Chapter 12

Afghan Food and Culture

By Helen Saberi

Afghanistan’s difficult and turbulent history is perhaps better known than its food and cooking. Its strategic geographical location, where several major cultures meet (Persia, Central Asia, the Middle East, China and India) and its position at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road (which played a vital role in the exchange of foods, plants, skills and knowledge) have made the country a melting pot of different cultures and traditions. 

The names Afghan and Afghanistan mask the diversity of ethnic groups in the country – Pashtun, Tajik, Turkmen, Hazara and Uzbek – who have influenced the food and culture. The cuisine reflects internal diversity besides mirroring the tastes and flavours of its neighbours. 

The availability of food products and types of dishes varies from region to region. Afghanistan is a land of contrasts with vast areas of scorching parched deserts, cold inaccessible mountain ranges, and extensive green valleys and plains. Generally the summers are hot and dry, and the winters cold with heavy snowfalls especially in the mountains. It is from the snow-capped peaks that water is available for irrigation. The plains and valleys are fertile so long as there is water. With the diversity of the terrain and climate, Afghanistan can produce a wide variety of foodstuffs. 

The Afghan Kitchen 

Many Afghans live in extended families, so a large amount of food must be prepared each day. The shopping used to be the responsibility of the men but recently women and children have taken on this role. The preparation and cooking of the food, which is often labour intensive, is normally done by the female members of the household - the most senior woman usually being in charge helped by her female relatives. Affluent families have cooks, usually male, and hire professional male cooks for big parties and special occasions. 

The traditional Afghan kitchen is very basic. Few people have electric ovens, even in the cities. Cooking is done over wood or charcoal fires, often outside or, in recent times, on burners fuelled by bottled gas. Refrigerators are rare, and food is kept cool and fresh during the hot summer months in a range of clay pots and containers. Many households, especially in rural areas, have no running water so washing up is done outside, using water from a well. Sophisticated kitchen equipment, such as electric mixers or grinders, is practically non-existent. 

Most Afghans do, however, have a range of pans (dayg) in different sizes, some quite large, for cooking rice. All Afghan homes own an awang (pestle and mortar), an essential piece of equipment for crushing garlic, onions and herbs and for grinding spices. Many families grind their own spice mixture called char masala (four spices) which is used mainly to flavour rice pilaus. The choice of spices varies, but the four most common spices used are cassia (or cinnamon), cloves, cumin and black cardamom seeds. Most families have a rolling pin (aush gaz) to roll out dough for noodle dishes and some of their sweet pastries. 

Afghans rarely measure their ingredients. Recipes and techniques tend to be passed down from mother to daughter and learned through practice and experience. Most kitchens do, however, have a range of pots with handles called malaqa that are used as measuring aids, as are ordinary cups, glasses and spoons. Food tends to be cooked slowly and for a longer time, especially meat dishes as meat can be quite tough. This method of cooking helps to bring out the full flavours of the ingredients. 

Nan (flat bread) is the staple food of all Afghans, and the word “nan” actually means food in Afghanistan. Many families make their own bread fresh every morning. The dough is leavened with a fermented starter prepared from a small lump (called khamir tursh, meaning ”sour dough”) remaining from the batch made the previous day. The dough is left to rise before being rolled out in oval or sometimes round shapes. After shaping, deep grooves are made with the fingers, thumb, or a special cutter. The bread is baked in the tandoor, a clay oven built into the ground which is heated by burning wood and capable of reaching temperatures far higher than an ordinary domestic oven. Some large families may have their own tandoor but most people take their dough to the local tandoor bakery (nanwaee) to be baked. The bread is cooked by slapping the dough on to the hot sides of the tandoor. When ready, it is deftly removed with a hook or a stick. 

Breads are also made on a tawah, a curved, circular cast-iron plate that is heated over fire before the bread is slapped on to it and cooked on both sides. The plate is portable and it is this method that is especially favoured by nomads. Bread cooked on a tawah is unleavened and known as chapati or nan-e-tawagi. 

Although bread is the staple, Afghans love their rice dishes and are renowned for their pilaus and sholas. Long grain rice is used for pilau and chalau, which is white rice served with a vegetable or meat dish. Pilaus are more elaborate and normally have some sort of meat buried in the centre of the rice. The rice is cooked with meat and meat juices, and is coloured. The most common agents for colouring pilau are browned onions or caramelised sugar, but saffron, turmeric and spinach are also used. Spices such as cumin or char masala are added for flavour. Pilaus are often garnished with vegetables such as carrots, or orange peel, apricots, raisins, almonds and pistachio.

Two methods are used for cooking long grain rice. For dampokht the rice is boiled in just enough liquid for the cooking. With the sof method, the rice is first parboiled in a large amount of salted water and then drained. Oil, spices and a little more water or stock are added before the rice is finished off in an oven or on top of the stove or fire.

Short grain rice is used for sticky rice dishes such as bata, shola, ketcheree quroot, mastawa and rice desserts. Bata is rice cooked with plenty of water and a little oil until soft and sticky. It is served with a vegetable or meat qorma. Shola is cooked in a similar way but can be savoury or sweet. Savoury versions are cooked with meat and pulses. Shola-e-ghorbandi is a specialty of Ghorband in the north of Afghanistan. Rice is cooked with mung beans and served with a meat qorma containing olu bokhara (dried plums). 

