7 Fun Facts about the Most Popular Beverage in Afghanistan

Few experiences are more quintessentially Afghan than the simple act of drinking tea. Black or green, plain or sweet, tea is widely (though unofficially) recognized as the national beverage of Afghanistan due to the important role it plays in daily life all over the country.

Feeling thirsty yet? Read on to learn some fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s most popular drink.

Afghans drink a lot of tea.

Believe it or not, Afghans drink more tea than anyone else in the world! According to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Afghanistan imported 299 million pounds of tea in 2012. This makes Afghanistan the world’s third largest importer of tea, surpassed only by Russia (close to 400 million pounds) and the UK (319 million pounds).

However, when you look at how many pounds of tea were imported per capita, Afghanistan takes the lead by an impressive margin, having imported nearly 10 pounds of tea per person, which is enough to brew over 1,500 cups of tea (by comparison, the UK imported just over five pounds per person). In other words, Afghanistan imports enough tea for every Afghan to drink four or five cups daily all year round!

Tea is strongly linked with Afghan hospitality.

One of the reasons why so much tea is consumed in Afghanistan is that the beverage is an essential element of Afghan hospitality. Afghans are an extremely hospitable people, and treating guests with generosity and honor is considered to be a reflection of personal reputation. Offering tea is one of the most important ways that this hospitality is demonstrated.

If you are ever a guest in an Afghan home, you will always be offered tea: this is a sign of the host’s respect for you, just as your acceptance of the offer is a sign of your respect for your host. You can then expect to have your cup constantly refilled throughout your visit. To politely signal to your host that you have had enough, you can turn your cup upside down, or you can cover it with your hand and thank them.

Tea can be made and served in a variety of vessels.

In many businesses and households, tea is brewed in large traditional kettles or urns known as samovars: these vessels keep a large supply of tea hot and ready all day. As for serving, different types of cups may be used depending on where you are.

If you are in an urban household, such as a home in Kabul, your tea may be served in Western style teacups. In other places, vessels used to serve tea include small, short glasses called istakhan, or porcelain bowls without handles, known as piala, that are similar to Chinese tea bowls.

Tea can be sweetened or unsweetened.

In Afghanistan, tea is drunk with and without sugar, and you will usually be served both sweetened and unsweetened tea as a guest in an Afghan home. For example, it is a typical Afghan custom for the first cup of tea offered to a guest to be heavily sweetened: this sweet tea is known as chai shireen, and the more sugar the cup contains, the greater the honor shown to the guest.

It’s then usual for the next cup of tea to be served without sugar; this plain tea is called chai talkh. When having tea in their own homes or in cafes, Afghans often dip lumps of sugar called qand in their tea, and then hold these lumps in their mouths as they sip rather than placing them directly in the cup.

Tea is often served with particular foods.

In addition to being offered tea in an Afghan home, you will also be offered food, usually the best that the household has to offer. Some typical foods that are served with tea when entertaining guests include shirnee, which are sweet candies that are similar to toffee; noql, which are sugar-coated almonds, pistachios, or chickpeas; and kulcha, which are biscuits or pastries that may be made at home or purchased from local bakeries.

A special kind of tea is prepared for formal occasions.

While ordinary green and black tea is consumed on a daily basis in Afghanistan, formal occasions often involve the preparation of a special kind of tea known as qymaq chai. To make this tea, green tea is brewed, and then bicarbonate of soda is added, which turns the tea a dark red color. To finish the tea, milk and sugar are added, and the beverage becomes purple-pink in color. Qymaq chai has a strong, rich taste, and is often prepared for events such as engagements and weddings.

You can make one of the most popular kinds of Afghan tea at home (kahwah tea).

The most popular kind of everyday tea consumed in Afghanistan is known as kahwah tea, and it’s easy to make at home, wherever you are. It’s a traditional combination of green tea, cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron, and every family will usually have their own version of the recipe. To make it yourself, add the spices to water and bring to a boil; then add the green tea and let steep. To serve, sweeten with either sugar or honey.

