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.

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.

6 Things You Might Not Know about Bamiyan

In a country bursting with historic landmarks and cultural riches, the Bamiyan Valley stands out as one of Afghanistan’s most important and impressive heritage sites. Despite its relatively remote location in Central Afghanistan, the city of Bamiyan and the surrounding area is known today as a vibrant hub of Afghan culture and creativity from both past and present. Read on for a look at some fascinating facts you might not know about this amazing site.

1. Bamiyan is the former home of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Bamiyan Afghanistan
Image courtesy Carlos Ugarte | Flickr

Bamiyan’s original claim to fame is the historic Buddhas of Bamiyan—two monumental Buddha statues that were carved directly into the sandstone cliffs of the valley roughly 1,500 years ago. An awe-inspiring example of Afghanistan’s ancient Buddhist heritage, which had all but disappeared from the country by the 10th century, the giant sculptures were unfortunately destroyed in 2001 as a result of Afghanistan’s internal conflict. However, in response to this cultural tragedy, scholars and experts around the world have been working ever since to preserve the other significant archaeological material in the area, and to one day perhaps rebuild the Buddhas.

2. The world’s first oil paintings can be found at Bamiyan.

If you think that oil painting was first developed during the European Renaissance, it’s time to think again. In addition to the Buddha statues, the Bamiyan Valley boasts an incredible system of more than 1,000 caves that were once used as Buddhist monasteries, chapels, and sanctuaries. Inside these caves, the remains of striking wall paintings created using the world’s first oil paints can be found, along with other decorative features and small carved figures.

3. Bamiyan was an important stopping point on the Silk Road.

Although the location of Bamiyan seems somewhat isolated and remote today, the area was once a globalized and cosmopolitan center along the fabled Silk Road trading route. Linking ancient Rome with China and India, the Silk Road saw not only goods but also philosophies, religions, and ideas passed back and forth between East and West. Afghanistan, particularly Bamiyan, was at the very heart of the route. In addition, Alexander the Great himself is recorded as having passed through Bamiyan, while Mani, the mystic and philosopher who founded the Manicheans, is believed to have lived and studied there.

4. Bamiyan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley constitute one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Afghanistan (the other is the famous Minaret of Jam).

Bamiyan was added to the World Heritage list in 2003 in recognition of its outstanding universal cultural value, particularly as an example of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage, and of Western Buddhism in general. At the same time, the site was also included on the List of World Heritage in Danger, which identifies and monitors important cultural heritage sites whose ongoing existence may be threatened by factors such as environmental damage or security risks. (In recent years, Afghanistan has been working closely with the Japanese government to fulfill the conditions necessary for removing Bamiyan from the Danger list.)

5. Bamiyan is a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

In 2004 UNESCO launched its Creative Cities Network (UCCN), an initiative developed to foster cooperation and support among global cities that prioritize creativity as part of their sustainable urban development efforts. In 2015 Bamiyan became the first urban center from Afghanistan—and all of Central Asia—to join the network.

This membership is not only a reflection of Bamiyan’s rich cultural past but also of the investments the area is making in the present-day areas of crafts and folk art (one of the seven categories of creativity covered by the UCCN). For example, Afghanistan’s Department of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has conducted local carpet weaving projects that employ some of the region’s most vulnerable people.

7. Bamiyan has been suggested as the site of the Garden of Eden.

For centuries, people have speculated about which real-world places might have been the site of the Garden of Eden, and interestingly enough, Bamiyan has been proposed as a possibility. In 1799, Captain Francis Wilford, a somewhat eccentric scholar, suggested in the journal Asiatic Researches that because four rivers flow out of the Bamiyan Valley, the site could be the location of the biblical garden.

Whether or not you believe this claim, there seems to be little question that Bamiyan is beautiful enough to be considered an earthly paradise. Poised just below the spectacular ranges of the Hindu Kush, the Bamiyan Valley is lush and fertile, full of orchards, pastures, and flowers, and its isolated location (by present-day standards) has helped protect it from much of the conflict that has troubled other parts of Afghanistan. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising to learn that Bamiyan can be translated as “land of shining light.”