For ketcheree quroot, rice is cooked with mung beans and served with a hollow in the rice filled with quroot or reconstituted dried yoghurt (see below). The finished dish is served with a meat qorma or kofta (meatballs). Another savoury short grain rice dish is mastawa, traditionally made with dried meat called gosht-e-qagh, chickpeas and yoghurt, and flavoured with the peel of Seville oranges. Sweet short grain rice dishes include shola-e-shireen and shola-e-zard, both of which are usually flavoured with cardamom and rosewater, and studded with flaked almonds and pistachios. Other sweet rice dishes include daygcha, sheer birinj and the unusual shola-e-holba, which is flavoured with fenugreek. 

Noodle dishes are popular and resemble many of those found all along the Silk Road. Preparation is quite labour intensive. Some are made only for guests or special occasions, including mantu, a steamed dumpling-like noodle stuffed with chopped meat, onion and spices, usually served with yoghurt and chopped fresh coriander, although some families serve with a carrot qorma. Ashak is a ravioli-like pasta stuffed with chopped gandana, a herb similar to Chinese chives. The ashak is boiled then served on a yoghurt sauce, topped with savoury mince, and sprinkled with dried mint. Aush is a soup-like noodle dish, usually with yoghurt, flavoured with garlic and sprinkled with dried mint. Kidney beans and chickpeas are often added. Savoury mince is a common accompaniment. Aush-e-asli (“original aush”) has small meatballs in a rich sauce mixed in with the noodles before serving. 

Islam has influenced the country’s cuisine. Muslim dietary laws forbid the consumption of pork and alcohol. The meat eaten by Muslims must be “halal” which means it has to be lawfully killed. The animals are slaughtered in an Islamic fashion – the animal must be alive before its throat is cut and the butcher must recite Allah Akbar (God is great) three times. All blood is drained, as it is considered to be unclean. Haram, on the other hand, means that which is forbidden – pork and meat which has not been slaughtered in the correct way. 

Afghans are great meat eaters if they can afford it. Lamb, which comes from the fat-tailed sheep, is the preferred meat but beef, veal, goat, water buffalo, horse and camel are part of the diet. Chicken used to be a luxury and not always available, but today is plentiful in the cities, imported often frozen from Iran, Pakistan and India. Game meats such as quail, pigeon, duck and partridge are enjoyed when available. 

Meat and poultry are made into soups (sherwa), stews (qorma) and kebabs. These dishes are always accompanied by bread. All parts of the animal are eaten including heads, feet and testicles. A sausage, made from boiled horsemeat using the guts as a casing, is made and eaten by Uzbeks and Kirghiz in northern Afghanistan.

Meat is also dried, especially in mountainous or remote regions where fresh meat is not always available. To make gosht-e-qagh (dried meat) the flesh is cut into large chunks, scored and rubbed with salt (and sometimes asafoetida). The meat is then hung up in a warm shady place to dry by allowing the juices to drip out. The process is repeated, then the meat is stored in a cool place until needed. Landi is a special type of dried meat – a fat-tailed sheep is slaughtered at the end of autumn and the wool is sheared off, leaving the skin with a thick layer of fat underneath. The whole carcass is then hung out to dry. 

Afghans may enjoy eating meat but they have some delicious vegetable dishes. Qormas are made with carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, okra and beans. Stuffed vegetables (dolma) are made with cabbage, vine leaves, bell peppers, tomatoes or marrow. Aubergine dishes are especially popular, such as bonjon burani, fried aubergines served with yoghurt flavoured with garlic and mint, and qorma-e-bagori. Bonjon bata is an aubergine and tomato qorma served with sticky rice. 

Afghanistan is a land-locked country so sea fish are not a regular part of the diet, although during the winter months some are imported from Pakistan. Shellfish are never eaten. However, many of the rivers teem with freshwater fish. Brown trout, rainbow trout, and sheer mahi (milk fish) are found in streams either north or south of the Hindu Kush. Carp is available from the Daruntah dam near Jalalabad, and a large catfish is found in the Kunduz River known as mahi laqa and sold during the winter months. A number of fish farms have been established in recent years. 

Dairy products play an important role in the Afghan diet, especially in the high mountainous areas where fresh vegetable and fruits are not readily available. Milk comes from cows, water buffalo, sheep and goats. Most is made into butter (maska), cheese (panir) or yoghurt (mast) which can be kept for longer periods. When the yoghurt is strained the remaining curds are called chaka. Chaka is often salted, dried and formed into round balls which harden and resemble grey pebbles called quroot. For use in cooking, the quroot is reconstituted in water in a special bowl with a rough bottom surface called a taghora qurooti. Qymaq is another milk product similar to clotted cream, closely related to the kaymak of the Middle East. Milk is rarely drunk, but a refreshing drink called dogh, yoghurt mixed with water and mint, is made during the late spring and summer. 

Onions play an important role in Afghan cookery and two types are used, white and red. Red onions are preferred for cooking as they give a thicker sauce and a richer flavour. Onions are fried until very brown and soft, almost caramelised, before being ground for adding to soups, qormas, and pilaus for flavour and colour. 