8 Facts about One of the Most Amazing Art Forms in Afghanistan

From music to woodworking, traditional arts and crafts in Afghanistan are currently enjoying a much-needed revival. During Afghanistan’s conflict years, many of these traditions were discouraged or actively suppressed, and some came close to being lost altogether. Fortunately, increased local and international interest in traditional art forms, along with the support of organizations such as Turquoise Mountain, have led to a recent resurgence of these arts and crafts and a renewed respect for their practitioners.

While many of these traditional art forms hold an almost legendary status in Afghan culture and history, few are more fabled than carpet weaving. Beautiful rugs have been handmade in Afghanistan using the same patterns and techniques for thousands of years. With such a history, it’s little wonder that Afghan carpets are viewed as the heart and soul of Afghan art and craftsmanship. Read on to learn more fascinating facts about the amazing art of Afghan carpet weaving.

1. There are two main categories of Afghan carpets.

Stunning in their diversity, Afghan carpets come in a huge range of patterns, designs, and colors. However, most Afghan carpets fall into one of two broad categories: the Turkoman (or Turkmen) carpet and the Beloutch (or Baluchi) carpet. Turkoman carpets are woven in Northern Afghanistan using wool that is renowned for its luster and hard-wearing qualities. Beloutch carpets come from Western Afghanistan and feature a variety of weaves, designs, and types of wool.

2. Afghan carpets were originally made by nomadic tribes.

Afghan carpets are so diverse because they were originally made by Afghanistan’s many nomadic tribes. Each tribe had patterns and designs that were unique to their group and had been passed down from generation to generation. Up until around the 19th century, it was possible to tell where a carpet originated simply by looking at its design and how it was produced.

3. Afghan tribal rugs are not woven for sale.

Another intriguing fact about the carpets made by Afghanistan’s nomadic tribes is that, historically, they were never produced specifically to be sold. Rather, they were made for use within the community—as coverings for the floors and walls of tents to provide warmth and decoration, as prayer rugs, as seating for mealtimes, and as wedding gifts for a bride’s dowry. Carpets were only taken to market when an older rug fulfilling one of these functions was replaced with a newer rug; the older one would then be sold or traded.

4. Making an Afghan carpet takes time.

Traditional Afghan carpets are made by hand, with weavers meticulously knotting wool threads on horizontal looms. As you can imagine, such a detail-oriented process takes time—a single weaver can usually produce about 1 square meter (roughly 10 square feet) of carpet every month. At this rate, many Afghan carpets can take anywhere from six to nine months to complete, even longer for larger or more specialized pieces.

5. Traditional Afghan carpets are made of all-natural materials.

Wool is the primary material used to make Afghan carpets. Traditionally, nomadic tribes would use the wool of their own sheep, with activities such as shearing the sheep and brushing and spinning the wool considered part of the process of making the carpets.

Silk and cotton may sometimes be used, but most carpet connoisseurs hold that true Afghan carpets are made entirely of wool. Also, in traditional Afghan carpet-making, the dyes used to color the wool come from natural sources such as flowers, fruits, vegetables, and minerals. Many say that the colors provided by these natural pigments only get better with time.

6. Afghan carpet weavers work from memory.

Incredibly, traditional Afghan carpet weavers don’t use diagrams or drawings to create their pieces. Instead, they work from memory, replicating centuries-old patterns that they have learned from previous generations of artisans.

7. Afghanistan’s conflict years inspired artisans to create “war rugs.”

Beginning in the 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a new type of Afghan carpet began to appear. These rugs were woven in the traditional Afghan style, but instead of geometric designs and patterns, they featured images of war such as weapons, maps, and soldiers. Today, these fascinating carpets are considered important art objects that offer a glimpse of a profound time in history through the eyes of the artisans who lived it.

8. The carpet-weaving industry in Afghanistan is changing.

In this age of globalization, it’s difficult for traditional forms of arts and crafts to compete with their mass-produced counterparts. Today, many Afghan carpets are produced not by weavers in their traditional villages but at factories where weavers may simply knot carpets without playing any role in the design. However, some organizations are working to find a balance between traditional craftsmanship and contemporary demands. Turquoise Mountain, for example, not only helps operate several weaving centers that offer stable employment and good working conditions to carpet artisans, but it also works to find international partners and buyers for the finished carpets.

