Kabuli pulao, and looking beyond the headlines.
Adapted from: the national dish of Afghanistan.
The brutality of the war in Afghanistan has been making headlines for twenty years. That is a long time to not know much about a country except the amplitude of its suffering, and yet, that is exactly where I am starting from. I looked up this week’s recipe because I wanted to know a country for more than its war-torn landscape, and to know a people for more than the stereotypes they’re reduced to on Homeland. What are their joys, and how do they celebrate them? What recipes would they steal from their mothers if they could? An entry point, as arbitrary as any: kabuli pulao, the Afghan national dish.
For thousands of years, Afghanistan was a pivotal crossroad for major trade routes, with cities like Kabul and Herat considered key Silk Road passages. Afghan cuisine, as a result, is a confluence of all of the cultures that traversed it. The main influences are Persian, Indian and Chinese—evident in the use of spices like cardamom, cumin, and cinnamon, herbs like coriander and mint, and the consumption of dumplings and noodles. Kabuli pulao, while completely new to me, also felt strangely familiar—the textures of a biryani in a perfect marriage with the flavours of a Persian tahdig.
Rice is the star of the dish, and the heart of the Afghan meal. Here, it’s steamed, seasoned and spiced, and served mixed with meat, carrots, and raisins. (Afghanistan is known for—if I can even say that, as someone who learned this yesterday—the quality of its grapes.) But while the rice dish is the lead actor, the complete meal has many parts: according to the Central Asia Institute, “For any Afghan gathering two or three types of rice dishes, two or three meat based dishes or kabobs, and two or three vegetarian dishes such as eggplant or spinach, along with bread, salad, yogurt, and chutney sauces are the norm.”
Food is important to every culture, but for the Afghans, it’s a point of pride. From Afghan Food and Cookery, by Helen Saberi:
Hospitality is very important 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 given a seat or the place of honour at the head of the room. […]
The traditional mode of eating in Afghanistan is on the floor. Everyone sits around on large colourful cushions, called toshak. These cushions are normally placed on the beautiful carpets, for which Afghanistan is famous. A large cloth or thin mat called a disterkhan is spread over the floor or carpet before the dishes of food are brought.
Kabuli pulao is a redolent, delicious dish that I enjoyed on its own, but I can only dream of the meal that an Afghan family would serve alongside it. I’d like to think that these flavours and rituals continue to bring them together, and bring them comfort—in spite of everything
I realized after making the recipe that it is not, in fact, from an Afghan cook, which is fine—but I wanted to call it out. The author chose to serve the lamb shanks intact, on top of the rice. From what I can tell, the meat is traditionally served at the bottom, covered by rice and the carrot/raisin topping. I layered chunks of it throughout.
Some other takes on this dish:
• Another version from Rehana du Jour, with step-by-step photos.
• Here’s an enthralling video of an Afghan street vendor making it. The upper body strength!
If you can, consider helping Afghan citizens in this moment of crisis. Here are a few ways.
Until next time,