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Afghan Food Celebrates Culture and Tradition
During this festive time of the year the sweet smell of seasonal treats and the taste of traditional holiday foods connect us with familiar memories of family and culture. Hanukkah has just begun and many people are sharing potato latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) or sitting down to meals of savory brisket. People who celebrate Christmas are enjoying traditions from many cultures including specialty cookies, cakes, and puddings that hail as much from ancestral regions as they do family tradition. In many of the countries where CAI works, food plays an important cultural role during holidays, and nowhere is this more apparent than Afghanistan. Afghan food plays a central role in culture, gatherings, and holidays.
CAI Board member Abdul Subhan Misbah grew up outside of Kabul and still calls the city home for much of the year. As he remembers his favorite traditional foods, he reiterates the important role food plays in celebrating Afghan culture.
“The Afghan community is a traditional community with the history of more than five-thousand years,” he says. “Celebration of the holidays with Afghan food is very common, and it plays the role to establish kindness, love, communication, collaboration and unity between the families, relatives and generally between people.”
He and his wife have passed down many of the traditional foods for celebrations to their children. Now that his family spends most of their time living in Chicago, cooking traditional meals especially for holidays helps keep them connected to Afghanistan and the family they have left behind.
“My favorite holiday foods are samanak, sheerbernj, shurwa (spicy soup) qabili Palaw (meat with rice) and haftmewa (seven kinds of dry fruits, during the celebration of the first day of the Persian New Year, Nawroz) and landi and shulla (made of rice),” says Misbah. “I have passed down many kinds of traditional foods [to my children] from my childhood. The main of them are samanak, landiand sheerbrenj.”
Afghan Food Plays An Important Cultural Role
CAI supporter Zafar Azam loves to talk about traditional Afghan food and the role these dishes play in holidays, family get-togethers, and in celebrating his culture. Originally from Laghman, Afghanistan about 30 kilometers outside the city of Kabul, Zafar’s family moved to Pakistan when the Taliban came to power in the mid 1990s, and they eventually settled in the Washington, D.C. area. This time period was difficult for all of Afghanistan. With the country steeped in a civil war ending with the eventual takeover of the Taliban. Many Afghans became refugees like Zafar’s family and had to leave most of their traditions behind. The recipes they passed from generation to generation were some of the few family heirlooms they could carry. Today, Zafar attends university and runs a local food truck, Mazza Kitchen, which serves fresh, traditional Afghan food.
“Afghans are known around the world for their hospitality towards even complete strangers,” he says. “Food plays a very important role in every aspect of our life. Male or female, we are almost expected to know how to cook, and it is a wonderful way to stay connected with your culture and traditions.”
Afghan Food Plays a Main Role in Celebrations
Though his family lives far from their home country, food traditions still play a central role not only during holidays, but also for almost every occasion.
“Food is present in almost every type of affair for Afghans,” he explains. “In weddings, the food is set up buffet style with usually 15 or more choices of the top Afghan dishes. If you don’t get the food right, everyone will know about it. When someone passes away, a large amount of food is made and shared with the poor as a sign of respect for the deceased. This is repeated every Friday night for almost a year in some instances. On each death anniversary, this is repeated as well and is something we still do for my Grandpa that passed away in 2007.”
Everyone in Zafar’s family knows what goes into each special dish, and they look forward to sharing meals together as a way to connect. This is most special around the holidays, and many Afghan families find as many holidays to celebrate as possible.
“We celebrate so many different holidays. There is the Afghan New Year, Nawroz, then there are Islamic holidays such as Eid. On top of that, though we don’t officially celebrate it, we still have gatherings during Christmas and Thanksgiving and Fourth of July,” says Zafar.
These occasions for celebration do so much more than just bring families together. They help to remind them of their culture and the places they came from. Celebrating with traditional Afghan food helps to keep Zafar’s family grounded to their ancestors, though they are so far from home.
“For our new year for example, we soak at least seven different types of dried fruits in boiling water and leave it overnight for the water to soak up the taste and sweetness of raisins and walnuts and pistachios and almonds. When it is ready, we fill up a glass with the juice-style water along with the fruits and drink it up. It is those simple traditions that remind you of your roots and makes you appreciate and feel fortunate to be a part a different culture.”
