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.

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.

8 of the Most Significant Holidays in Afghanistan

Steeped in culture and tradition, Afghanistan is famous for its celebrations to mark their national holidays, with people throughout the country coming together for the joyous festivities. In this article, we look at a selection of Afghan national holidays and how they are observed across the country.

Ramadan

Ramadan is a holy month in the Islamic culture. During Ramadan, Muslims all over the world fast throughout the daylight hours in order to feel closer to God. During this month of spiritual rejuvenation, Muslims try to avoid personal vices and negative acts and instead concentrate on practicing self-control, showing compassion for individuals who are less fortunate, and undertaking positive acts. Ramadan centers around religious devotion, encouraging Muslims to devote more time to performing special prayers and studying the Qur’an.

Eid al-Fitr

An Islamic festival, Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, when Muslims attend communal prayers, listen to sermons, and give charity in the form of food. Eid al-Fitr is a public holiday throughout Afghanistan, when businesses and schools are closed, and the general population takes a day off as part of the celebration.

In 2020, Eid al-Fitr falls on May 24 in Afghanistan. People around the country will celebrate this “Festival of Fast-Breaking,” pledging money to people in need and enjoying feasts with friends and family.

Mawlid al-Nabi

Mawlid al-Nabi celebrates the birth of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Afghans celebrate the festival in the third month of the Islamic calendar.

The history of Mawlid al-Nabi dates back to Islam’s early days, when followers would hold festivals, with large crowds gathering to hear songs and poetry composed in honor of the Prophet Muhammad.

Ashura

Ashura takes place in the first month of the Islamic calendar. It marks the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who died during the Battle of Karbala.

In Shia Islam, Ashura is celebrated as a major holiday, while in Sunni Islam it is marked as a recommended day of fasting.

Labor Day

Held on May 1 every year in Afghanistan, Labor Day commemorates the achievements of the country’s labor movement.

Also known as May Day or International Worker’s Day, Labor Day is a public holiday across Afghanistan. It is celebrated in numerous other countries worldwide, including the United States. The holiday is also celebrated in the United Kingdom, where it is not fixed and instead falls on the first Monday of May.

Eid al-Qurban or Eid al-Adha

The Islamic festival Eid al-Qurban or Eid al-Adha, which is a public holiday throughout Afghanistan, commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son.

Schools and most businesses close for Eid al-Qurban, which is a day off for most Afghan nationals. Celebrations are traditionally marked by the slaughter of an animal—usually a cow, sheep, or goat—which Afghans cook and share among family members during an evening feast, as well as distributing food among the poor within their local community, earning the festival an international reputation as the “Feast of Sacrifice.”

Religious leaders encourage wealthy Muslims across Afghanistan to sacrifice an animal for the sake of God on this day, feeding people in need in a nationwide celebration of peace and solidarity.

Jeshyn-Afghan Day

Also known as Independence Day, Jeshyn-Afghan Day is a celebration of pride in Afghanistan’s glorious past. A national holiday throughout the country, this day commemorating freedom from colonial powers is celebrated each year on August 19 to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi by Britain and Afghanistan in 1919, which marked the restoration of complete sovereignty to Afghanistan.

Today, Jeshyn-Afghan Day is celebrated across Afghanistan with displays of traditional costumes, street parties, and military parades.

Nowruz

Nowruz is a traditional Afghan springtime celebration that falls on the vernal equinox. The name “Nowruz” means “new day.” The phrase comes from the ancient Avestan language. The festival of Nowruz symbolizes new life, beginnings, and the rebirth of nature.

The festival of Nowruz dates back more than 3,000 years in Afghanistan, to the country’s Zoroastrian era. Approximately 300 million people celebrate Nowruz worldwide, including most of the population of Afghanistan.

In villages, towns, and cities across Afghanistan, Nowruz is marked by two weeks of celebrations, including displays of livestock and agricultural products, as well as ceremonies and exhibitions throughout the country.

In 2019, the Nawruz festival coincided with the 100-year anniversary of Afghanistan gaining independence from British colonial forces. Huge crowds gathered on the streets across the country for special festivities to celebrate the spring equinox and to commemorate a centenary of Afghan independence.

Women in colorful dresses and carrying plastic trumpets and national flags congregated in Mazar-e-Sharif, gathering outside the city’s famous Blue mosque. People from across Afghanistan and neighboring countries joined together to mark the celebration, with Pashto dancers in traditional dress filling the streets, dancing to flutes and drums in this special celebration of Afghan hope, pride, and independence.