Part One of a two-part series on Afghanistan
(See Part II here.)
A Memoir by Dr. Arnold Krochmal
Editor's note: At the time this article was first published in the early 1980s, Dr. Arnold Krochmal was retired from the U.S. Forest Service. Though this article was written a while ago, things in Afghanistan do not change quickly, if at all—especially the preparation of traditional cuisine.
Arnold and his wife, Connie, wrote a wonderful cookbook called The West Indies Cookbook, Classic Recipes from the Spicy Caribbean (Out West Publishing, 1993, out of print). Copies are still available online at used book sites.
It took a certain amount of courage to accept a position in Afghanistan in 1957 as Director of Experiment Stations for an American university. How much courage, I learned when I got there. While serving on the faculty at Arizona State and establishing a horticulture teaching program, one of my Afghan students with whom I had become friendly suggested I consider working in his country, as it too was a desert area. I applied and was accepted. The concept of the desert as a source of food fascinated me because I had spent some months of army service in North Africa and two years at New Mexico State teaching horticulture. Because of these experiences, I thought that adjusting to another desert wouldn't be all that difficult.
|This sultan ruled Afghanistan in 1192.
||British Royal Horse Artillery escaping from the overwhelming Afghan attack
at the Battle of Maiwand, 1880.
For centuries, the land has been invaded and conquered, beginning with Darius the Great. The Mongols moved in about 1200 and remained until about 1500. The British tried to come through the Khyber Pass twice, but the Afghans, led by a twenty-seven-year-old, using home made guns firing round rocks, repulsed them.
At the time I lived in Kabul, (1957-1959), there was no newspaper, and the country was ruled by a king. Although there was a sort of parliament called the loya jirga, it wasn't elected, as there were no elections in the country. Times have changed greatly since then—and not all for the better.
My first exposure to the folkways of Afghanistan came right after my arrival, when the father of the student who had sold me on the idea of working there greeted me, and, having noticed my then wife Connie's pregnancy, asked if it was true that Americans could make male babies at will. I told him no, but lost my credibility when a boy was indeed delivered some months later.
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A view of the city of Kabul.
Photo by Sven Dirks
When I arrived in Kabul, I found that my house was made of mud bricks and was surrounded by a tall mud wall to keep out intruders. Getting settled into an adobe house was no problem, but servants had to be hired because there were so many things to do: cleaning, preparing meals, shopping, and gardening. There was electricity and running water; however, the water was not safe to drink, so daily I took one of the servants to the embassy to fill a tin container with water from their deep well.
Once we got settled in, a problem appeared. Apparently, the large rat population in Kabul learned that the farangi had a more diverse diet than did most Afghans, and they boldly moved into the house. The one thing I hadn't brought with me were rat traps of any sort, and the Afghans were accustomed to ignoring the creatures' forays into the kitchen because their food supply was so limited there was little for the rats to eat. With Kayum's help, I tracked down a cat and brought into the house as a deterrent to the invading rats. It did cut down on the unwanted visitors, but had its own way of working. Once the kitchen stove cooled off, it would crouch up there waiting for an unwary rat to sneak into the area, then leap on it like a leopard. My mother came to visit from the United States and was horrified by such predatory action. However, it worked well, and before long there were no rats left in the house.
|An Afghani spice market.
Eating presented a real challenge, as the food supply had to be bought mainly from the local market, or bazaar. On infrequent occasions, the embassy would allow us to order some modest amount with their food shipments. The markets were stalls, open-fronted, with no glass or other protection from insects. Refrigeration in the bazaar was totally unheard of, although my house did have a small refrigerator. There were butcher shops and fruit and vegetable stalls, but none of the vendors carried preserved foods, except for locally-made raisins.
I did my own shopping in order to see what was being grown in the country and to meet and talk with the local people, and often wore Afghan clothes. The ever-polite Afghans never commented on that, although they were aware that I was a farangi, their name for anyone unfortunate enough not to be an Afghan. They knew one group of farangi wore broad-bottomed pants and went around in groups (Russians), and another that wore narrow-bottomed pants and went around singly (Americans). I learned several greetings in Farsi; "May your shadow never grow less," "May your children be boys," and "May you never grow thirsty" were those most commonly used.