Traditionally Afghans cooked with roghan-e-dumbah, a fat rendered from the tail of the fat-tailed sheep, and roghan-e-zard, a clarified butter. Cottonseed oil, produced in Kunduz, is also used in cooking. Nowadays, much of the cooking is done with imported ghee and vegetable oils. 

Afghans add spices and herbs in their food for flavour and fragrance – the results are neither too spicy nor too bland. Some spices are imported but many herbs are grown locally. Saffron, although expensive, is the preferred spice for flavouring and colouring rice dishes and desserts. It is grown in small quantities in Afghanistan but more cultivation is encouraged to persuade farmers to switch from growing poppies to growing other products such as quince and pomegranate for export. Other popular spices include aniseed, cardamom, cassia and cinnamon, chillies, cloves, coriander, cumin, dill, fenugreek, ginger, nigella, black and red pepper, poppy seed, sesame seeds and turmeric. Asafoetida grows profusely in north Afghanistan and is used as an insecticide. It is not used much in cooking and most of it is exported to India where it is an important culinary spice. Fresh green chillies have always been popular, as have dried red chillies. 

Fresh herbs such as coriander, dill and mint are used extensively in cooking, especially in soups and stews. Dried dill and mint are preferred for dishes such as aush and ashak. Garlic is widely used. Other flavourings include rosewater, especially for desserts – roses grow abundantly in Afghanistan and distilling rosewater is a cottage industry. 

Spices and herbs are valued by Afghans for their medicinal properties, and many are used to aid digestion or help cure and alleviate a variety of illnesses.

Sardi -Garmi  - Cold and hot foods

Many people in Afghanistan still adhere in everyday life to the ancient Persian concept of sardi-garmi, literally cold/hot. Like “yin-yang” in China, it is a system for classifying foods for the purpose of dietary health.  In general, people believe that by eating “hot” foods, “cold” illnesses such as the common cold can be alleviated.  “Cold” foods are prescribed to reduce fevers or hot tempers! “Hot” and “cold” here refer to the properties of the food, not the temperature.  While there are some differences of opinion of exactly what foods can be classified “hot” or “cold”, there is a definite pattern. “Hot” foods are rich, warm in aroma, sweet and high in calories and carbohydrates, whereas “cold” foods are generally characterised by acidity or blandness. They have a high water content and are low in calories.  In Afghanistan “hot” foods include sugar and honey, fats and oils, wheat flour and chickpea flour, dried fruits, nuts, garlic and onions, fish, meat, eggs, and most spices such as chillies, fenugreek, ginger, turmeric and saffron.  ”Cold” foods include rosewater, milk and yoghurt, chicken, rice, some pulses such as lentils and kidney beans, fresh fruits such as melon, grapes, pears, apples and lemon, and vegetables, especially spinach, cucumber and lettuce and most herbs such as coriander and dill.  

The Afghan housewife makes full use of fruits and vegetables in season and dries them or makes preserves, chutneys and pickles. Jams are made from various fruits and vegetables such as quince, cherries, peaches, apricots, Seville orange, apple, carrot and pumpkin. Pickles (turshi) are made from lemons, carrots, aubergines and mixed vegetables. Apricots, peaches, cherries, bell peppers, coriander and mint are made into chutneys (chutni). 

Recipe for Chutni murch

Red pepper chutney

4 red bell peppers

1½ oz (40g) hot red chillies

1 small whole head of garlic

4 fl oz (110 ml) white wine vinegar

2 – 3 tsp sugar, according to taste

½ tbs sia dona (nigella seeds)

1 – 2 tsp salt, according to taste

Wash the bell peppers, then dry them well. De-seed them and chop roughly. De-seed the hot chillies and chop them roughly, taking care in handling them. Peel the cloves of garlic and roughly chop. Place the peppers and the chillies in a blender with the garlic and blend to a thick puree. Do not blend for too long or the mixture will become too watery. Now add the sugar, salt and vinegar, adding a bit more or less of each ingredient according to taste.  Lastly stir in the sia dona. Store in clean, dry jars in a refrigerator.  This chutney will keep for about a month. 

When there is a glut of grapes, a juice or syrup is made called sheera-e-angoor to spread on bread, rather like jam. Vinegar (sirkah) is made from grapes. A tart, slightly sour flavouring called ghoora angoor is made from small young sour green grapes that are dried in the sun, then ground. This is used to flavour fish dishes or more commonly sprinkled over kebabs. 

Typical Meals

Although many people in Afghanistan are desperately poor and their diet is generally very basic, most eat three meals a day, albeit often very simple food. Bread is eaten with most meals to scoop up food or soak up juices. 

Breakfast is usually nan and tea, often with milk and sugar. For those who can afford it, this may be accompanied by cheese, qymaq (clotted cream), honey or jam. 