Afghan Food is Part of Everyday Culture
The tradition of Afghan food goes far beyond holidays and celebrations. It’s woven into the cultural fabric of Afghanistan. The culture is based on hospitality and generosity. When visitors come to call, Afghan families create a spread of delicious food to honor their guests.
One of Zafar’s earliest food memories demonstrates the important connection between food and hospitality. “I would say the most I could have been at that time was five or six years old, and all of Afghanistan was suffering and facing so many hardships. We had family visit us from another city and despite not having enough regular food to eat ourselves, my family would buy groceries on debt from our local food shop in order to make sure our guests were well fed. It paints the perfect picture about how important of a role food plays in Afghan culture.”
Afghan food is more than just sustenance or a gesture of kindness and love for family and friends. It holds a key to the history and cultural story of Afghanistan.
Zafar explains, “Food is a conversation starter and a curious mind will figure out the history behind the traditions and the types of dishes and their origin. We Afghans have such an immense number of dishes because of our geography. Through food we can find out that one dish or another is Indian inspired or Greek inspired which leads to so many other conversations.”
To Zafar, making traditional food is so much a part of everyday life, preparing dishes for family is automatic.
“For Afghans, food is like oxygen,” he says. “Though there is so much of it, we never talk about it and what we have to do [to prepare it]. It just happens like second nature.”
Many of these dishes are passed down from generation to generation with no recipe books. It’s time spent in the kitchen cooking, laughing, and bonding together. Many of the dishes served both at home and on the food truck strike a familiar chord with people who have a connection to the area.
“Most Afghans go crazy for mantu or aashak, one a beef filled dumpling and the other a scallion filled ravioli type dish. Both are topped with a tomato-based curry as well a garlic mint yogurt sauce. For any Afghan gathering two or three types of rice dishes, two or three meat based dishes or kabobs, and two or three vegetarian dishes such as eggplant or spinach, along with bread, salad, yogurt, and chutney sauces are the norm. Following dinner, a variety of dessert options are served with tea along with dried fruit.”
Though many men learn how to cook the traditional meals, most of this work traditionally falls to the women. Zafar takes special pride in knowing how to cook most dishes and recognized how much work goes into creating an Afghan feast.
“In a lot of ways, it is an amazing aspect in our culture that is not visible to this extent in any other culture. There are times, however, where I wish there wasn’t so much focus on food. Though Afghan women are so skillful and so tough, all the cooking takes a lot of time and adds pressure to joints and backs with all the sitting and standing and peeling and cutting and lifting,” he says.
“I feel as if there is no need to have so many variety of foods in occasions big and small. It is amazing to have and to enjoy, but no one should feel they are required to do that or people will talk about it. I have said that to my mother and now she doesn’t make nearly as many dishes as she used to, though it still is a lot,” he continues.
If all this talk of Afghan food and celebration has you feeling hungry, Zafar has shared his family recipe for a traditional eggplant dish called boranee banjan.
Red and Black Pepper
Eggplants could be peeled or just the ends cut and then sliced (a quarter inch or less thick). Slices should then be sprinkled liberally with salt and set for a couple of hours for the water from within the eggplant to be removed. Afterwards, in a bigger plan, the slices should be fried in oil until crispy, but not overdone or it will be soggy.
In another pan, in light oil, onions should be fried until golden brown. Tomatoes should be sliced into small pieces and thrown in when the onions are ready along with a little bit of garlic. After 6-8 minutes when the tomatoes are turned into almost a paste, the eggplants should be added along with a little bit of hot water and covered and cooked for about ten minutes. Pepper and other spices should be added according to taste.
In a bowl, yogurt should be mixed with ground garlic and dry mint. When ready to serve, cover the plate with a base of the yogurt and then eggplants and topped again with yogurt and dry mint and red pepper. We usually eat it with Afghan bread but pita bread or with rice could be an alternative.
If you are looking for more recipes to try from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan read the latest Journey of Hope magazine. We collected favorite recipes from our partners in each country, and you’ll find them sprinkled throughout the pages. We also have a gorgeous food-themed photo spread that will inspire you to pick up some spices and traditional foods and get cooking.
If you’re in the D.C. area and looking for traditional Afghan food, look up Zafar’s Mazza Kitchen on twitter to see where they are parked each day and enjoy a delicious lunch full of traditional ingredients and reminiscent of a culture steeped in food traditions.