The meat stall usually had two or three sheep—and sometimes a cow, hanging outside, head down, generally in the sun. It was impossible to get any special cut, as the butcher would simply slice off the next available part. The exception was tongue, but if I wanted one (and I preferred them because they were tender), I had to take the windpipe and lungs as well. That practice led to the acquisition of a local dog, named Listo the Beasto, who disposed of those inedible portions with zeal.
My number one houseboy and cook, Kayum, was from a rural area, and couldn't read or write, but he was an eager learner. He was about twenty years old and stayed with me for my entire two years. In Afghanistan at that time men did the cooking, and he could make the native bread—non, brew tea, cook rice, and make excellent lamb kabobs. After my son, Maurice, was born, Kayum slept in the room with him, on the floor on a mat, changed diapers when needed, and gave him his bottle during the night.
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Kayum sometimes accompanied me to shop for food and taught me how to haggle over prices. There was one stall that sold chile peppers hanging on long strings like ristras. We bought these, cucumbers, and other vegetables as they appeared. A few other foods were available seasonally, including peaches, apples, pears, plums, and grapes. There were small vegetable gardens in some places, and every so often I saw chile peppers being grown.
Kayum soon learned that the farangi liked their meals brightened up, so he used chile peppers as dish decorations and soon began to incorporate them into the perennial rice dishes. The urban Afghans used chile in that manner, but it wasn't common in the rural areas. Pork, prohibited to Moslems like Kayum, was non-existent in the country, except in embassy shipments. I bought bacon when available, and when there was a special meal being prepared for guests, I would assemble the servants, show them the bacon, dip it in the food, from soup to desert, and remind them that bacon made the meal inedible for them. That technique instantly stopped the servants from nibbling on the party food.
|A camel at a traditional Afghan farm. Camels are important for carrying loads and for milk.
Photo by Sven Dirks
Milk products were available, but none of us had the courage to use them. I once asked an Afghan how he milked a camel. He looked at me curiously and replied, "Like anyone else." That meant making the camel lie down and reaching under it for the udder. Cheese was made by stirring camel's milk in a round clay jug with the fingers of the hand as one walked along.
|Agricultural areas like the Koshi Valley provide produce
for large cities like Kabul.
Photo by 1st Lt. John Severns, U.S. Air Force
A problem in Afghanistan at that time was the fact that Afghan currency was not accepted as payment for imports, as it had almost no value. I organized a program to export some of the surplus vegetables, like chile and fruits, and designed a small square basket to reduce the loss when crops were moved from the farm to city in conical baskets on muleback. My idea was to sell these products abroad for foreign currency, which could be then used to buy other materials.
The manager of Aryana Airlines, an American named Frank Murphy, cooperated by letting me ship the farm items produced by a my grower's co-op in empty planes flying to Dharein to bring back pilgrims to Mecca to their homes in Kabul. The shipments were greeted by enthusiastic buyers, and an export trade began to Saudi Arabia.
Another Afghan custom I found interesting was that the Koran permitted a man to have four wives. At marriage, the husband would present his new wife's family with a gift of value, such as cash or camels. This practice was not wife-buying, as some western people thought, but rather reimbursing the wife's family for their years of labor and effort raising her. One day, Abdul Ghafar, who worked with me, came in looking worn out and weary. I asked after his health and suggested he take the day off. He looked at me and replied: "You Americans are so lucky." I asked him what he meant by that comment. "Only one wife," was the reply.
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At that time, family feasts, some of which I was invited to, were rarely attended by foreigners because the government frowned on it. Of course, I went anyway. The meal for such a celebration would consist of non flatbread, lamb kabobs—sometimes decorated with chile and also grilled, a rice dish, plus lots of strong, dark tea. Alcoholic drinks were banned because of the Islamic religion, and an Afghan caught imbibing could wind up in a cell too short to stretch out in and too low to stand up in. My favorite party dish was birinj Kabuli, Kabul rice, and we still eat it to this day. Made with rice, raisins, pine nuts, red chile and spices, it is tasty and healthy, and the recipe is included here.
|Afghani women preparing non.
||Fat-tailed sheep. Photo by Colleen Taugher
The bread, non, was the staple of the diet. It was made by mixing hard red winter wheat flour by hand with water. The dough was then flattened to about an eight-inch circle, an inch or so thick, put on a wooden paddle, and baked in a round-topped clay oven. The bread was solid, delightfully tasty, and no matter how long it was around, it seemed to be resistant to mold.
