Until recently I knew next to nothing about Afghanistan, except that we’ve been at war there for more than half my lifetime.
From what I saw in the news I envisioned dry, desolate terrain throughout, with militants popping out from rocky outcroppings just long enough to shoot at a nameless target.
I knew this wasn’t accurate, but I didn’t have an alternate vision to replace it with.
So, with a little time on my hands after graduation, I decided to build one.
I could have tackled Afghan history, or economy. But there’s something much more tangible about food. Rather than trusting text to be true, we can see, smell, touch, taste the food in front of us. It’s a primary source in the study of a culture we can’t absorb firsthand.
An Afghan family twelve time zones away might sit down to a meal of kebabs and flatbread. I hoped to catch a glimpse of a shared reality in doing the same.
I optimistically Googled ‘Afghan cooking’ to see what I was up against, and followed the first link I came to. I sifted through recipe titles I couldn’t pronounce and noticed one for chapli kabobs.
Surely even I could manage kebabs. I chose a yogurt sauce and salad to go with the entrée. Was yogurt sauce an acceptable accompaniment? I didn’t know. I just headed to the grocery store.
Back home, I struggled with processing several ingredients into a violently green paste, and made a mess of myself kneading this mixture into a pound of raw ground beef. These kebabs were not to be skewered and grilled after all; instead, they were supposed to turn out looking like hamburger patties, which would then be fried.
My younger brother and his friend Nick walked into the kitchen and took a look at the bright green mixture. “What’s that?”
I wasn’t quite sure myself.
I felt victorious when I’d shaped all my kebab patties, ready for frying. But the moment I dropped the first one into the pan – KSSSHH! A volcano of hot vegetable oil erupted at contact with the meat, splattering the stove, walls, refrigerator. As I cowered in the corner, my kebabs burnt merrily away.
The smell of smoke brought Eric and Nick back into the kitchen to witness the drama.
In the end I did manage to keep about half of the kebabs from charring. According to the website I had been reading from, Afghan hospitality requires that the host provide the very best of the food to the guests and continuously offer them extra helpings. I practiced by feeding Nick all the unburned kebabs and encouraging him to take more of everything.
They took their first bites skeptically, but by the time their plates were empty they were professing their amazement at how well everything had turned out.
A few days later, Eric and Nick came into the kitchen again. “So, when are you going to make another weird recipe?”
I checked two Afghan cookbooks out from the library and began to learn more about the food I was making: where it first developed, how it is traditionally served, what dishes are culturally significant, and why. I also learned about family traditions, games, holidays, and geography of the country.
I tried preparing a few more dishes: a yogurt drink called dogh, a variety of flatbreads (naan), a raisin-and-nut drink (kishmish ab), and fresh white cheese (paneer). I dedicated eight hours over an afternoon and evening to making Afghanistan’s elaborate national dish, qabili palau.
This didn’t just make for good eating: it helped me begin the slow transition towards thinking of Afghanistan as a country of individuals rather than an amorphous antagonist in an ongoing American struggle. It changed the way I looked at news headlines. I found a website dedicated to the portrayal of Kabul’s diverse citizens, and read profiles until I could envision a taxi driver, a bonesetter, and a businesswoman as easily as I could picture Taliban militants.
But it still seemed a little problematic. I was calling myself better acquainted with an entire nation without actually knowing a single person from Afghanistan.
Luckily, Seattle hasn’t been called a hyper-diverse city for nothing. I wouldn’t be that hard to find someone.
I called Kabul Afghan Cuisine in Wallingford and left a message explaining my interest in Afghan food.
The next day I got a call back from the owner, Wali Khairzada.
“Come in any day,” he offered congenially. “If you come on Monday or Tuesday I’ll show you how I cook.”
A few days later, Wali welcomes me into the kitchen two hours before the restaurant opened and hands me an apron and gloves.
“Today we’re making Ash, Sabzi, and sautéed mushrooms,” he says. Onions are already simmering away on the stove.