The midday meal usually consists of a main dish such as soup, noodles or rice served with bread. Most Afghan soups are quite hearty and contain meat or pulses. Seasonal vegetables and fresh coriander or dill are often added for extra flavour. Bread soaked in soup is the most common food of poor people, with the bread broken into a bowl and soup poured over it. It can be eaten either by hand or with a spoon. Another simple and traditional lunch dish is qurooti. Quroot (dried yoghurt) is reconstituted in water and garlic, with salt and pepper. The mixture is boiled and eaten with bread, sprinkled with dried mint. A kind of omelette called khagina or kuku, similar to the Spanish tortilla or Middle Eastern eggah, is sometimes made for a quick lunch. A number of variations are made with ingredients such as aubergines, spinach and tomatoes, and there is even a sweet one made with potatoes. Many Afghans cannot afford to eat meat every day but, when they do, a meat stew (qorma) may be served with rice or some kind of kebab may be prepared and eaten with bread. In the home, popular kebab dishes include kebab-e-daygi (pan kebab), kebab-e-doshi (oven kebab) shami kebab (a sort of lamb patty) and do piazza, meaning ”two onions” as the lamb is boiled with red onions and then served with a garnish of white onions sliced and marinated in vinegar.

The evening meal is similar and often includes leftovers. Sometimes snacks are made such as savoury fried pastries called boulanee with different stuffings. One of the favourites is made with gandana (chives) and another is mashed potato with chopped spring onion. Other fillings are cheese, mung beans, mushrooms, spinach, pumpkin or squash, and an Uzbek speciality is with chopped meat fried with gigeq, fat rendered from the tail of the fat-tailed sheep. 

Fresh fruits in season are served at the end of every meal. Oranges and bananas are enjoyed in winter, but during summer and autumn the variety of fruit available is staggering – cherries, pomegranates, apples, pears, peaches, nectarines and watermelons – available at road side stalls where passers-by can purchase them on their way home. Afghanistan is famous for its melons and grapes, which come in many different varieties. Grapes are dried into red and green raisins. Nuts such as pistachios, almonds, walnuts and pine-nuts are often used in cooking, mainly as garnishes but also salted, eaten as snacks, and mixed with dried fruits such as raisins and served with tea. Desserts, pastries, cakes and biscuits are a luxury and usually only served to guests or for special occasions. They are usually bought from local bakeries (kulcha feroshee) as few families have baking facilities or expertise. 

No description of Afghan cuisine would be complete without mentioning tea. Green or black, tea is drunk copiously throughout the day and is always served after a meal. Tea is not usually taken with milk except sometimes for breakfast, but is often sweetened with sugar and flavoured with cardamom, which is considered to aid digestion. An Afghan custom is to drink a first cup of tea with sugar, followed by one without. Many people soak sugar cubes (qand) in their tea, which they then hold in their mouths as they sip the tea. Ghur, a kind of lump sugar made from sugarcane, is often taken with tea, especially during the cold winter months. Sweets called shirnee are often served with tea, especially for guests. These can be “chocolate” (not what we know as chocolate but locally-made toffees) or noql, sugar-coated almonds, pistachios or chickpeas. 

Other beverages include homemade fruit juices and sherbets made from fruits in season such as Seville oranges, cherries, quince or pomegranates. There is a refreshing mint sherbet (sekanjabin) and a fragrant one made with rosewater and lemon. Dogh is another refreshing and cooling drink. Affluent Afghans may serve bottled soft drinks (such as coca cola and fanta) with meals for guests. Recently, bottled water, locally produced and imported, is available in the bazaars. 

Social Customs and Traditions

Afghanistan may be a poor country but it is rich in tradition and social customs, and hospitality is high in the Afghan code of honour. The best possible food is prepared for guests, even if other members of the family have to go without. A guest is always seated in the place of honour at the head of the room, and tea is served first to the guest to quench his thirst. While he is drinking and chatting with his host, all the women and girls of the household are involved in the preparation of food. 

The traditional mode of eating in Afghanistan is on the floor. Everyone sits on large colourful cushions (toshak), with large pillows (bolesht) behind for support. A large cloth or thin mat (disterkhan) is placed on the floor in front of the diners before the dishes of food are brought. During the cold winter months in the evenings the family might keep warm around the sandali, the traditional form of Afghan heating. A sandali consists of a charcoal brazier (manqal) under a low table covered with a large duvet (liaf) that is big enough to cover everyone’s legs, sitting on their cushions and supported by the large pillows. The charcoal has to be heated in advance and covered with ashes. During the hot summer months, food is often served outside in the garden under a shady tree or in the cool night air.

The traditional way of eating for most Afghans is with the right hand using no cutlery. To wash hands before eating, a special jug and bowl called haftawa-wa-lagan is brought. Water is poured from the jug over the hands, the bowl being used to catch the water. The custom is to share food communally. Three or four people eat from one large platter of rice (chalau or a pilau such as qabili pilau) with smaller side dishes of a meat qorma, kebabs and a vegetable dish, perhaps spinach or okra, or a burani made with aubergines or potatoes. A salad might be an accompaniment, as well as chutneys and pickles, to add piquancy to the meal. Nan is passed around for diners to tear off a piece. Spoons may be used for soup and some desserts. Today in the cities many Afghans use western style plates and cutlery, especially if they have guests. 