The only cooking fat was obtained from the tail of a special fat-tailed sheep that looked like any other of its relatives, except that its tail was eight to twelve inches wide. The butchers would render this fat at slaughtering time, and it was widely used in local cookery. It definitely had a strong, "muttony" taste, and I never learned to like it much.
The American government sent wheat, as there was never enough available, and the Russians built a modern bread bakery, which produced—of all things—a pumpernickel that I enjoyed. But the Afghans refused to eat it. Then the king, Zahir Shah, ordered that all government employees and members of the army had to take pumpernickel as part of their salary. This wasn't very popular, and there was no audible dissent, but I think they probably fed it to their dogs.
In the 1980s, with Russian troops occupying the country, an effort was made to increase food crops, rice, and wheat by means of large community farms. There was some increase in production reported in the early 1980s, but the destruction of the farms during the fighting apparently led to a reduction in food supplies. But as I learned during my years there, Afghans are tough people and will survive the latest war that has ravished their country.
(Chicken and Rice)
Chicken is not an everyday dish, as few are raised, and they are only served at very special meals. Parts can be used, or an entire chicken.
2 jalapeño or serrano chiles, stems removed, sliced into rings
4 pounds chicken, cut up
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cups cooked rice
2 medium onions, sliced thinly
1 tablespoon shortening
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 medium carrots, cooked and thinly sliced
4 ounces seedless raisins
Place the chicken and chopped onion a large pot, cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for at least an hour, until tender. Remove the chicken, allow it to cool, strain, and reserve the stock. Remove the meat from the bones and use only the larger pieces.
To prepare the sauce, brown the sliced onions in the shortening, remove from heat, then add the cardamom, cumin, and chile, and mash with the onions to form a puree. Add about 2 cups of the reserved chicken stock and mix well. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Combine the rice, stock sauce and chicken. Place in a greased casserole, put the carrots on top in a pattern, then spread the raisins over the top. Cover and cook in a moderate oven, 325 degrees F., for about 30 minutes. If the dish looks dry, add more stock. When finished, gently mix the carrots and raisins with the rice and chicken.
Heat Scale: Medium
(Vegetable and Rice Sauce)
This sauce is served over cooked rice or vegetable dishes. There is a lot of variety in each cook's ingredients, so this is a widely used, basic sauce.
1 tablespoon chopped or minced fresh green or red chile, such as serrano or New Mexican
1 pound very lean boneless beef or lamb, cubed
1/2 cup shortening
1 medium onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup water
1/4 cup dried peas or beans, soaked overnight
Lightly brown the cubed meat, onion and garlic in the shortening. Add the other ingredients and cook until the meat is tender.
Yield: 2 cups
Heat Scale: medium
Variation: Other fresh vegetables, such as eggplant, green peas, beans, or squash may be used in place of the dried peas or beans. They should be cut in small cubes, and after the meat is tender they can be added.
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(Kabul Party Rice)
This is a special dish prepared for celebrations when guests are expected. If pine nuts aren't available, pistachio can be substituted. The Afghans use lamb tail fat to sauté the onions, but since this is not readily available, I suggest butter.
1 tablespoon chopped fresh green chile, such as serrano
2 large carrots, peeled and grated
3 large onions, chopped
4 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 cups cooked white rice
1/2 cup shelled piñon or pine nuts
1/2 cup seedless raisins
1 tablespoon each, ground cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin
Place the carrots in a saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes, then drain. Melt the butter in a skillet at medium temperature, add the onion, and sauté until lightly brown. Combine the drained carrots, rice and onions, and stir in the remaining ingredients while simmering over low heat for about 10 minutes.
