Taking in the intricacies of other cultures eating habits can be fascinating and rewarding. They say that variety is the spice of life, and there is so much variety in the spices found in South-Central Asia.
Although the conflicts of the last two decades have overshadowed much of what we know about Afghanistan, we should not ignore that it is a country steeped in a history dating back 50,000 years to the Middle Palaeolithic era. It has been an important trade route between China, India, and Europe and as such played host to traders and products from across the world. Its location has piqued the interest of many throughout the millennia, and it has often been caught in a tug-of-war. It is a country, however, that many empires throughout history have failed to conquer and as such, it is often called the ‘graveyard of empires’. This rich tapestry of history and the cultural melting pot found in this fascinating middle-eastern crossroads have deeply enriched and influenced the food of the country.
Afghan food culture is something which is often very much overlooked in western cuisine. While we have welcomed so many dishes from neighboring cuisines into our own, with curries becoming a big part of our diets over several decades, the beautiful food of Afghanistan is something of a rare delight.
Afghan cuisine lacks a lot of the heat found in other Asian cuisines, it does still, however, incorporate rich, aromatic spices with a depth of flavor that European food often lacks. It is often less pungent than some middle-eastern cuisines. It is closely related to that of its neighbors, but with its own personal charm added.
In Afghanistan, hospitality is a way of life. The uninvited guest is always welcomed and a meal provided for, and Afghan hosts take pride and delight in ensuring guests are very well satisfied. Dishes will often vary as there is a great degree of creativity involved in the Afghan cooking style. Ingredients are often swapped out for others where one is not available, and there is a certain degree of freedom when it comes to measuring. This is more about taste and is definitely an art and not a science, leading to expressive dishes which will differ from one serving to the next.
Major Afghan crops feature heavily in their meals and these include; rice, barley, wheat and maize with rice being central in many dishes. Culturally, rice is important, and a large feast will include several different rice dishes. The quality of the rice dish at a large gathering will certainly be a mark of your success and standing in society.
Afghanistan has a long tribal history and as such, has different subcultures. Cuisines vary from region to region, and between the two main ethnic groups; the Pashtuns and Hazara people.
The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group, they are known for living by a set of communal ethics based on hospitality, loyalty, and forgiveness. Pashtun dishes feature meat heavily and often include caramelized rice.
Many Hazara dishes are influenced heavily by Persian cuisine. Meals tend to use a lot of oil and are high in protein using a lot of fatty meats and dairy; something which is important given the often harsh Afghan landscapes and hard living conditions. The Hazarat areas, in particular, have historically struggled under a lack of development, something which has greatly influenced the cuisine.
Where and how food is eaten
‘Dastarkhan’ refers to space where food is eaten. This is often a table cloth spread out on the floor. There are customs surrounding the dastarkhan, such as placing the best dishes nearest any guests and never stepping over the dastarkhan.
Food is eaten using hands. Bread accompanies most meals and is generally used to scoop up food; this will be in the form of a flatbread.
Here are a few popular dishes you may want to try yourself:
Challow is a popular rice side dish, often served with Quormah (a lightly spiced stew). It is made up of basmati rice, cumin seeds, ground cardamom, oil and salt. First, the rice is lightly boiled before being moved into a closed pot inside an oven along with the oil and seasoning.
Similar to Challow, but with meat and stock and often raisins and pistachios. Qaabuli Pallow is a very popular dish which is very often served at important occasions such as wedding feasts and is generally a lamb dish, served in a dome of rice.
Often sold on the street and served on naan bread, kebabs are found throughout the middle-east. The Chapli Kebab is a traditional favorite in the Pashtun province of Afghanistan and is made up of minced beef, onions, coriander, garlic, and cumin. Chilies can also be added for extra spice.
Dumplings are a popular dish, albeit time-consuming to prepare. These are generally made at home and may often contain meat, onions, and spices. Ashak is a favorite dumpling dish, usually served during public holidays such as Eid. The dish features dumplings stuffed with onions in a meaty tomato sauce and a yogourt dressing.
Afghan Jalebi is a sweet snack or dessert consisting of deep fried flour soaked in a sugary syrup. It can be eaten cold, although it is often recommended to be enjoyed while it is still hot.
Tea is an important element of Afghan culture. Tea is drunk in large quantities and can be black or green. It can be sugared and have spices added and may be served with milk on special occasions. If a host wants to impress their guest, they will be served a milky tea with lots of sugar!
Quroot is dried curd, like a hard, sour, cottage cheese, pressed into balls. It has the advantage of being preserved for a long time and is consumed primarily during winter months. It can be eaten raw or added to other dishes.