Recipe for Qabili Pilau Uzbeki (Serves 4)

1 lb (450 g) long grain rice, preferably basmati

3 fl oz (75 ml) vegetable oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1½ lb (700-900 g) lamb on the bone or 1 chicken, jointed water

2 large carrots

4 oz (110 g) raisins

2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp black pepper


Rinse the rice several times until the water remains clear, then leave it to soak in fresh water for at least half an hour. Heat the oil in a flame-proof casserole over a medium to high heat and add the chopped onions. Fry until golden brown and soft. Add the meat (if lamb, trimmed of excess fat) and fry until well browned. Then add enough water to cover the meat, and salt, bring to the boil, turn down the heat, and cook gently until the meat is tender. While the meat is cooking, wash, peel and cut up the carrots into pieces like matchsticks. When the meat is done and you are ready to cook the rice, add the carrots and the raisins to the top of the meat, sprinkle with one teaspoon each of cumin, black pepper, and salt.

Drain the rice, place it on top of the carrots and raisins, and add enough water to cover it by about half an inch (1 cm). Add the other teaspoon of cumin and a little salt, bring to the boil, turn down the heat, cover, and boil gently for about 10 to 12 minutes until the rice is tender and the water absorbed. (It is important that you listen carefully while cooking this rice for a ticking noise. When you hear it, remove the pan immediately from the heat.)

Place the casserole, which should have a tightly fitting lid, in a preheated oven at 150°C (300°F, mark 2) for about 45 minutes. Or you can finish the cooking by leaving it over a very low heat on top of the stove for the same length of time.

To serve, mound the rice, meat, carrots and raisins onto a large dish.

Recipe for Qorma-e-bagori  (Aubergine Qorma) Serves 4

1 onion, finely sliced

2 – 3 tablespoons oil

1 – 2  cloves of garlic, crushed

½ tsp turmeric

2 – 3 tomatoes, chopped

8 fl oz (250 ml) stock (vegetable or meat)

2 medium aubergines, peeled and cut in large chunks

Salt and black pepper to taste

1 green chilli (optional)

Heat the oil in a pan and add the onions. Fry over a medium heat until light golden brown. Add the garlic, turmeric and tomatoes and fry a couple of minutes, stirring well. Add the stock and the aubergines. Add the green chilli if used. Give a good stir, bring to the boil. Then turn down the heat and simmer on a medium low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes or until the liquid has reduced and the sauce has thickened. The oil will have risen to the surface. 

All dishes at an Afghan meal are served at the same time. Although there is no formal sequence of courses, generally the savoury dishes are eaten first. If there is a dessert such as firni, a ground rice or corn flour milk pudding, it will be eaten as a final course. Fresh fruit is usually served after the meal, followed by tea. 

Special Occasions

Afghanistan is a Muslim country and religion plays an important role in the way of life. Afghans observe religious days and festivals based on the lunar calendar. 

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and during the holy month of Ramazan, Muslims take no food or water between dawn and dusk. The fast is broken every day at sunset (Iftar). Afghans first take a sip of water, a pinch of salt and some eat a date. After this a large meal is served. It is ironic that during this month of fasting special and elaborate meals are prepared – soup, pasta or noodle dishes such as ashak or mantu, rice dishes in the form of chalau and pilau, meat qormas, vegetable dishes, pickles and chutneys. All this is followed by fresh fruit and the inevitable tea. Before sunrise and after morning prayers another lighter meal usually consists of bread and tea with perhaps eggs, cheese, qymaq or preserves. 

The two most important religious festivals are Eid-ul-Fitr (also called Eid-e-Ramazan) at the end of Ramazan, and Eid-e-Qorban (sometimes called Eid-ul-Adha) that marks the end of Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. At Eid people visit their relatives to drink tea, and eat nuts and sweets. Often special sweets and pastries are prepared such as halwa-e-swanak a kind of nut brittle, sheer payra a rich milky sweet with nuts, and goash-e-feel “elephant’s ear” sweet fried pastries, so called because of their shape and size. At Eid-e-Qorban many families sacrifice a lamb or calf, and distribute the meat among the poor, relatives and neighbours. 

Afghans celebrate their New Year (Nauroz) on 21 March, the first day of spring. Nauroz has its origins long before Islam, in the time of Zoroaster. Special foods are prepared. Samanak is an ancient dish – about 15 to 20 days before the New Year, wheat is planted in flowerpots and the green shoots of wheat are made into a sweet pudding. Other traditional dishes include haft miwa, a compote with seven different kinds of fruit and nuts (haft meaning seven, and miwa fruit) and kulcha Naurozee, a biscuit made with rice flour. It is the custom to prepare white and green foods at Nauroz such as chicken and sabzi chalau, white rice with spinach. 

New Year is the time when Afghans go on picnics, which can be elaborate affairs with music and dancing. Cars are loaded up with carpets, cushions, pots, pans, water, and of course food. Some dishes will be prepared at the picnic site, some beforehand, and fresh bread and fruit are often purchased on the way. While the women prepare a feast of rice, qorma and salads, the men are in charge of making kebabs and children play and fly their kites. After the meal, fruit is served, tea is made and everyone relaxes in the fresh spring air. 

The custom of Nazr, a kind of thanksgiving, is observed at New Year. Sweet rice dishes such as shola-e-zard are prepared and distributed among the poor.

