Deep Roots: A Love Note to the Lowly Carrot

A dish of carrot hastily cooked may still have soil uncleaned off the vegetable.
~~ Chinese Proverb

Photo credit: John Blower
Photo credit: John Blower

Except for the feathery grey braids poking out from under the rebozo, she looked like a child washing dishes. But she wasn’t a child and she wasn’t washing dishes. Rinsing the large carrot— one about the size of a zucchini zonked on steroids at the end of a scorching mid-western summer — in her impromptu sink, the old Indian woman leaned over a large pothole in the middle of the dusty road. Crooning softly, as if the carrot were baby in its bath, she pulled it out of the murky oil-tinged water and dried it on her long flowing skirt.

I followed her bent-over figure to the edge of the market, where she slowly pulled off her rebozo, laid the carrot down on it, and squatted close by on the packed red dirt. Market day in Cholula ended for me then, because I needed to be somewhere else.

Now, whenever I hear people mention carrots, I don’t think of those tasteless little pellets passing for carrots in their little plastic-bag coffins in the supermarket. No, the image of that old Indian woman and her carrot always pops up in my mind. I still wonder if anyone ever bought her carrot. Most of all, I puzzle over how they might have cooked it (and I really hoped they cooked it well, because the shock of seeing that vegetable washed in the street effluvia still makes my intestines quiver).

Let’s face it: Carrots don’t send writers into rhapsodies, although numerous children’s books extolling the carrot attest to the fascination American children seem to have for carrots (and rabbits). And in 1980 Planned Parenthood published a little 40-page orange number, Carrot Cookbook. Other small, out-of-print and forgotten, cookbooks devoted to carrots also languish in used book stores.

So why am I even bothering with the carrot?

In a word, history.

There’s a lot of history hopping along behind the modern carrot, otherwise known as Daucus carota var. sativus.

Afghanistan Kabul Forman valley of capital
Kabul (Photo credit: Harrison Forman)

And it started in Afghanistan, a place that most people today don’t want to know about, and if they do, want to forget about.

Carrots flowers
Carrot Flowers

Known by various names — carota (Latin), carotte (French), and karōton (Greek), like Native Americans used buffalos or French villagers used pigs, people use just about every part of this umbelliferous plant (love that word, used commonly by botanists to describe the flower arrangements topping of the specimen). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first mention of “carrots’ in English occurred in 1533:

Parsnepes and nourishe with better iuyce than the other rootes.”

But, according to the curator of the World Carrot Museum, the first mention of carrots occurred in the tenth century, found in the Old English Herbal. And another reference can be found in 1375 in Henry Daniel’s De Herberia.

Seeds, leaves, flesh, all provide special tastes and properties for foods. Early uses for carrots tended toward the medicinal and not culinary.

In Afghanistan, carrots did not start out orange in color. But again according to the World Carrot Museum’s curator, “There is clear evidence of orange carrots well before the 1500s, including an illustration from AD 512.” That would be the Juliana Anicia Codex, more widely known as the “Vienna Dioscorides.”

Rainbow Colors
Rainbow Colors

Some modern accounts claim that only in the 1500s, when Dutch played around with Daucus carota (also called “Queen Anne’s Lace” (Daucus carota), did the “right” color emerge, the one we associate with carrots.  Probably no link with the house of Orange-Nassau, you would think.


At least according to some commentators, who claim a direct relationship between the patriotic color of orange and the vegetable.

But the French (of course) can lay claim to the creation of the long skinny “veg” that we know and love. Thanks to French horticulturist, M. M. Vilmorin-Andrieux, who created the modern carrot by breeding Queen Anne’s Lace with the stumpy Dutch carrot. It took four years. His The Vegetable Garden (1856) became one of the major resources for botanists and others interested in garden plants.  A marvelous source, which can be viewed online in the third edition from 1920.

USES The roots are well known and largely used both as a table vegetable and as forming excellent food for cattle. The seed is employed in the manufacture of some kinds of liqueurs and the juice of the Red varieties is used for colouring butter. (p. 193)

But getting back to Afghanistan. (See also my previous post titled “Afghanistan: Land of the Enchanted Snows.”)

What do people do with carrots there?

For one thing, they cook one of their national dishes, Qabili Pilau (made either with lamb, beef, or chicken).

It might have worked well with the large carrot I saw that day in Mexico. But come to think of it, maybe I saw a yuca root and not a carrot at all.

Here’s a recipe using carrots, adapted from The Afghan Forum:

Carrots Afghan Dish
Qabili Pilau

Qabili Pilau
( Lamb/Beef/Chicken with Rice, Carrots, and Raisins)

½ cup vegetable oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 ½ lb. lamb on the bone or 1 lb. boneless beef, cut into 1 ½-inch cubes, or 1 chicken in pieces
2 cups of water
1 t. sea salt
1 T. char masala* or 1 to 1 ½ tsp each ground cinnamon, cumin, cloves, and cardamom
¼ tsp saffron (optional)
1 lb. long grain rice, preferably basmati
4 cups water and broth
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into matchstick-size pieces
1 t. sugar
¼ lb. black seedless raisins (or golden sultanas or a mixture)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Add 1 lb. lamb or beef cut into 1 ½-inch cubes (or chicken pieces) and brown lightly. Add onion and fry until the onion is fairly dark.

Add 2 cups of water, 1 t. salt, char masala or 1 to 1 ½ tsp each cinnamon, ground cumin and ground cardamom. Cover and simmer until meat is tender, about two hours for lamb or beef, 1 hour for chicken.

Remove meat from the broth and set aside separately. Sauté carrots and 1 t. sugar in about ¼ cup of oil. Cook until they are lightly browned. Remove from oil and set aside to drain on paper towels. . Add 1 cup of raisins to the oil and cook until they swell up. Set raisins aside, too.

Boil the meat juice, add 2 cups basmati rice, 1 ½ t. salt, and enough boiling water to come 2 inches over the rice (about 4 cups of liquid altogether). Cook until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender — but NOT mushy.

Mix the meat, carrots, raisins, and rice together. Place in a large greased oven-proof casserole, cover and bake at 300 degrees for about a half hour — or up to an hour. To serve — place on platter, making sure the carrots and raisins show on top.

*Make your own Char Marsala (an Afghan spice mix) by combining the following:

1 T. ground cinnamon
1 T. ground cloves
1 T. ground cumin seeds
1T. ground black cardamom seeds (available from Penzey’s and other sources)

Afghan Cookbooks:

Afghan Cuisine: Cooking for Life : A Collection of Afghan Recipes (And Other Favorites) for the Novice Afghan and Non-Afghan Cook, by Nafisa Sekandari (2003)

Afghan Food & Cookery: Noshe Djan, by Helen Saberi (2000)

Classic Afghan Cookbook, by Mousa M. Amiri (2002)

A Taste of Afghanistan: The Cuisine of the Crossroads of the World, by Cathy Parenti (1987)

Carrots from the Farmers Market
Real Carrots from the Farmers' Market (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sounds wonderful! Thank you for sharing. I wrote about the food of Afghanistan, which you can read at, if you haven’t already done so.


  2. Diana Tacey says:

    We enjoyed Kabuli Palau at the Intercontinental Hotel dining room in Kabul today. It is Ramazan now so the dining hall was quiet and meals served ala carte only, so we had a bit of a wait, but the meal was beautifully presented with fresh vegetable salat and garnished carrots and cucumbers. Such a treat for the visitor, love the Kabuli Palau with carrots and raisins!


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