Afghan cuisine is largely based upon the nation’s chief crops; cereals like wheat, maize, barley and rice. Accompanying these staples are dairy products (yoghurt and whey), various nuts, and native vegetables, as well as fresh and dried fruits; Afghanistan is well known for its grapes.
Afghanistan’s culinary specialties reflect its ethnic and geographic diversity. Though it has similarities with neighbouring countries, Afghan cuisine is undeniably unique.
An ancient city of art, traditions and being the nation’s multi-cultural capital, Kabul has traditionally offered a wide variety of cooking styles and ingredients to its citizens. Most notable Afghan food items known today were probably first served by urban residents. Most food and trade recipes were traditionally handed down through the generations. Though, late in the 19th or early in 20th century, a collection of formal gastronomy documents was published by Afghanistan’s government. These invaluable documents included preparation, food history, cookware fabrication, and dining etiquette.
The varied climate of Afghanistan allows for an abundance of crops throughout the seasons. Fresh yoghurt, coriander, garlic, onions, spring onion, tomatoes, potatoes, and fruit are widely available in all parts of Afghanistan and are used in preparing foods. Fruits and vegetables, fresh and dried, form an important part of the Afghan diet, especially in the rural areas. Afghanistan produces a variety of exceptional fruits, notably grapes, pomegranates, apricots, berries, and plums. These fruits have traditionally been Afghanistan’s main food exports. Dried nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, pistachios, almonds, peanuts, and pine nuts are both very popular and plentiful in Afghanistan. An excellent variety of oranges, known locally as “malta” is grown in the warm climate of Nangarhar province. Also in the temperate climate of Nangarhar, olive groves once stood for the nation’s consumption of olive oil. Wardak Province is well known for its delicious apples and apricots, as is Kandahar for its fabled pomegranates. Herbs and spices used in Afghan cuisine include mint, saffron, coriander, cilantro, cardamom, and black pepper.Lamb and chicken are the preferred meats. Afghan cuisine emphasizes well-balanced, contrasting tastes and food is neither spicy nor bland.
Known as the dastarkhan, the floor spread is an important expression of culture in Afghanistan. Regardless of economic status, creating an adequate dastarkhan is important to any family, especially when having guests. A large tablecloth will be spread over a traditional rug. Most likely a young member of the family will present an “aftabah wa lagan”, a copper basin and elaborate pot filled with water for the household to wash their hands in. He or she will go around the destarkhan to each dining member, pouring fresh water over the hands. Soap is provided, as is a drying cloth. The destarkhan is then dutifully filled with breads, accompaniments, relishes, appetisers, main courses, salads, rice, and fruits. Arrangement of foods is important when having guests; they must have easy access to the specialty foods.
There are mainly three types of Afghan bread:
- Naan – Literally “bread”. Thin, long and oval shaped, its mainly a white/whole wheat blend. Topped with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, nigella seeds, or some combination of these. More expensive naan can be made with all white flour and a helping of oil.
- Obi Non – Uzbek-style bread. Shaped like a disc and thicker than naan. Usually made with white flour.
- Lavash – Very thin bread. Similar to the Lavash elsewhere. Usually used as plating for meats and stews.
Accompaniments may include:
- Torshi – Various pickled fruits (i.e., peach, lemon) and vegetables (eggplant, garlic) mixed with vinegar and spices.
- Coriander Chutney – a traditional Afghani Coriander Chutney made with walnuts and fresh coriander leaves – a perfect accompaniment for any grilled meat or served with kebabs or Afghan bread as a snack.
- Other chutney – Or pepper sauces. Usually made with vinegar, fresh coriander, chilli peppers, and sometimes tomato paste.
Rice dishes are the “king” of all foods in Afghanistan. The Afghans have certainly taken much time and effort in creating their rice dishes, as they are considered the best part of any meal. Wealthier families will eat one rice dish per day. The Afghan royalty spent much time on rice preparation and invention as evidenced in the number of rice dishes in their cookbooks. Weddings and family gatherings must feature several rice dishes and certainly reputations can be made in the realm of rice preparation. The types of rice prepared are outlined below.
For the recipe see: Challow – Afghan White Rice
White rice. Extra long grains such as basmati is required. First parboiled, then drained, and finally baked in an oven with some oil, butter, and salt. This method creates a fluffy rice with each grain separated, unlike Chinese or Japanese rice.
Challow is served mainly with qormas.
