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The comfort and joy of preparing Afghan food


Afghanistan is framed as much by Hollywood and the media as it is by war on the ground. Tropes are boring: pressroom visuals of gaunt men with guns stacked on moving trucks, movies using a yellow filter to signal changes of location, the photograph which still has not recovered from that of Steve McCurry essentialist gaze, like his problem portrait of Sharbat Gula. Food does not stand up to conversation.

Humaira Ghilzai agrees. Based in San Francisco, Ghilzai is an Afghan cultural advisor who assisted writer Khaled Hosseini with the theatrical adaptation of his bestselling book “The Kite Runner”. she documents heirloom recipes from Afghanistan as part of its cultural literacy work. “Unfortunately, because Afghanistan has been linked to war for 40+ years, few people think of it in the sense of food,” she told HuffPost. “Like, here’s what someone said to me, ‘What do these barbarians eat, you know? Who cares about Afghan food? ‘ She is optimistic, however, because in the diaspora, “the second generation is not so much in the fight-or-flight mode” that plagues new Afghan immigrants and kills the culinary business.

When asked about the food, Ghilzai points to important regional variations, such as the Uzbek influence in the north, where the food tends to be dough-based. “So: aush, which is a noodle soup, aushak, which is a dumpling, and a parcel lakhshak, a kind of slippery pasta. Whereas where I come from, Ghazni, a lot of foods are meat based. She mentions the unmistakable Persian influence in the border regions of Iran, best seen in “a dish called kuku, widely known for Herat.” I hadn’t heard of it a few years ago. Kuku is a fatty, herbaceous frittata; Afghans season theirs with turmeric and wrap them with green onions or leeks.

What Ghilzai loves the most, however, are the foods from his childhood. Especially shor nakhod, bought from street vendors sneakily so his parents wouldn’t know. “It’s basically a dish of chickpeas and potatoes. In the United States, I call it Afghani Potato Salad, but it’s more chickpeas than potatoes. In Afghanistan, we pour a little vinegar on it. It really is, really delicious. ”She remembers the kebab houses,“ our fast food places, ”where the meat is cooked slowly over charcoal.“ They take a piece of bread and remove the meat from the skewer with the bread, then you eat it like that. “In the summer everyone drank chilled salty doogh (pronounced”doag “): yogurt diluted with water, mixed with chopped cucumber and enriched with mint. He misses the unbeatable pomegranates of the country, because they are” incredibly delicious and very rare “.

HuffPost spoke to three other Afghan women living in the United States about the food that brings them comfort.

Medina Amin, Sacramento, California

Madina Amin and tukhm e banjan rumi, broken eggs in a sharp garlic tomato base with fresh peppers.

Amin grew up watching his parents smother visitors with affection. “When we eat at an Afghan table,” she says, “there are two things that are forbidden to us: the first bite and the last. They’re always meant for someone else, a guest. Or how we say in Dari, ‘Dosteh Khudah’ (a friend of God). In Afghan culture, generosity is practiced with stubborn kindness; customers are welcome even when there is little to do. Amin remembers the quiet thrill of anticipating visitors at mealtime, the “unexpected but expected knock at the door, and my father shouting in Dari: ‘Khush amadi!’ Throw in another egg, there is always room for another.

Amin’s family left their homes as a result of the Soviet invasion – his father from Kabul and his mother from neighboring Parwan province. They met in the United States, where Amin was born. She remembers the gravitational pull of her mother Shukria’s kitchen. “I watched her for hours,” she said, “she was so elegant, so full of love in everything she did. Every dish was thought of, every ingredient bought fresh. Shukria served her friends and family with rivers of tea and his signature shalgham bata, “turnips fried until golden brown, cooked with onion, lamb, spicy red pepper flakes, jaggery sweet and a little brown sugar and served with sticky rice a meal meant to keep you full and warm, ”Amin said.

Amin enjoys making tukhm e banjan rumi, broken eggs in a sharp garlic tomato base with fresh peppers. “His not shakshuka, ”Amin pointed out,“ it’s really just three, maybe four ingredients ”artfully deployed, with the optional addition of cilantro powder for an extra kick. Sometimes she adds potatoes and halal hot dogs to puff it up – “not authentic, but delicious nonetheless”. The dish is wiped down with hot Afghan naan and served with chai, fresh fruit, nuts, jams and qaymaq (clotted cream).

