Have you ever wondered about Afghan cuisine? I have. The Culture and Cuisine Club is excited to feature a writer who has lived in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mary Smith is an author, poet, journalist – and a businesswoman who worked in Afghanistan for an organization that helped raise funds for mother and childcare, and for those afflicted with leprosy. Mary has shared an insider’s peek into Afghan cuisine and a traditional recipe that I will be trying very soon. And now in the author’s own words…
Living and working for many years in Afghanistan gave me the chance to sample many kinds of Afghan cuisine. Afghan kebabs are the best in the world. When I lived in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif it was our favourite take away on a Friday night. I still remember the tantalizing aroma of those lamb kebabs being cooked on street grills. Afghan sheep have what’s known as dumba – a fat tail – and pieces of this fat are interspersed with chunks of lamb on the skewers to add flavour. The kebabs were served inside round nan breads, which soaked up the delicious juices, then wrapped in newspaper. I found sheep testicle kebabs particularly tasty, possibly because I’d eaten them before I knew what the succulent softness was.
Afghans love giving dinner parties – or mehmani. The dishes are spread on a cloth – dastakhan – on the floor and guests sit cross-legged around it. Anyone serving less than seven dishes is considered a skinflint and, believe me, word would have spread before morning. There would be chicken or meat (usually goat – and don’t be surprised if you meet your dinner when it is brought in to be blessed by the diners before despatch) in rich gravy, kabuli rice topped with raisins and strips of carrots glistening with oil, yoghurt, one or two vegetable dishes and sweet dishes such as firni made with milk and corn flour and heavily sweetened. For cooking at home in the city I had an imported Chinese cooker with three rings, fed by a gas bottle.
Chicken defeated me for ages. No matter what method, including using a pressure cooker, my chicken was always like boot leather. Afghan chickens are free range, clocking up the miles to find food so there’s very little fat. Plus, no one eats a chicken until it has become an old hen and stopped laying eggs. I found the solution in an international newspaper – wine. Not cooking the bird in wine, but tenderising it from the inside out. Like everyone else we bought our chickens live so during their last few days on earth we fed them well and gave them lots of red wine to drink brought across the border from Uzbekistan. It worked like magic and I could finally impress my Afghan diner guests with succulent chicken, albeit with a slightly pinkish tinge. And that’s why the chickens in my non-fiction book are drunk.
Of course it wasn’t all banquets and mostly I ate everyday food including a meat-based soup into which we broke our bread. Once it was mushy, we used another piece of bread as a spoon. I enjoyed simple rice with lentils or red kidney beans and ash – pasta (Afghanistan was on the Silk Route so benefited from fusion cuisine long before it was fashionable) served with quroot, a rock-hard sour cheese made from buttermilk which is re-hydrated into a sauce. Tastes a lot better than it sounds. Little leek-filled dumplings are delicious as is mantu, a labour-intensive dish of steamed dumplings filled with minced beef and onions, topped with a yogurt sauce. One of my favourite dishes – perhaps because it is easily reproduced at home – is banjan-sia borani. This is egg-plant (aubergine) slices fried and served with cooked tomatoes, topped with a sour cream and yoghurt garlicky sauce and dried mint.
4 Aubergines/Eggplants – the nice, long purple ones
Oil (I use sunflower)
Salt and black pepper
1 tsp paprika
4 tomatoes, sliced
1 onion finely chopped
8 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 cup thick yogurt
1 cup sour cream
Slice the eggplants lengthwise into thick slices. Fry in the oil until golden and still slightly firm in the middle. Drain on kitchen paper. Fry the onions with one of the minced cloves of garlic until soft then add the sliced tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes are soft. Add a cup of water; bring to the boil then leave to simmer until the sauce thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste. Put the eggplant into the sauce to warm through. Mix the yoghurt and sour cream together with the minced garlic, 1 tsp salt and dried mint. Put half the yoghurt sauce on a serving platter, top with the eggplant and tomato sauce the pour the rest of the yoghurt sauce on top. Sprinkle with paprika. Serve with fresh nan bread.
Mary’s Blog: http://www.marysmith.co.uk/index.asp
Mary’s Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Mary-Smith/e/B001KCD4P0/