This is an excellent side dish with meat, fish or poultry.
Heat Scale: Medium
Lamb is by far the most popular meat in the country and it is prepared in several ways. Folktales say this is how Genghis Khan liked his lamb prepared while on his way through the country. If you prefer beef, it can be substituted, using a cut suitable for roasting.
1/2 teaspoon ground or powdered red chile
1 5-pound leg of lamb, trimmed of fat
8 ounces plain yogurt
1/2 level teaspoon powdered ginger
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 ounces ground pistachio nuts
1/2 teaspoon saffron, or substitute annatto (available in Latin markets)
1/4 pound butter or shortening
Pierce the surface of the meat with a fork. Mix all of the ingredients together, except the butter, and rub into the meat thoroughly. The Afghans keep the meat at room temperature for about 12 hours, but I prefer to cover it and keep it in the refrigerator overnight.
Place the lamb in a shallow roasting pan, dot the surface with the butter, then place it in the oven for about 15 minutes at 350 degrees F. Reduce the oven heat to 300 degrees F. and cook for three hours, or longer if needed. Baste with the juices in the pan and serve hot with a rice side dish.
Heat Scale: Mild
This is the almost universal way meat is cooked every day, as well as for festive get-togethers. It is about as close to the national meat dish of Afghanistan as one can get. Lamb is commonly used, but beef can be substituted.
1/2 teaspoon of chopped fresh or dried red chile
1 pound boneless lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup of plain yogurt
2 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
Combine all ingredients and allow the meat to marinate for 4 to 5 hours. Place the meat on barbecue skewers and grill over wood or charcoal. When done, the kabobs can be eaten as is or placed inside non or pita bread.
Serves: 3 to 4
Heat Scale: Mild
(Village Whole Wheat Bread)
This is the staff of life for all classes of Afghans, whether city dwellers or nomads. The basic ingredient is wheat—red hard winter wheat is preferred, but any local wheat will do.
7 cups whole wheat flour
1 Tablespoon salt
water as needed to make the dough kneadable, about 3 and 1/2 cups
Mix the flour and salt together and add the water to make dough. Knead the dough 300 times, cover it with a wet towel, and let sit in a warm place for 12 to 24 hours. Knead 100 more times, and place it in an oiled baking pan. Cut the top lengthwise and let sit in a warm place for 4 hours.
Bake in a 350 degree F. oven for 30 minutes, then in a 400 degree F. oven for 45 minutes. The crust should be dark brown.
Yield: 1 large loaf
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This is a favorite desert, using the ever-present rice. The vanilla essence is sometimes omitted in villages where it may not be available.
2 cups cooked rice
1 1/4 cups milk
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tablespoon butter or margarine
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup raisins
chopped pistachios for garnish
Combine all ingredients except the pistachios and place in a greased baking dish.
Bake in a 300 degree F. oven for about 45 minutes until done. Garnish with pistachios and serve.
(Fruit and Nut Dessert)
Desserts are not served too often at home, and are made with locally grown fruits, often sun-dried. They are usually served for guests and at special dinners, and are not part of the everyday menu.
Afghan Pastry Dough:
2 cups white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup shortening
2 small eggs, lightly beaten
Sift the flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Cut the shortening into the dry ingredients.
Place the eggs in a measuring cup and add enough water to make 1/2 cup of liquid. Mix the egg mixture into the dry ingredients to form stiff dough. Divide the dough into 3 equal balls and allow to rest for 15 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a floured board into a very thin layer about 15 inches in diameter. Dust lightly with the flour and fold the dough back over itself several times, rolling with the pin each time.
The dough is then rolled out, cut into desired form, and filled.
3/4 cup chopped dates
3/4 cup ground pistachio nuts
2 Tablespoons hot water
Pastry dough (see recipe)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
In a bowl combine the dates, nuts, and warm water.
Roll out the dough 1/8-inch thick. Cut into 12 equal squares. Put about a tablespoon or so of the mixture into each square of pastry. Fold the pastry to form a triangle.
Deep fry in oil until lightly browned. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve either warm or cold.
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