A Look at the Unique Plant Life in Afghanistan

Although Afghanistan is a dry country that primarily encompasses arid desert and rugged mountain ranges, it is home to an incredibly diverse array of plant life. In fact, according to some botanists, when it comes to plants and vegetation, Afghanistan is one of the world’s most important centers of biodiversity. Read on to learn some fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s surprisingly rich and unique plant life.

Afghanistan has more species of flowering plants than Central Europe.

It would be easy to assume that a region like central Europe, with its damp climate so favorable to plant growth, would have a wider variety of flowering plants than arid Afghanistan. Interestingly, however, the opposite is true. Afghanistan has far more species and sub-species of flowering plants than central Europe. Approximately 4,500 distinct flowering plants have been identified in Afghanistan, and botanists believe that there are many more still to be found and named. Afghan flowering plants encompass more than 600 species within the legume/pea family; 500 species in the daisy family, including nearly 150 different types of thistle; and 205 species in the mint family.

Nearly one-third of Afghanistan’s flowering plants are not found anywhere else.

Afghanistan’s flowering plant life is not only exceptionally diverse, but it’s also unique. Approximately 30% of all of the country’s flowering plants are endemic to Afghanistan, meaning that they don’t grow anywhere else in the world. (In contrast, the UK—another region with a damp climate that is ideally suited to plant growth—only has about 1,700 species of flowering plants, and a mere handful of these are endemic.)

Afghanistan’s valleys helped to shape its floral biodiversity.

Afghanistan’s extraordinary floral biodiversity owes a great deal to the country’s distinctive landscape, particularly the fertile valleys that lie in between its soaring mountains. Over the course of millions of years, these valleys served as a refuge for plants, helping to preserve and protect floral life through a series of global ice ages that wrought destruction elsewhere (to take the UK as an example once again, that region was wiped relatively clean of species with each successive Ice Age due to the area’s fairly flat topography). Furthermore, because the valleys are isolated from one another, many new species were able to evolve in the different areas, each specially adapted to the highly specific local conditions.

Foraging for plants plays an important role in rural Afghanistan.

Given the rich diversity of plants found in Afghanistan, it’s hardly surprising that plant foraging is an important activity in the country, particularly in rural and remote areas. For many Afghans living in rural communities, foraged plants can provide an important source of food, medicine, and sometimes income (foragers often sell their finds by the roadside or from carts in urban areas). The following are some commonly foraged plants:

Rhubarb—Known as chukri or rawash in Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is the Afghan forage plant that is most recognizable to people in the west, particularly northern Europeans. In Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is a springtime delight that is usually an ingredient in salads, or simply sprinkled with salt and eaten raw. Since rhubarb is rich in key nutrients (such as calcium, manganese, potassium, and vitamins C and K), it is an important type of food for rural Afghans, particularly during drought years when other crops are more scarce.

Liquorice root—A member of the legume/pea family, liquorice is known for its pale purple flowers and sharp, distinctive flavor. Foragers dig up liquorice roots and boil them to make a tea, a common treatment for stomachaches. Dried liquorice roots are also an important Afghan export typically destined for markets in India and the Emirates.

Caraway—Zira-ye Kohi, as it is known in Afghanistan, is a delicious spice that is from the carrot family. It is frequently used in Afghan cuisine, especially as an addition to rice dishes.

Afghanistan is one of eight regions in the world where crops were first grown.

The richness and diversity of Afghanistan’s wild plants is also closely related to the country’s history of plant domestication. According to scholars, Afghanistan is part of the “Vavilov Centers,” a term used to describe the regions of the world—eight in total—where humans began domesticating plant crops. In order for this process of domestication to be successful, it is important for early growers to have ready access to each crop’s wild relatives. The fact that wild plants such as wheat, peas, and lentils existed so plentifully in Afghanistan thousands of years ago is what allowed their eventual domestication to take place.

A groundbreaking book on Afghanistan’s plants was recently published.

For those interested in the native plants of Afghanistan, more information can be found in the groundbreaking 2010 book Field Guide Afghanistan: Flora and Vegetation. The culmination of decades of work by a team of Afghan, German, and British biologists and scholars, the book is highly detailed, but easily accessible to non-specialists. Written in Dari and English, the book is used at many schools, universities, and research institutes throughout Afghanistan.