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 National Parks of Afghanistan

National parks protect some of the world’s most important wildlife habitats and rare species that dwell in them. In this article, we look at a selection of protected areas in Afghanistan and endemic wildlife such as snow leopards, jackals, wolves, and bears.

Wakhan National Park

Encompassing alpine grasslands, soaring mountains, and a unique selection of wildlife, Wakhan National Park is located in northeastern Afghanistan. The region is inhabited by several tribes who seek to preserve its culture and traditional way of life.

Wakhan National Park
Image courtesy USAID | Flickr

Recognized as one of the last truly wild regions in the world by Prince Mostapha Zaher, the director general of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, Wakhan National Park lies in a narrow corner of Afghanistan and is bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and China to the east.

The Amu Darya River, which begins in Wakhan National Park, is also the point where the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains converge.

The wildlife in Wakhan National Park are incredibly diverse and encompass an array of snow leopards, lynx, wolves, brown bears, ibex, and red foxes, as well as the elusive Pallas’s cat. Wakhan National Park is also home to the famous Marco Polo sheep, which are characterized by their distinctive long horns that stretch almost 2 meters from tip to tip.

Ab-i Istada National Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary

Ab-i Istada, which translates as “standing water,” is located in the Nawa District, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. This endorheic salt lake lies within a large depression in the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush that was formed by the Chaman Fault System.

With a surface area of around 130 square kilometers, Ab-i Istada is relatively shallow, at around 3.7 meters deep. The lake encompasses two small islands near its southeastern shore: Kuchney ghundai and Loya ghundai.

The Nahara and Sardeh Rivers also drain into Ab-i Istada from the northeast. When the lake reaches a high level, the overflow drains into the Lora River, a tributary of the Arghistan River.

Outside of visits from nomads from Kandahar who pass through the region each summer, the area has remained unpopulated until relatively recently. At the start of the 21st century, the Tarakai tribe began settling near the lake, establishing eight villages within a 10-kilometer region housing a total population of approximately 5,000. Today, local communities engage in a variety of activities such as agriculture; timber collection; and the trapping of peregrine and saker, which are both highly prized falcon species.

The Ab-i Istada National Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary is visited by more than 120 migratory species, including vast flocks of greater flamingos and Siberian cranes.

Bamyan Plateau Protected Area

The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan created this 4,200-square-kilometer national park in November 2019. Located in the Hindu Kush Mountain Range, the Bamyan Plateau Protected Area represents Afghanistan’s second largest protected area after Wakhan National Park.

Image by Hadi Zaher | Flickr

Bamyan Plateau is geographically diverse and features high-altitude grasslands, jagged rock formations, and deep gorges. Its pristine rangeland and gigantic, deep canyons are home to a plethora of flora and fauna, including the rare Persian leopard, Himalayan ibex, lynx, foxes, pikas, and marmots.

The Bamyan Plateau is the only known area of Afghanistan to be inhabited by boreal owls and Asian badgers.

Nuristan Nature Reserve               

Starting to the west of Kabul and ending at Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, the Nuristan Forest encompasses multiple communities, including Nilaw, Arandu, Sao, Kunar, Pasenta, Nangalam, Kamdesh, and Naray, as well as the region’s capital city, Parun. Cities, towns, and villages in the Nuristan region are home to approximately 140,000 people, with settlers first populating the area about two centuries ago.

The Nuristan Forest is world famous for its outstanding natural beauty. The region is believed to be Afghanistan’s most biologically diverse due to the regional humidity created by Indian Ocean monsoons.

Recent biological surveys carried out in Nuristan Nature Reserve reveal that several species, including gray wolves, leopards, and Asiatic black bears continue to thrive throughout the region. Species commonly observed in the area include Indian crested porcupines, red foxes, rhesus macaques, yellow-throated martens, and golden jackals.

Band-e Amir National Park

Translating as the “Commander’s Dam,” which is believed to be a reference to the Muslim Caliph Ali, Band-e Amir National Park is home to the Hazaras people, who constitute approximately 10% of the total population of Afghanistan.

Recognized as a World Heritage site in 2004, Band-e Amir became a national park in 2009. By 2013, 6,000 tourists were visiting the region annually. Protected by park rangers, Band-e Amir features six separate lakes, the largest of which is Band-e Haibat, or the “Lake of Grandiose.”

Wildlife spotted in the region include urial sheep, wolves, lynx, red foxes, Pallas’s cats, and ibex wild goats. Visitors are drawn to the region by the purported healing properties of the local lakes. In addition, pilgrims frequent the area to visit Prophet Ali’s holy shrine.