The kitchen is not much larger than a generous home kitchen, and the low-lit restaurant has a cozy, homey feel on a rainy Seattle day. I forget about the notebook of questions that I brought and tried to keep up with Wali as he dumps spices into the pots on the stove at a breakneck pace.
“I never measure. You have to experiment, and get to know what you like.”
Wali grew up in Kabul, the son of two bankers. As with most families living in the capital city at that time, traditions were being swallowed by the quick pace of modernization.
“The traditional way of eating is sitting on cushions on the floor, but we used a table and chairs. My family used to call me a communist because I’d go sit on the floor with the servants to eat. There we would eat with our hands. Food tastes better when you eat it with your hands.”
Wali came to the United States in 1972 to study at NYU. Then the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and the family lost their money. Wali left school, working as a dishwasher and food runner to pay the bills before moving to Seattle in 1981.
He is a self-taught chef, having begun with his mother’s traditional recipes while he was living in New York. I guess I’m not only one who’d had to learn Afghan cooking from a distance.
He never intended to own a restaurant, but a friend offered him an opportunity for a partnership, and in 2000 Wali became the sole owner of Kabul. Today the family recipes remain closely guarded secrets.
“Everyone comes in here wanting to get the recipe for this rice,” Wali tells me. “Don’t go selling it to anyone,” he adds, suddenly stern, before breaking into a grin.“I’m not in this for the money. I just never wanted to work for someone else.”
He certainly seems at ease in his own kitchen. He rarely sets timers, and a couple of times he forgets to take something off the stove soon enough, distracted by telling me about his family, now living in Seattle, or his collection of Adidas sneakers (400 pairs).
“That’s okay,” he says, adding a bit more water or sauce to keep the food from searing. In Wali’s kitchen, there are no disasters.
Wali is often called out into the restaurant to speak with patrons who have requested his company. A couple of them are US soldiers who served in Afghanistan. Another young man is a repeat customer who always comes with questions about Afghan’s ethnic groups and history of conflict, which Wali answers patiently.
I ask whether this is a common occurrence. “Oh yeah, I get a million questions,” he nods ardently. “I’m not just running a restaurant: I’m running a consulate!”
In a city with close to a hundred pho restaurants and just one Afghan eatery, this isn’t too far from the truth. At Kabul, Wali does exactly what I envisioned doing: he uses food to bridge international divides.
Here’s the recipe I used for Afghanistan’s national dish, Qabili Palau. I’ve culled it from three separate recipes and modified it for simplicity.
- 1 lb basmati rice*
- meat of 1 chicken, chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 2 yellow onions, chopped
- 3-4 large carrots, peeled and julienned
- 8 oz raisins
- 1 tsp each: cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and cumin, mixed together to create char masala (“four spices”)
- pinch of saffron (optional)
- 6 tsp vegetable oil
- salt & pepper
*Before beginning prep work, rinse rice several times (until water runs clear) and start it soaking in fresh water, the sooner the better. It can soak for up to three hours while you work.
1. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
2. Heat 4 tsps of the vegetable oil to medium heat in a large pan. Add chopped onions and chicken. Cook until onions are browned and chicken is cooked all the way through.
3. Add one cup of water to the mixture, and salt and pepper as desired. Cover and simmer until a broth is formed. Set the onion-chicken alliance aside.
4. Heat the remaining 2 tsps of oil in a smaller pan on low heat. Cook carrots in the oil until soft and lightly bronzed. Add raisins and continue to cook until these swell up. Remove from heat.
5. Set a large pot of water on the stove to boil while you drain the rice that you began by soaking. When the water boils, add the rice and parboil for five to ten minutes (depending on how long the rice soaked for and your desired consistency: rice should be soft but not mushy.)
6. Drain the rice using a strainer with holes small enough to catch the rice grains. Return drained rice to its pot and mix in spices, excepting the saffron.
7. Assembly: You’ll need a large, deep casserole dish. Use half your rice to form the base of the pilau. Layer the chicken and onion mixture over the rice, followed by the rest of the rice. Crown with the carrot and raisin mixture and the pinch of saffron if you’ve got it.
8. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. The house will smell delicious. Remove from the oven and enjoy with friends and family!