Everything You Need to Know about Traditional Afghan Cuisine

Largely based on seasonal produce, dry goods such as wheat, rice, barley, and maize, and dairy products such as milk, whey, and yogurt, Afghan cuisine is often described as a fusion between Indian and Middle Eastern cookery. In this article, we look at a selection of revered Afghan dishes and their place in Afghan history.

Rice Dishes

Rice is the most important cultural component of most Afghan meals, and a great deal of time and effort is expended in creating rice dishes. Wealthy Afghan families typically consume one rice dish each day. In times gone by, royal Afghan households committed much time to the invention and preparation of elaborate rice dishes, as evidenced by the plethora available in Afghanistan today. Family gatherings such as weddings and holiday celebrations typically incorporate several rice dishes, with the reputations of Afghan cooks made and broken by their skill with rice preparation.

There are several different types of Afghan rice recipes. Challow rice, for instance, is traditionally served with qormah, casseroles, and stews. Challow is white rice that is boiled in saltwater before being drained and baked in an oven.

rice

Kabuli palaw, Afghanistan’s national dish, is cooked in the same way as challow, but it is prepared with meat and stock and infused with herbs and spices before being baked. This result is an elaborate dish comprising a variety of flavors, colors, and aromas. Caramelized sugar is often incorporated into the rice, lending the dish a rich brown color. Created for upper-class families of Kabul, Kabuli palaw is topped with carrots, almonds, and raisins before serving.

To make zamarod palaw, spinach is added before the dish is baked, resulting in a rich emerald hue. Meanwhile, narenj palaw is a sweet, elaborate dish, made with chicken, saffron, almonds, pistachios, and orange peel.

Shola is a traditional Afghan dish that calls for sticky, short-grain rice. It is prepared in both sweet and savory versions, with the latter becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Savory shola often features split peas or mashed mung beans, as well as meats such as lamb or beef. The dish is particularly popular during the Afghan wintertime, when it is often served with quroot (a type of dried curd), a glass of plain yogurt, and a fresh vegetable salad. There are many different versions of shola available across Afghanistan today, and the dish is also popular throughout the Middle East, particularly in Iran, where various other ingredients are commonly incorporated in its preparation.

Mastawa, another rice dish traditionally prepared in the winter, incorporates short-grain rice and sun-dried mutton simmered in an aromatic broth infused with onions, garlic, mint, turmeric, and cilantro. Bitter orange peel and hot peppers are added near the end of cooking to make this sticky rice dish fragrant, hearty, and spicy.

Meat Dishes

Qormah is a popular dish throughout Afghanistan, with more than 100 different variations, including:

  • Qormah e nadroo: A lamb or veal dish served in an onion-based sauce, incorporating lotus roots, cilantro, and yogurt.
  • Qormah e lawand: A traditional dish prepared with lamb, chicken, or beef, and cooked with onions, turmeric, yogurt, and cilantro.
  • Qormah e gosht: Translated as “meat qormah,” this dish is a commonly served accompaniment to the palaw rice that is popular at gatherings.
  • Qormah e alou-bokhara wa dalnakhod: A fruitier take on qormah featuring chicken or veal and prepared with onions, lentils, cardamom, and sour plums.
  • Qormah e sabzi: A fusion of lamb and sautéed spinach and greens.
  • Qormah e shalgham: A sweet and sour recipe prepared with lamb, turnips, onions, and sugar.

Mantu is a highly popular native dumpling dish. Since it is time consuming to prepare, it is often reserved for special occasions and large gatherings such as weddings. Dumplings are filled with onions and ground beef or lamb before being steamed. The dish is sometimes served in a tomato sauce topped with a mixture of yogurt, split chickpeas, and garlic. Ashak is another traditional dumpling dish. Originating in Kabul, it is made with leeks, sautéed tomatoes, ground meat, a garlic-yogurt sauce, and red kidney beans.

Kebabs are popular from Europe to the Middle East to India. In Afghanistan, they are served by restaurants as well as street vendors. Every Afghan restaurant has its own unique take on the dish. Traditionally made of lamb, kebabs are often served with naan bread, or sometimes rice, and customers often sprinkle sumac on the dish. The quality of a kebab is said to hinge on the quality of meat it was made from, with pieces of fat from the tail of the sheep often added to lamb skewers to improve the flavor.

Afghan Desserts

Believed to have originated in India, firnee is a traditional dish that is made from cornstarch, milk, and sugar and flavored with rosewater and aromatic spices like cardamom and saffron.