A Look at the National Museum of Afghanistan and Its Many Treasures

Located in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, the National Museum of Afghanistan was established in 1919. Originally housed in Bagh-i-Bala Palace, the museum housed weapons, miniatures, manuscripts, and works of art belonging to the Afghan royal families.

In this article, we look at the history of the museum, its collections, and the important artefacts housed there.

The original Afghan National Museum opened during the reign of King Amanullah Khan.

Originally known as a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” the collection was moved to its present location in 1931. In 1964, historian Nancy Dupree cowrote A Guide to the Kabul Museum.

During the 1990s, the site served as a military base. Curators sealed items in metal boxes and removed them for safekeeping, storing many artefacts in vaults throughout Kabul, while others were looted and found as far afield as Europe.

Between 2003 and 2006, the museum carried out extensive structural refurbishments, at a cost of around $350,000. Museum officials recovered precious objects, adding them to inventories and placing them back on display.

Since 2007, Interpol and UNESCO have helped recover more than 8,000 artefacts belonging to the National Museum of Afghanistan. In July 2012, the British Museum returned 843 artefacts, including the priceless first-century Begram Ivories.

The Begram Ivories consist of more than a thousand figures and plaques.

Dating back to the first and second centuries CE, these ivory and bone carvings are widely regarded as some of the finest examples of Kushan art. Rediscovered in the 1930s in Bagram, Afghanistan, these carved panels were likely originally attached to wooden furniture.

The carvings attest to the cosmopolitan tastes of the local elite, the skills and sophistication of local craftsmen, and the prolific ancient trade in luxury goods.

The ancient city of Kapisi, located near modern Bagram, formed the capital of the Kushan Empire, an ancient civilization that spanned northwest India to northern Afghanistan. Dominating two passes of the Hindu Kush mountains, Kapisi was a strategically important city. Early Kushans are well known for their arts, producing sculptures, paintings, and friezes between the first and fourth centuries CE.

The Begram Ivories include intricate, decorative plaques that depict male and female courtiers, musicians, and dancers. They also feature mythological creatures, such as griffins, as well as elephants, lions, birds, flowers, and architectural backdrops. Color pigments recovered during analysis reveal they were originally painted red, black, blue, and indigo.

The Bactria Exhibition

The historic region of Bactria in Central Asia encompassed what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It was home to a number of civilizations over the millennia, including the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the Greek Seleucid Empire, and the Greco-Bactrian Empire. Bactria was famous for its wealth, thousand cities, and the outstanding fertility of its lands.

Balkh, Bactria’s capital, formed the cultural and political center of the Aspa, Cyanides, and Pishdadian dynasties. Balkh was an important trade center, effectively serving as a crossroads between Western and Eastern cultures throughout the Achaemenid period and later.

Both Buddhism and Zoroastrianism were practiced in Bactria until the sacred religion of Islam began to flourish throughout the region and the majority of the population became Muslim.

Over the course of the last century, archaeological sites across the region have yielded precious artefacts, many of which are exhibited by the museum today, including examples from the Stone Age and Bronze Age as well as the Aryan, Achaemenid, Greco-Bactrian Scythian, and Kushan periods.

The museum features displays of Paleolithic and Mesolithic tools, as well as intricate examples of Bronze Age jewelry inlaid with lapis lazuli. There are also pieces dating back to Alexander the Great’s expedition across the region, with ivory pieces serving as important examples of Hellenistic (Greek) art.

The Ghazni Exhibition

The word Ghazni comes from the Persian word for jewel.

In 2013, Ghazni was named the Islamic Capital of Culture by the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Situated 150 kilometers southwest of Kabul, Ghazni formed the center of the province of Arakuzia in ancient times. Once the Islamic empire’s largest city, the city lies on the road between Kabul and Kandahar.

The National Museum of Afghanistan houses an extensive collection of marble stones recovered from Ghazni over the last decade, dating back to the 11th century CE.

UNESCO has supported the museum in its refurbishment program.

Working together with UNESCO, as well as a host of other cultural development organizations, the museum has rehabilitated its buildings and grounds, invested in its staff, and revamped displays of its priceless collections.

The museum has also implemented advocacy, project design, and funding and awareness strategies, making a great deal of progress over the last few years. As a result, the National Museum of Afghanistan has established a global reputation as one of the finest collections of Afghan and Central Asian art and archaeology