Afghanistan is framed as much by Hollywood and the media as it is by the war on the ground. The tropes are wearyingly familiar: newsroom visuals of gaunt men with rifles piled on moving trucks, movies using a murky yellow filter to cue locale shifts, photography that still hasn’t recovered from Steve McCurry’s essentialist gaze, like his problematic portrait of Sharbat Gula. Food doesn’t stand a shot at making it to the conversation.
Humaira Ghilzai agrees. Based in San Francisco, Ghilzai is an Afghan cultural adviser who helped writer Khaled Hosseini with the stage adaptation of his bestselling book The Kite Runner. She documents heirloom recipes from Afghanistan as part of her cultural literacy work.
“Unfortunately, because Afghanistan has been connected with war for the past 40 years and more, not many people think of it in the sense of food,” she tells HuffPost. “Like, this is what somebody said to me: ‘What do those barbarians eat, you know? Who cares about Afghan food?’” She’s hopeful, though, because in the diaspora, “the second generation is not so much in the fight-or-flight mode” that ails new Afghan immigrants and kills culinary enterprise.
When asked about the food, Ghilzai points out important regional variations, like 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 lot of lakhshak, a sort of slippery pasta. Whereas where I come from, Ghazni, a lot of foods are meat-based.” She mentions the unmistakable Persian influence in regions bordering Iran, seen best in “a dish called kuku, very well known for Herat. I hadn’t heard about it til a few years ago.” Kuku is a plump, herby frittata; Afghans season theirs with turmeric and pack it with scallions or leeks.
What Ghilzai loves most, however, are the foods of her childhood. Especially shor nakhod, bought off street vendors sneakily so her parents wouldn’t know.
“It’s basically a chickpea and potato dish. In the US, I call it Afghan potato salad, but it is more chickpea than potato. In Afghanistan they pour a little bit of vinegar on top. It is really, really delicious.” She remembers the kebab houses, “our fast food places,” where the meat is slow-cooked over charcoal. “They take a piece of bread and pull the meat off the skewer with the bread and then you eat it just like that.” In the summers, everyone drank chilled salty doogh (pronounced ”doag”): yogurt thinned with water, mixed with chopped cucumber and spiked with mint. She misses the country’s unbeatable pomegranates, because they are “incredibly delicious and very rare.”
HuffPost spoke with three more Afghan women living in the US about the food that gives them solace.
Madina Amin, Sacramento, California
Amin grew up watching her parents smother visitors with affection. “When you eat at an Afghan table,” she says, “there are two things forbidden to us: the first bite and the last. They are 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 dogged kindness; guests are welcomed even when there’s little to go around. Amin remembers the quiet thrill of anticipating visitors at mealtimes, the “unexpected yet expected knock on the door, and my father calling out in Dari: ‘Khush amadi!’ Throw in another egg, there’s always room for one more.”
Amin’s family left their homes in the wake of the Soviet invasion – her father from Kabul and her mother from the neighboring province of Parwan. They met in the US, where Amin was born. She remembers the gravitational pull of her mother Shukria’s kitchen. “I would watch her for hours,” she says, “she was so elegant, so full of love in everything she did. Every dish was thought out, every ingredient bought fresh.”
Shukria plied friends and family with rivers of tea and her signature shalgham bata, “turnips fried til they’re golden, cooked with onion, lamb, spicy red pepper flakes, sweet earthy jaggery and a bit of brown sugar and served with sticky rice ― a meal meant to keep you full and warm,” Amin says.
Amin likes to make tukhm e banjan rumi, eggs cracked into a garlicky tomato base sharpened with fresh peppers. “It’s not shakshuka,” Amin pointed out, “it’s really just three, maybe four ingredients” deployed artfully, with the optional addition of coriander powder for an extra kick.
Sometimes she adds potatoes and halal hot dogs to bulk it up – “not authentic, but delicious nonetheless.” The dish is mopped up with warm Afghan naan and served with chai, fresh fruits, nuts, jams and qaymaq (clotted cream).
Amin remembers picnicking in the beautiful Panjshir Valley in 2010, a visit that would be her last. It was a day of singing, dancing and giddy laughter, of feeling safe in the embrace of family. Sheltered by mulberry trees, they feasted on “qutakhi (a type of fried flatbread stuffed with sweetened hung yogurt) dipped in local honey, kebab, qabuli, doogh and fresh-picked toot (mulberry).”
