Note: I first wrote this post in 2008, when the U.S. had been at war in Afghanistan for seven years. Now it is 2021, thirteen years have passed, and we are finally leaving Afghanistan. But the price paid by all for war is not over. And never will be.
The fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021 reminded me of a very human aspect of war.
It’s a long stretch, maybe, from war to food. But not really, since food often becomes scarce in wartime, regardless of where war takes place.
Afghans cook and eat daily meals. Just as you and I do. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when newspaper stories focus only on battles and bombs.
While reading yet another depressing story about the U.S. at war in Afghanistan, I found myself wondering, “Who are these people over there and what do they eat?” Suddenly I had to know what lay behind the stereotypes, behind the faceless women draped in blue nylon burqas and the bearded, turbaned men heaving Kalashnikovs from shoulder to shoulder.
Since my chances of flying to Kabul any time soon were nil, I decided to travel there the old-fashioned way, in my armchair, with the help of photographs, personal narratives, and cookbooks. And of course a little kitchen time with a pot and a wooden spoon.
There’s an incredible tendency for Afghan writers to include food, lots of it, in their works. It’s a longing for the past, for happier times made concrete through word memories. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is just one example, and so is his A Thousand Splendid Suns, but you see this same longing expressed in The Storyteller’s Daughter and other narratives.
Leathery hills cascading down from a blue endless sky, faces lined in furrows (face-like furrows), dryness, and starkness, sky meeting the earth, seamless, winds and sand, darkness interrupted by candles flickering in mu- hewn windows, a flutter of blue cloth, snaking ridges of the Hindu Kush sugar-frosted with snow, mud huts arranged squarely like a medieval European gingerbread house—a viable frisson of enchantment. Wending through the Khyber Pass, your fingers tracing the walls of gorges, feeling in your mind’s skin the porous rock cut by ancient rivers and modern flash floods tearing through faster than a TGV from the Gare de Lyon, this is how ancient and modern conquerors entered Afghanistan, how refugees squeeze back into Afghanistan after years in the camps of Peshawar and Quetta, how the camel moves through the eye of the needle, fully loaded, with room for only one, or two fat horses if that is your ride of choice or of necessity.
This high desert beckons, chilling in its bleakness, dry and cold in winter, parching and hot in summer, where caravans of whirling dust sweep alongside camel caravans.
Up ahead, you smell the smoke of camel-dung fueled cooking fires before you see the dung burning, the flat naan swelling on the heated sides of the makeshift tandoor ovens, their snowshoe appearance giving rise to their name—Snowshoe Naan. Wearily, you dismount from your frothing nag, your legs shaking from fatigue, stumbling toward the fire, the warmth, taking the naan from the gnarled hands of the burqaed woman, wanting to press the steaming hot bread to the muscles of your neck, where the knots of your muscles bulge uncomfortably after a day holding the reins. You take the bread from the gnarled hands reaching out to you, stretching from one side of the cultural divide to the other from the folds of the tent-like burqa. As you lean in with your coins, you feel the woman’s hot breath on your hands, an act it seems of greater intimacy than seeing a face would ever would be, but that is just a reflection of your culture, where sight seems to be stultified; after all, think of how many death-dealing films wind through so many DVD players every night, stream on screens in every imaginable household. Where everyone sits far away from their neighbor and touch is taboo. Don’t stand too close to a stranger or you’re invading their space.
Afghanistan is a cauldron, of cuisines as well as war, due to its location as a crossroads; look at a map, and you’ll see why it’s possible to call Afghan food a cousin in spirit to Caribbean Creole. Conquerors from Alexander the Great to Tamerlane to Genghis Khan to British to Soviets to Americans rode through Afghanistan, leaving destruction, yes, but also leaving enduring traces in recipes like cooling yogurt sauces, dill-infused palaus, vinegary red sauce, fresh coriander chutney, and plump doughy dumplings suspiciously like dim sum, filled with minced vegetables and meat. Afghan cuisine subtly seduces without the fire of Indian cooking or the refined palace-generated cuisine of Persia. The best of both, but actually neither.
Wrinkled hills, their folds undulating outwards, rippling toward frozen lakes, men and camels/donkeys tramping slowly through the lacy snow drifts, their patous (blankets) coated with snow, appearing to wear ermine fur collars, only snow and more snow .
So there you are, on the other side of the cultural divide, in no man’s land, standing in Pashtun country, neither a man nor a woman (you’re a woman in the West, but not here)—they’re not sure where you stand, so you get to drink tea with the men and tag along in the caravan, something an Afghan woman could never do. The women stand in the windows, watching, or up on the ridges, looking down, thinking—what? Maybe what they are going to do for dinner. Thirty-eight percent of Afghans are Pashtuns, and these are the people most Westerners think of when they think of Afghans. Pashtuns, poets all, living in “the sky of the world.” Shepherding their sheep across the lonely frozen highlands, a lunar landscape, looking like salt-encrusted rolls, the brown bleakness relieved only by the colorful native dress worn by their women, embroidered with colors seen only in the low-lying areas blessed with summer and crops and flowers. Blue burqas and blue nail-studded doors. Both close off the outer world. Blue, the color of Paradise.