Haft mewa is sweet Afghan soup made from dried fruit and nuts that is traditionally eaten during the Afghan New Year celebrations, when it is often enjoyed at breakfast time.

Spotlight on the Precious Stones of Afghanistan

For centuries, Afghanistan has been a leading producer of lapis lazuli, a gemstone favored by the ancient Egyptians. The country is also rich in several other semi-precious stones—a recent joint study by the United States Geological Survey and the Pentagon estimating the net value of Afghanistan’s untapped minerals to be around $3 trillion.

In this article, we look at Afghanistan’s gem mining industry and the jewels it exports all over the world.

Lapis Lazuli

lapis lazuli

This royal blue metamorphic rock has been prized since antiquity for its vivid color. Mining this intense blue stone since 8000 BCE, Afghanistan has some of the oldest known lapis mines in the world.

A favorite of the pharaohs, lapis was used throughout ancient Egypt to make ornaments and amulets, such as scarabs. Lapis jewelry has also been discovered at predynastic Egyptian excavations.

Lapis was used to decorate the Pyramids of Giza, and when it was ground into a fine powder, it could be used as an eyeshadow, a favorite of the Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra. The gem will forever be associated with ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, whose ornate gold funeral mask was inlaid with the stone.

Lapis lazuli was popular in ancient Mesopotamia, where the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Akkadians utilized the gemstone to make seals and artifacts, an abundance of which have been recovered from across the region.

In the Bronze Age, lapis was sought after by Indus Valley civilizations. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli became popular with the world’s most talented artists, who ground it into a powder, making the finest and most expensive of all blue paints: ultramarine. Renowned Renaissance and Baroque artists including Titian, Perugino, Vermeer, and Masaccio famously used the color. It was usually reserved for the clothing of a painting’s central figure, particularly the Virgin Mary.

While lapis lazuli is found in other countries, these deposits pale in insignificance when compared with the vast amounts found in Afghanistan. The stone was originally mined in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan district, where one mine has been continuously been producing lapis lazuli for the international market for more than 7,000 years.

Rubies and Sapphires

Just a few hours’ drive from Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, lies the mountainous region of Jegdalek, an area renowned for producing some of the brightest, most valuable rubies in the world.

Operational for more than 500 years, Jegdalek’s ruby mines produce high-grade stones that have been popular with royalty for centuries. Despite the region’s global reputation as a leading producer of high-grade rubies, most of the stones mined in Jegdalek today are sapphires. These come in a range of different hues, from traditional blue to semi-transparent pink.

Emeralds

emeralds

Lying due north of Kabul, the Panjshir Valley is home to more than 172 separate emerald mines. Panjshir emeralds boast a distinctive bluish-green hue. They are rapidly becoming one of Afghanistan’s most prized gemstones.

Aria Gems is a new startup established by Habib Mohebi. Speaking with CNN, the entrepreneur recounted hearing about emerald mines as a young boy growing up in Kabul. Years later, Mohebi used his knowledge to reconnect him with his homeland, opening a mining operation in Afghanistan and exporting emeralds across the world. Headquartered in New York, with a gem cutting and processing center in North Dakota, Aria Gems transforms rough stones into high-end polished emeralds.

Since the company’s incorporation in 2013, Aria Gems has grown to become a leading supplier of Panjshir emeralds, shipping more than 30,000 carats of this highly sought-after stone all over the world.

Aquamarine

This blue-green member of the beryl gemstone family is prized the world over, with colors ranging from almost transparent to vivid cerulean blue. Afghan aquamarines tend to be paler in color.

Unlike emeralds, which usually feature flaws and inclusions, many aquamarine crystals are faultless. Duller, greener stones can withstand heat treatment at extremely high temperatures to achieve striking shades of sky blue. Indeed, many of the gemstones found on the market today are enhanced through heat treatment.

Tourmaline

Tourmaline

Over the past few decades, Afghanistan has grown famous for its spectacular tourmaline finds. The stone ranges in color from green, to blue, to vibrant raspberry pink, with a variety of shades in between. Like aquamarine, many tourmalines are virtually flawless in clarity.

Bi-colored tourmalines of blue-green or pink-green are occasionally found and are greatly sought after.

Other gemstones

Other gemstones commonly found in Afghanistan include red garnet, topaz, kunzite, fluorite, and quartz. Gemstone mining throughout the country is typically an artisanal activity, with high-quality stones entering the international market and sent overseas for precision cutting.

The World Bank estimates Afghanistan’s uncut gem trade to be worth around $2.75 million. With other institutions placing its value considerably higher, the government of Afghanistan is working to formalize the industry, expanding education in gemology, stonecutting, and polishing, and creating quality standards to govern Afghanistan’s blossoming gemological industry.