Today, the region is a key site of Afghan resistance. “The day Kabul collapsed was one of the worst days of my life,” Amin says. “For days, I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to our music. I couldn’t bear to look at my father, watching his eyes fill with tears as he kept repeating, ‘Afghanistaneh bechara’ (‘Poor Afghanistan’).” She is gutted that Covid-19 ruined her travel plans last year. “I know I’ll go back one day,” she says. “Last time was not a farewell. I won’t let it be.”
Habiba Syed, New York City
Syed and her family left their home in Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan, in 1990. In her grandmother Bibi’s kitchen, Syed grew to love everything Kandahari, especially the winter classics. There was shorwa, a gently spiced lamb stew simmered with root vegetables and poured over bread, and oogra, a warming lentil soup.
For her version of oogra, Syed boils chickpeas, black-eyed peas and mung soaked overnight. Fried onion and garlic brightened with turmeric are swirled into the softened lentils. She likes how simple it is and how well it lends itself to the Afghan virtue of neighborliness. “I typically make a big pot and send it to friends and family in my community. No matter how little I try to make, it turns into a larger quantity than I intended it to be.” Ladled into bowls right off the flame, oogra is topped with creamy qurooth, a dollop of dried yogurt seasoned with salt.
Syed is a qurooth evangelist. The pleasantly sour condiment stars in another favorite: her mother’s qurooth-e-aush, “a soupy noodle dish that she adds leeks, red beans and lots of dill and dried mint to. It’s so filling and comforting; I feel cozy just thinking about it,” she says.
Kichray, however, is her favourite dish to cook. “It is a rice porridge dish that has green mung beans. It’s topped with spiced meatballs, qurooth, fried onions and dried mint. I plate it the way my grandmother did by laying out the sticky rice and making a little well in the middle using the back of a wooden spoon. I pour the qurooth in the middle and top it with sizzling fried onions in oil. The sound brings me back to winter evenings in Bibi’s kitchen,” she says.
While Afghan recipes aren’t very hard to shop for, a few do involve labor. Syed urges pragmatism. For manto, a traditional meat-stuffed dumpling that calls for thin, stretchy, freshly rolled dough, she has a hack: “I religiously keep a stash of Chinese wonton wrappers in my freezer for the sheer accessibility.”
Recent events have left her reeling, “like someone pressed rewind and all of a sudden I’m having the same conversations my parents and grandparents were having 30 years ago. ‘Are they safe?’ ‘Try calling again.’ ‘Where will they stay?’ ‘How can we help?’” Food is comforting, she says, “especially as immigrants. It is home away from home. It is finding 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 sustained her family all these years.
Laila Mir, Danville, California
Mir has roots in Herat, in western Afghanistan. “My family owned land and an orchard there. My mother still remembers how she would get fresh, sweet, crisp angoor laal from the orchard, which is a kind of grape Herat is known for.”
Mir’s family came to the US in 1992. Cooking is her portal to her homeland. Early influences include her father’s legendary mehmanis (feasts) and her mother’s and grandmother’s intuitive, efficient cooking. “I was always amazed at how quickly they would prepare meals, whether it was for their family or for a gathering of 50-plus,” she says. And yet, “the rice always came out perfectly long-grained and fluffy, the meat juicy, tender and perfectly spiced. Afghans don’t like their food too spicy. We love to texturise our food with dried fruits and nuts.”
Mir looks forward to the elaborate birthday dinners her mother makes every year. “One food that I know will always be on the dinner menu, that I can never refuse, is bolani,” a stuffed flatbread. She likes her bolani filled with “gandana (Afghan leeks), chives, potatoes, pumpkin, or anything else you’d like. It goes best with chutney or yogurt.”
Mir likes making cream rolls for the nostalgia. These moreish pastry horns are a special Afghan pastry. “The crispiness of the pastry pairs wonderfully with the soft and creamy filling inside,” she says.
The news has cast a cloud over her family. “We are worried, we are restless, we are anxious, we are helpless. We talk about our beautiful country and how it fell apart in a matter of days, we talk about how no one could do anything to save it, we talk about our family back home, we talk about all of our people back home, we talk about the future of Afghanistan.”