And it is the Pashtuns, with their strict code of conduct known as Pashtunwali, calling the shots, no pun intended. Pashtuns, anthropologically linked with Italians and Spaniards. Not knowing about this thread lacing together Afghan culture and political behavior creates only discord. What is Pashtunwali but a way of honor: a jirga or council of wise elders, a punishment system based on revenge no matter how long it takes—patience is indeed a virtue in Afghanistan, and possibly the most important pillars of this concept are hospitality to guests and a type of sanctuary not unlike the medieval European idea of churches as intransigent places, where weapons remained sheathed or not present at all. Guests, no matter what their crimes, remain safe behind the hundreds of mini-fortresses built with 3-feet thick, 30-feet high mud brick walls. Tribal society, ancient, endless, and tightly locked in kinship and clan.
In traditional Afghan hierarchical culture, serving God is your highest achievement, regardless of your station in life.
Gray-black wooly sheep thrust forward against makeshift corrals, bleating in their funny low baritones.
Images of bombs and overturned cooking pots, of cooking fires still burning as jets skeet away. Landmines impact on agriculture and hence the food supply. The struggle never ceases.
And the need for food also never ceases.
Most people in Afghanistan eat naan and curds or potatoes a few times a day. Dishes like Qabili palau, although it’s the national dish of Afghanistan, rarely pass their lips. Why? Because meat is crucial to a proper palau and meat is scarce in this country, which has suffered war and drought for nearly a generation. Not only does American bombing pulverize this country of mud-brick building: Russian tanks and mujahideen rockets started the job. American bombers just polish what their precursors started. Destroying buildings is one thing, but a whole traditional culture is another thing. People sell their children for rice or flour and grow poppies for opium, while the country starves to death.
In accounts written by Afghan émigrés, what becomes clear is that a whole generation of young Afghans are growing up not really knowing what their cultural traditions are. How could they, when fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles died in the incessant fighting or were murdered by extremist Taliban followers?
Once upon a time, really, Afghanistan lived in relative peace, where fields flourished and orchards produced some of the lushest fruit in Central Asia. Said to be the ancestors of the wine grapes of Europe and California, the sweetness of the grapes of Afghanistan, or at least the memory of them, brings tears to the eyes of old people who remember a world without constant war. Even Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, assassinated in the days before 9/11, insisted that war is never a solution, that differences must be settled over glasses of green tea, interspersed with hours, or even days, of talking and getting to know each other. Kinship and hospitality produced by eating and drinking together. Bonding … something that can’t happen over a McDonald’s hamburger, no matter how hard the advertisers try to make us think so.
It is that world that Helen Saberi, an Englishwoman married to an Afghan, recalls in her book, Afghan Food & Cookery (Noshe Djan).
Coming upon women in front of low-lying nomad tents made of black wool, you stare through the envelope fold of the “door,” straining to see the world that lies beyond. [Look at the American Geographical Society photo gallery of Afghanistan photographs shot by Harrison Forman in the late 1960s.] Every day, women cook for families, but festive events and large parties require hiring more cooks, always male. Men do the food shopping on an everyday basis.
The tea bubbles and the women motion with their hands, “Welcome.”
Just another day in Afghanistan, just another century.
The time comes to leave the place that holds you captive: the valley where words flowed like torrents, the green terraces of Panjshir or the dark slopes of Ghorband, the village where the mullahs served you green tea at the close of the day, under the pomegranate trees and the trellis with its sweet, sunripe grapes. Travelling in Afghanistan is also a lesson in humility, because it is so full of movement. Property is everywhere and nowhere: everything—earth, sky, water—is carefully distributed by a Master who transmits his seasonal specifications from generation to generation. Sharing, in the form of an ancient hospitality, is a tradition that shortages have not eclipsed. From: Eternal Afghanistan. Photos by Reza, text by Olivier Weber. UNESCO. 2002, preface.
Pantry Ingredients for Afghan Cooking
Cardamom (including black?)
Char masala (four spice combinations, varied-usually cinnamon, cloves, cumin, black cardamom ground together, perhaps with the addition/substitution of black pepper, green cardamom, or coriander seed)
Cumin + black cumin (nigella-wrong term-NOT black cumin)
Dill (Russian influence)
Eggs (boiled-egg fight tradition)
Halal meat (meat slaughtered to ritually drain it of blood)
Mulberries (dried, as a snack)
Sugar (a sign of hospitality)
Vocabulary of Afghan cooking:
Naan (like a large pizza without toppings; is also the word for “food” in general terms)
Gosh-E-Feel (Fried pastry)
Fil morgh—elephant chicken (Afghan term for turkey)
The batterie de cuisine includes pressure cookers, which speed up the cooking of palau.
Amiri, Mousa M. Classic Afghan Cookbook. Published by the author. 2002.
Ayubi, Durkhanai. Parwana: Recipes and Stories from an Afghan Kitchen. Interlink Books, 2020.
Parenti, Cathy. A Taste of Afghanistan: The Cuisine of the Crossroads of the World. Published by the author. 1987.
Saberi, Helen. Afghan Food & Cookery (Noshe Djan). Hippocrene Books. 2nd printing. 2002.
Sekandari, Nafisa. Afghan Cuisine: Cooking for Life. [np] Bloomington, IN. 2003.
Anderson, Jon Lee. The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan. Grove Press. 2003.
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Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. Riverhead Books. 2003.
_____. A Thousand Splendid Suns. Riverhead. 2007.
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Weber, Olivier and Reza. Eternal Afghanistan. UNESCO. 2002.
© 2008, 2021 C. Bertelsen