pot and the lid during cooking. This helps to absorb excess steam and prevents the rice from sticking together or becoming gluey. One thick folded tea towel will work well as a substitute.
  • Seekh—Kebabs, a beloved Afghan dish often made with chunks of lamb, are cooked over a charcoal grill using seekhs—long flat skewers made of stainless steel.

 

How IFAD Is Helping Boost Agriculture in Afghanistan

In the 1970s, a series of food crises focused global attention and concern on the rapidly growing problems of food insecurity and famine. In response to these challenges, the first World Food Conference was held in 1974. One of the major outcomes of the conference was the establishment of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized United Nations agency, in 1977. Since that time, IFAD has been deeply involved in financing agricultural and food production development projects worldwide, with the goal of ultimately eradicating rural poverty in developing countries.

Although Afghanistan was one of the first countries to join IFAD, development programs that were originally approved for the country in 1979 were not able to be implemented for many years due to conflict and instability in the region. Recently, however, IFAD has been able to support a number of both small- and large-scale efforts to reduce poverty and boost agricultural development in Afghanistan.

Community Livestock and Agriculture Project

Launched in selected districts of three Afghan provinces—Kabul, Parwan, and Logar—the goal of this project was to help close to 170,000 rural households increase their agricultural and livestock productivity, and consequently improve their food security. Targeting small-scale farmers and livestock-keepers, the project aimed to provide support to some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations, including landless households and resettled and nomadic Kuchi people.

Three mutually reinforcing components formed the basis of this project. The first element was community development, focusing on improving infrastructure and helping local organizations and institutions build internal capacity. The second element was livestock and agriculture development, with a strong emphasis on providing marginalized communities and families with critical skills and knowledge to make the most of their assets. This element also aimed to strengthen weak areas of the value chain and reinforce smallholders’ market connections. Finally, project management and policy support made up the third project element, notably in the form of a young professionals program designed to attract and motivate qualified young staff to support the project.

Rural Microfinance and Livestock Support Program

Launched in Afghanistan’s relatively secure and stable northern region in 2009, the Rural Microfinance and Livestock Support program aimed to improve the livelihoods of smallholders and livestock owners living in poverty. Working in partnership with the government of Afghanistan and the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan (MISFA), IFAD initiated this program to address the dual objectives of meeting demand for rural finance and improving the livestock sector.

shepherd

On the finance side, the program aimed to help consolidate recent gains made by the microfinance sector and to connect hundreds of thousands of Afghans with their first opportunity to access credit. Through specific measures like the development of a broader range of financial products and services designed to meet the unique needs of smallholders, or the reduction of lending costs in order to combat high interest rates, the program worked to ensure that even the poorest rural people could have access to microfinance services. Some of the program’s particular innovations included creating public-private partnership models for the delivery of livestock extension and veterinary services, and implementing measures to ensure that even landless people, such as the nomadic Kuchis, could access dairy development initiatives.

The livestock improvement side of the program sought to address the sharp decrease in the number of livestock that had resulted from drought and disrupted grazing routes. With small poultry flocks on the brink of disappearance, poor families having lost their few cattle, and conflicts arising over users’ rights and overgrazed rangeland, the agro-livestock owners and nomadic and semi-nomadic people that relied on the livestock sector as their major source of cash income were at risk of losing their livelihoods altogether. The IFAD program aimed to boost the livestock sector and generate greater income for poor rural households by supporting a number of initiatives, including small-scale dairy activities like milk and fodder production; better livestock nutrition and health services in northern Afghanistan; and activities focused on backyard poultry raising and dairy goat raising.

Other Partnerships and Opportunities

As a relative newcomer to Afghanistan’s development landscape, IFAD is working to establish critical dialogue and alliances with many other organizations on the ground, including government agencies, international donors, research institutions, and NGOs.

In particular, IFAD is aiming to enhance its presence and the scope of its activities in Afghanistan by forming country-level collaborations with the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Food Programme. IFAD also liaises with the Asian Development Bank to examine opportunities for co-financing and parallel financing arrangements, and connects with bilateral donors to learn from and build on their experiences of working in Afghanistan. Other organizations that have been instrumental in helping IFAD launch its projects include the Aga Khan Foundation, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, and Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC).

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.