8 Things You Might Not Know about Herat

Located in western Afghanistan, Herat is an ancient city sometimes known as “Nagin Aseeya,” or the “Diamond of Asia.” In this article, we look at the history and culture of the city, as well as its reputation as one of Afghanistan’s largest and richest cities today.

1. The city’s origins date back to Achaemenid times (circa 550-330 BC).

The ancient Greeks called the city Artacoana, the capital of Aria. In 330 BC, Alexander the Great and his army invaded the region, destroying Artacoana and rebuilding another city nearby, which he named “Alexandria in Ariana,” which forms the basis of the modern city of Herat.

After him came the Sassanians, who called the city Harēv. In 660 AD, the Arabs took Herat, establishing it as the center of the Muslim world.

In 1221 AD, Mongol invaders seized the city, and it was subsequently destroyed under the orders of Genghis Khan. In 1393 AD, the Turkic conqueror Timur invaded, and Herat enjoyed arguably its greatest era.

As the capital of the Timurid empire, Herat became a celebrated center of science and culture. During this time, the city underwent significant growth, with the construction of many fine buildings, developing a vibrant court life famed for its music and artistry.

2. One of Afghanistan’s oldest mosques, Masjid Jami, lies within the city of Herat.

Masjid Jami
Image courtesy Nico Crisafulli | Flickr

Also known as the Friday Mosque or the Great Mosque of Herat, this ancient building dates back to 1200 AD. It was built under the rule of Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad Ghori and passed down through generations of Timurids, Safavids, Mughals, and Uzbeks, all of whom carefully maintained this iconic building. It is believed that the Masjid Jami took its present form in the late 1400s.

The Masjid Jami has not always been Herat’s largest mosque. A much bigger mosque and madrassa complex once existed in the northern part of Herat, called Gawhar Shad, but were destroyed by the British Indian Army in the late 1800s.

3. Herat was famous around the world for its distinctive miniature paintings.

During the 15th Century, the Herat school of painting flourished under the patronage of the Timurids. Timur’s son, Shāh Rokh, founded an art school in Herat, with his son Baysunqur Mīrzā subsequently developing it into an important center of painting, attracting artists from across Afghanistan, Persia, and beyond.

The miniature paintings of Herat were sometimes painted on silk. They were often used to illustrate manuscripts and poetry. Popular literature of the time, therefore, governed the subject matter of Herat school paintings, with many scenes originating from the Persian epic, Shāh-nāmeh, or Book of Kings, many examples of which survive to this day.

4. The city owes its existence to the nearby Hari River.

Spanning more than 1,000 kilometers, the Hari River begins in Afghanistan’s central Hindu Kush mountains, running all the way to Turkmenistan, where the river ends in the Tejend Oasis, swallowed up by the Karakum Desert.

The Hari River Valley around Herat has been renowned for centuries for its fertility and cultivation. Today, the region is famous the world over for its plethora of rare bird species, including cranes, waterfowl and various endangered migratory species.

5. Herat is Afghanistan’s second-largest city.

The capital, Kabul, is Afghanistan’s biggest city by far, with a population believed to be around 4 million.

The next biggest city is Herat, with an estimated population of more than 670,000. Persian is the most commonly spoken language in Herat today, and Sunni Islam is the most popular religion.

6. Herat lies on ancient trading routes linking the Middle East with Asia.

Herat
Image by Todd Huffman | Flickr

Today, the city remains an important regional hub, with roads from Herat to Turkmenistan, Iran, and other regions of Afghanistan remain strategically important.

Regarded as the gateway to Iran, Herat boasts its own international airport. The city traditionally linked trade routes from the Mediterranean to China and India. It was once noted for its luxurious textiles, arts, and crafts. Herat was world famous for its bronze goods, often featuring ornate designs often inlaid with precious metals and gems.

7. Herat enjoys a hot, semi-arid climate.

Precipitation is generally low, with most rain falling in the winter months. Despite its lower elevation, Herat has a more temperate summer climate than Kandahar, although the winters in Herat are generally colder. From May to September, a northwesterly wind blows through Herat, sometimes with considerable force. During the wintertime, eastern sections of the Hari River freeze solid, with locals treating it as a road.

8. The Citadel of Herat dates back to 330 BC.

Also known as the Citadel of Alexander, it dates back to the arrival of the Greek conqueror’s army following the Battle of Gaugamela. Many civilizations have used the strategic post over the course of the last 2,000 years, and it has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. Today, the historical site is managed by the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture and is open to the public.