Amin remembers a picnic in the beautiful Panjshir Valley in 2010, a visit that would be his last. It was a day of songs, dances and dizzying laughter, feeling safe in the embrace of family. In the shelter of the mulberry trees, they feasted on “qutakhi (a type of fried flatbread stuffed with sweet, sweet yogurt) soaked in local honey, kebab, qabuli, idiot and freshly picked toot (mulberry). Today the region is a key site for the Afghan resistance. “The day Kabul collapsed was one of the worst days of my life,” Amin said. “For days, I couldn’t eat. I was unable to sleep. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to our music. I couldn’t bear to look at my father, to see his eyes fill with tears as he kept repeating “Afghanistaneh bechara” (“Poor Afghanistan”). She is disgusted that COVID-19 ruined her travel plans last year. “I know I’ll be going back someday,” she said. “Last time it wasn’t a goodbye. I won’t let him.

Habiba Syed, New York City

The comfort and joy of preparing Afghan food
Habiba Syed and a bowl of oogra, a warming lentil soup.

Syed and his family moved from their home in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, in 1990. In his grandmother Bibi’s kitchen, Syed learned to love all of Kandahari, especially the winter classics. There was shorwa, a lightly spiced lamb stew simmered with root vegetables and poured over bread, and oogra, a warming lentil soup.

For his version of the oogra, Syed boils chickpeas, black-eyed peas and soaked mung overnight. The fried onion and garlic brightened with turmeric are mixed with the softened lentils. She loves how simple it is and how much it lends itself to the Afghan virtue of good neighborliness. “Usually, I make a big fundraiser and send it to my friends and family in my community. No matter how little I try to do, it turns into a bigger amount than I thought it would. Poured into bowls right next to the flame, the oogra is topped with creamy qurooth, a spoonful of dried yogurt seasoned with salt.

Syed is a Qurooth evangelist. The pleasantly sour condiment features in another favorite: her mother’s qurooth-e-aush, “a chewy noodle dish to which she adds leeks, kidney beans, and lots of dill and dried mint.” It’s so filling and heartwarming; I feel comfortable just thinking about it, ”she said.

Kichray, however, is her favorite dish to cook. “It’s a rice porridge dish that contains green mung beans. It’s topped with spicy meatballs, qurooth, fried onions, and dried mint. I sit it down like my grandmother did by spreading the sticky rice and making a small well in the middle with the back of a wooden spoon. I pour the qurooth in the middle and top it with sizzling fried onions in the oil. The sound takes me back to winter evenings in Bibi’s kitchen, ”she said.

Although Afghan recipes are not very difficult to buy, a few do involve work. Syed calls for pragmatism. For manto, a traditional meat-stuffed dumpling that requires a thin, stretchy, freshly rolled dough, she has a tip: “I religiously keep a supply of Chinese wonton wrappers in my freezer for absolute accessibility.”

Recent events have left her in shock, “like someone was pressing rewind and all of a sudden I’m having the same conversations my parents and grandparents had 30 years ago. “Are they safe? “” Try to call again. “” Where will they stay? “‘How can we help?’ The food is comforting, she says, “especially as immigrants. It’s home away from home. It’s finding a community in a place that doesn’t always welcome you. With the cookbook she’s writing, Syed hopes to give readers a taste of the meals that have supported her family for all these years.

Laila Mir, Danville, California

The comfort and joy of preparing Afghan food
Laila Mir and bolani, a stuffed flatbread.

Mir has roots in Herat, in western Afghanistan. “My family owned land and an orchard there. My mom still remembers how she got fresh, sweet and crispy orchard angoor laal, a sort of grape Herat is known for.

Mir’s family arrived in the United States in 1992. The kitchen is her portal to her homeland. Early influences include his father’s legendary mehmanis (feasts) and the intuitive and efficient cooking of his mother and grandmother. “I have always been amazed at how quickly they prepared meals, whether for their families or for a gathering of over 50 people,” she said. And yet, “the rice always came out perfectly long and soft, the meat juicy, tender and perfectly spicy. Afghans don’t like their food that is too spicy. We love to texturize our foods with dried fruits and nuts.

Mir looks forward to the elaborate birthday dinners her mother prepares each year. “One food I know will always be on the dinner menu, which I can never refuse, is bolani,” a stuffed flatbread. She loves her bolani filled with ‘gandana (Afghan leeks), chives, potatoes, pumpkin or whatever you want. It goes best with chutney or yogurt.

The comfort and joy of preparing Afghan food
Cream rolls, a special Afghan pastry.

Mir enjoys making nostalgia cream buns. These more gourmet pastry horns are a special Afghan pastry. “The crispness of the dough pairs beautifully with the soft, creamy filling inside,” she said.

The news has cast a cloud over his family. “We are worried, we are restless, we are anxious, we are powerless. We talk about our beautiful country and how it fell apart in a few days, we talk about how nothing can be done to save it, we talk about our family at home, we talk about all our people at home we talk about the future of Afghanistan.

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