Recipe for Shola-e-zard (Serves 4 – 6)

8 oz (225 g) short grain rice

8 – 12 oz (250 – 350 g) sugar, according to taste

¼ tsp saffron

1 oz (25 g) chopped or flaked pistachios

1 oz (25 g) chopped or flaked almonds

1 tbs rosewater

½ tsp ground cardamom

Soak the rice in water, well covered, for a couple of hours or longer. Boil approximately three and a half pints (2 litres) of water and add the rice. The water should come up to about four inches (10 cm) above the rice.  Simmer the rice in the water slowly, stirring occasionally, until the rice dissolves and becomes like jelly. This can take one to two hours, or perhaps even longer. Add the sugar, saffron, chopped pistachios and almonds, rosewater and ground cardamom.  Turn down the heat to very low and cook for another half an hour. Pour the warm shola on to a large serving dish and leave to set in a cool place for a couple of hours. 

Nazr is also practised at other times, by both rich and poor people. A nazr can be offered for a number of reasons such as the safe return of a relative after a long and hazardous journey, recovery from a serious illness, or to mark a visit to a holy shrine and the fulfilment of a prayer made on this pilgrimage. Nazr is practised on religious days such as Prophet Muhammad’s birthday or on the tenth day of Muharram, which marks the day of the massacre of Hazrat-e-Hussein, grandson of Muhammad and seventy-two members of his family. Halwa is often prepared for nazr, made with either wheat, semolina or rice flour flavoured with rosewater and cardamom and garnished with pistachios and almonds. The halwa is handed out on pieces of bread to passers-by in the street and sent round to neighbours. The more affluent might sacrifice a lamb or a calf. Savoury shola with meat and pulses are popular dishes for nazr. 

Afghans will find any excuse to have a party. For births, circumcisions, engagements and weddings, many special foods are prepared for guests. The birth of a child, especially the first male child, is a big occasion and many guests come to congratulate the family. Lots of food is prepared and special “hot” and nourishing foods give the mother strength – humach (a flour-based soup), leetee (a flour-based dessert), kachee (a kind of halwa), aush (a noodle soup with plenty of garlic), and shola-e-holba. Rich sweet bread called roht is baked on the 40th day after the birth. 

Engagements and weddings are celebrated in style. Engagements are called shirnee khoree, which literally means “sweet eating”. Traditionally the family of the groom bring sweets, goash-e-feel and other gifts such as clothes and jewellery to the bride’s family. In return the bride’s family prepares the food for the party. Often special kitchens are set up in order to cope with the vast quantity of food to be prepared - pilau, qorma, kebabs, ashak, mantu, boulanee and lots of sweet dishes such as firni, maughoot, shola-e-shireen, sheer payra, sweet pastries such as baqlawa, and qatlama, an elaborate fried pastry. A special green tea (qymaq chai) is prepared, and by a process of aeration and the addition of bicarbonate of soda it turns dark red. Milk and sugar are added, and the tea becomes a purple-pink colour with a strong, rich taste. Qymaq (clotted cream) is floated on the top, and sugared almonds (noql) are served with the tea.

Weddings require similar dishes except they are even more elaborate with more food needed for a larger number of guests. Abrayshum (silk) kebab is an unusual sweet often made for festive occasions and weddings. This is made with egg in such a way that ”silken” threads are formed that are then rolled up like a kebab and sprinkled with syrup and ground pistachio nuts. But perhaps the most traditional food served at weddings is molida, sometimes called changali. This special powdery sweetmeat, made from flour, oil, sugar, and butter flavoured with cardamom and rosewater, is tasted by the bride and groom on their wedding throne during the ceremony. The groom first feeds his bride a teaspoon, and she in turn feeds him, then the molida is served to the wedding guests. Sugared almonds (noql) symbolise fruitfulness (although some say the sweetness of the sugar and the bitterness of the almonds symbolise the good and bad times of life) and other sweets are then showered over the newly-weds, rather like the Western tradition of throwing confetti. Recently, placing five sugared almonds into little organza bags tied with ribbon has become popular. 

For funerals it is traditional to offer halwa served on a piece of nan to mourners at the graveside, many of whom will proceed to the home of the deceased for a funeral feast. Many mourners will stay several days. On the first Thursday after a death and every Thursday afterwards until the 40th day, relatives and friends gather to hear the Qur’an being read by the local mullah, after which food is served. 

Street Food and Eating Out

Street food is an important part of Afghan social life. Family and friends get together to walk in the parks and to enjoy snacks in the sunshine and fresh air. Street vendors (tabang wala) serve people who are hungry and thirsty, or want a quick snack to take home. All major cities and some small towns have food stalls positioned outside schools, cinemas, shopping centres, and in parks and bazaars. Vendors can also be found at popular picnic spots, religious sites and shrines. 

A tabang is a large round wooden tray on which the vendor carries his wares and then stakes his claim to a particular street corner or patch. The old-style tabang wala has been disappearing and most of the street vendors today have a more elaborate and better-equipped mobile kiosk on wheels for frying food on the spot, usually with a canopy. 

A variety of tasty snacks are available. Shour nakhod (shour means salty) are chickpeas doused with a mint and vinegar dressing, and served with vibrantly coloured chutneys such as hot red pepper or tangy green coriander. The same dressing and chutneys accompany cooked red kidney beans and boiled sliced potatoes. A recent development is chaat, a combination of boiled potatoes, kidney beans and chickpeas sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and chaat spice powder, introduced by refugees returning from Pakistan and India.

Some vendors offer the fiery hot chapli kebab, others fry boulanee and snacks such as sambosa (similar to samosas) with minced meat and pea filling, subtly spiced with cumin and coriander and a little chopped green chilli. Pakora are made from vegetables such as sliced par-boiled potatoes, cauliflower sprigs, onion rings or sliced aubergines dipped into chickpea flour batter and deep-fried in hot oil. They are usually served with a mint or coriander chutney. Corn on the cob is roasted over a charcoal brazier and sprinkled with salt. 

The type of food on offer depends on the region and the time of year. In spring, a common sight in the bazaars is kishmish panir - balls of white cheese (panir-e-khom) displayed on a bed of green vine leaves. The fresh cheese, brought to market by people from the mountains or outlying districts, is sold with red raisins (kishmish surkh).

In summer and autumn, customers can quench their thirst with kishmish ab, red or green raisins soaked in water, served in a small bowl or glass. Ab-e-kishta is a drink made from dried pit-less apricots reconstituted in water. Gholeng is similar, but made with a smaller variety of apricot and the stone is not removed. Ab-e-zafaran is saffron added to water with a little sugar. Lemon juice is also popular, sweetened with sugar or sometimes salt. Khakshir is a herbal drink made from the seeds of Sisymbrium irio, also known as London rocket. The seeds are soaked in water with sugar for a few hours before drinking, preferably over ice. Khakshir has long been valued as a medicine, especially for asthma and detoxifying the liver, but today is sold by street vendors as a cooling and refreshing drink. Other juices and sherbets are made from fruits or vegetables such as carrots, pomegranates, cherries or sugar cane. During Jeshyn, an autumn festival celebrating Afghan independence, street vendors sell seasonal fruits such as slices of melon and water melon, grapes, peaches, nectarines and a variety of snacks and sweets.

Mango and banana are made into a kind of milkshake or smoothie. The fruit is whizzed up in a processor with almonds and milk or yoghurt. Other popular drinks are dogh, and a traditional drink called shireen barf (‘sweet snow’) is prepared by pouring multi-coloured syrups, often flavoured with rosewater, over shaved snow. Sheer barf (‘milk snow’) is milk mixed with shavings of snow and sprinkled with syrup. The snow comes from the Hindu Kush especially around the Salang tunnel where huge blocks of packed snow are ‘mined’ from the slopes and carried by lorries to Kabul for making iced sherbets and cooling drinks. Snow is also used in the making of ice-cream sheer yakh (frozen milk) and faluda, which can be bought from more permanent stalls in the bazaar.

Ice-cream is a springtime and summer treat sold by sheer yakh ferosh (ice-cream sellers). Traditionally ice-cream is made in a large tub-like metal cylinder with a smaller cylinder or bucket inside. The outer cylinder, which is stationary, is filled with salt and snow. The inner cylinder is filled with milk, sugar and flavourings such as rosewater and cardamom. Sometimes sahlab (salep) a fine white powder obtained from dried root tubers of orchids, especially Orchis latifolia, is added which gives the ice-cream a more elastic and smoother texture. The ice-cream is rotated by hand and from time to time the ice-cream maker mixes it from bottom to top with a long spoon-like pole. The rotating continues until the ice-cream is frozen and has a creamy texture. Chopped pistachios or almonds are often sprinkled on top. Sheer yakh qalebi is a traditional ice-cream made in cone-shaped metal moulds – the same ice-cream mixture is placed into the moulds, then sealed with dough before freezing. 

Today, two innovative companies are producing factory-made ice-cream, selling it from modern wheeled carts with covers to keep it clean and hygienic. Different varieties include cornettos in cone-shaped wafers, ice-cream on a flat wooden stick, and in plastic containers with a wooden spoon. This has led to the demise of old style ice-creams, although faluda is still found in the Old City and in some upmarket ice-cream parlours in modern Kabul such as Shahr-i-Nau. 

Faluda is a sweet vermicelli dessert or drink, which has variations in Iran, India and the Near and Middle East. Mountstuart Elphinstone in his 1842 book, Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, wrote of faluda: “Ice, or rather snow, is to be had in Caubul, during the summer, for a mere trifle…A favourite food at that season is fulodeh, a jelly strained from boiled wheat, and eaten with the expressed juice of fruits and ice, to which cream also is sometimes added.” 

Faluda is made by blending corn or wheat starch with water and cooking it until the mixture becomes a translucent paste. In Afghanistan, the starch is made by soaking whole wheat grains and grinding them with water to yield a milky liquid called nishaste. After cooking, the warm paste is forced through a type of colander or pasta machine into iced water. Tiny rice-like grains or small vermicelli are formed in the ice, called jhala (hail) in Afghanistan because of their resemblance to hail stones. The jhala are served with crushed ice and topped with a fruit sherbet or syrup, or used as a topping for ice-cream, qymaq, firni, or a milk pudding flavoured and thickened with sahlab, finished with a sprinkling of rosewater and chopped pistachio nuts. 

Street vendors are particularly active on religious or festive days such as an Eid or Nauroz, when children and grown ups go out for picnics and to fly kites. In the crisp spring air, people enjoy a plateful of steaming hot spicy pilau-e-tolaki, or “weighed pilau”, so-called because the tabang wala weighs out the pilau on scales, using stones that weigh one-quarter or half a pound. Children buy roasted chickpeas, pine nuts, raisins or sugared almonds sold in cone-shaped paper bags. Crystallised sugar (nabot) is popular, as is khasta-e-shireen, a kind of nut brittle made by pouring caramel over almond or apricot kernels into large round plate-like shapes. Halwa-e-swanak is a nut brittle prepared with pistachios or walnuts. A rather odd looking sweet, halwa-e-marghzi is a mixture of milk, sugar and walnut syrup, made by stretching and shaking it in the air from a wooden pole until it sets hard. 

Afghans rarely eat in restaurants. Nevertheless, with the arrival of foreign troops and aid workers since 2001 a great variety of restaurants opened up in Kabul, including Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Thai and French, catering for foreigners and well-to-do Afghans. 

However Afghans, usually men, do socialise and exchange news and gossip of the day at traditional tea-houses (chaikhana). Tea-houses are found throughout the country, and are establishments where weary travellers can be refreshed after long and dusty journeys. Tea is served from a constantly boiling samovar. Some supply simple food such as the traditional tea-pot soup (sherwa-e-chainaki). It is a simple soup of lamb, onions and coriander and is made, as the name implies, literally in a teapot. The ingredients with water are placed in the teapot, the lid replaced and then the whole teapot is put among the dying embers, raked from either the charcoal brazier used for grilling kebabs or from the fire of the boiling samovar and the soup left to simmer slowly. 

Many chaikhana have kebab stalls attached. The many different types of kebabs are one of the main street foods to be found in the major towns and cities. The most common are sikh or tikka kebab, small cubes of lamb interspersed on skewers with fat (dumba) from the fat-tailed sheep and grilled over charcoal. The kebabs are eaten on nan or lawausha, a larger but thinner type of nan, sprinkled with crushed dried grapes (ghora), salt, red pepper and lemon. For a “takeaway”, the kebabs are wrapped in lawausha, with the ghora, salt and pepper in little cone-shaped paper bags. If “eating in” at the stall, a salad of sliced onions and tomatoes with coriander and lemon or norinj (Seville orange) wedges might be served as a garnish.

Other kebabs include kofta or qima kebab, minced meat formed into sausage shapes on skewers before being cooked over charcoal. Karayi kebab can be made from either kofta or sikh kebab removed from the skewers and fried quickly for a few seconds in a round metal pan called a karayi with a little oil. Eggs are broken over the top and fried until cooked, sprinkled with salt and pepper and served straight from the pan. Shinwari kebab, made from lamb chops and named after one of the large Pashtun tribes of the North-West Frontier, used to be a favourite in the old town of Kabul down by the river. This part of town was also famous for kebabs made with liver (jigar), kidney (gourda) and the speciality of lambs’ testicles (kebab-e-kalpura), considered by many Afghans to be an aphrodisiac. Sadly these stalls by the river no longer exist, but the kebabs are still available in other parts of Kabul and in other cities. A speciality of the city of Jalalabad is chapli, a fiery hot kebab consisting of minced meat, lots of gandana, coriander and chopped green chillies. Chapli means sandal, named for its shape resembling the sole of a sandal. Qaburgha kebab is similar to the Shinwari kebab, sometimes made from ribs of veal and called pushti by Pashtuns, especially in Kandahar and Herat where it is renowned. Chicken kebabs have recently become popular. The legs, thighs, wings or breasts are marinated then fried in a pan over charcoal or gas burners. Some restaurants in Kabul spit-roast whole chickens for “takeaway”.

Kebab stalls (dukan-e-kebabi) are very basic. Some have rickety chairs and tables whilst others are just a stall where customers enjoy the tasty, succulent kebabs standing around or walking along the street. The kebabi (stallholder) stands behind his manqal (charcoal brazier), wafting his pakka (kebab fan) over the coals to keep them glowing, and turning the skewered kebabs from time to time. He often has an assistant, usually a young boy learning the trade, who fans the charcoal from the front. 

In the speciality food shops or permanent stalls haleem, a cereal and meat porridge served with melted ghee or oil sprinkled with ground cinnamon, cardamom and sugar, can be bought. Traditionally it was bought early in the morning as a breakfast dish. Haleem is especially popular on Fridays when men buy it after they have been to the hamam (public baths) and bring the haleem home to their families to eat. Sherwa-e-cala pacha is another ”takeaway” breakfast dish, a hearty warming soup made from sheep’s head and feet. Winter is also the time for fish and jelabi, a sweet composed of whorls of batter, deep fried and soaked in syrup. Local and imported fish are fried in hot oil and served with the jelabi, an unusual combination.

Many Afghans of all ethnic groups were forced to leave Afghanistan because of the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, and later the disastrous civil war and emergence of Taliban rule. Many refugees went to Iran and Pakistan, whilst others settled in North America, Europe and Australia. However, the food and culture of Afghanistan has survived and is flourishing, despite more than 30 years of war and troubles. It is changing, of course. In the opinion of this author healthier options are being chosen, for example less fat and oil are being used in cooking. Shortcuts and labour-saving devices are increasingly common, such as pasta-making machines and the use of readymade wonton wrappers for mantu and ashak. And, it seems, Afghan food is getting “hotter” and more chilli is added to dishes. Afghan cuisine, however, continues to be unique, varied and distinctive.


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