Cooked the same as challow, but either meat and stock, qorma, herbs, or a combination are blended in before the baking process. This creates elaborate colours, flavours, and aromas for which some rices are named after. Caramelised sugar is also sometimes used to give the rice a rich brown colour. Examples include:
- Qabili Pulao – The national dish, meat and stock added, topped with fried raisins, slivered carrots, and pistachios.
- Yakhni Pulao – Meat & stock added. Creates a brown rice.
- Zamarod Pulao – Spinach qorma mixed in before the baking process, hence ‘zamarod’ or emerald.
- Qorma Pulao – Qorm’eh Albokhara wa Dalnakhod mixed in before the baking process
- Bore Pulao – Qorm’eh Lawand added. Creates a yellow rice.
- Bonjan-e-Roomi Pulao – Qorm’eh Bonjan-e-Roomi (tomato qorma) added during baking process. Creates a red rice.
- Serkah Pulao – Similar to yakhni pulao, but with vinegar and other spices.
- Shebet Pulao – Fresh dill, raisins added at baking process.
- Narenj Pulao – A sweet and elaborate rice dish made with saffron, orange peel, pistachios, almonds and chicken.
- Maash Pulao – A sweet and sour pulao baked with mung beans, apricots, and Bulgur (a kind of wheat). Exclusively vegetarian.
- Alou Balou Pulao – Sweet rice dish with cherries and chicken.
Rice that is cooked with its water and forms a sticky consistency, is known as Bata. Bata is usually eaten with a qorma, such as Sabzi (spinach) or Shalgham (turnips). With the addition of stock, meat, herbs, and grains, more elaborate dishes are created. Notable dishes include Mastawa, Kecheri Qoroot, and Shola. A sweet rice dish called Shir Berenj (literally milk rice) is often served as dessert.
Qorma is a stew or casserole, usually served with chalow. Most qormas are onion-based. Onions are fried, then meat is added, as are a variety of fruits, spices, and vegetables depending on the recipe. Finally water is added and left to simmer. The onion caramelises and creates a richly coloured stew. There exist over 100 qormas. Below are some examples:
- Qorma Alou-Bokhara wa Dalnakhod – Onion based, with sour plums, lentils, and cardamom. Veal or chicken.
- Qorma Nadroo – Onion based, with yoghurt, lotus roots, cilantro, and coriander. Lamb or veal.
- Qorma Lawand – Onion based, with yoghurt, turmeric, and cilantro. Chicken, lamb, or beef.
- Qorma Sabzi – Sauteed spinach and other greens. Lamb.
- Qorma Shalgham – Onion based, with turnips and sugar; sweet and sour taste. Lamb.
Pasta is called “khameerbob” in Afghanistan and is often in the shape of dumplings. These native dishes are wildly popular. Due to the time-consuming process of creating the dough for the dumplings, it is rarely served at large gatherings such as weddings, but for more special occasions at home:
- Mantu – A dish of Uzbek origin. Dumplings filled with onion & ground beef. Mantu is steamed and usually topped with a tomato-based sauce and a yoghurt or qoroot-based sauce. The yoghurt-based topping is usually a mixture of yoghurt, sour cream, and garlic. The qoroot-based sauce is made of goat cheese and is also mixed with garlic. Sometimes a qoroot and yoghurt mixture will be used. The dish is then topped with dried mint.
- Ashak – Kabul dish. Dumplings filled with spring onions. Boiled and then drained. Ashak is topped with garlic yoghurt sauce and a well seasoned ground meat mixture.
Each family or village will have its own version of mantu and ashak, which creates a wide variety of dumplings.
Pasta in the form of noodles is also commonly found in aush, a noodle soup served in several varieties around the country.
Main article: Kebab
Afghan kebab is most often found in restaurants and outdoor vendor stalls. The most widely used meat is lamb. Recipes differ with every restaurant. Afghan kebab is served with naan, rarely rice and customers have the option to sprinkle sumac or ghora, dried ground sour grapes, on their kebab. The quality of kebab is solely dependent on the quality of the meat. Pieces of fat from the sheep’s tail (jijeq) are usually added with the lamb skewers to add extra flavour.
Other popular kebabs include lamb, ribs, kofta (minced beef) and chicken; all of which are found in better restaurants.
Chapli kebab, a specialty of Eastern Afghanistan, is a patty made from beef mince, and is one of the most popular barbecue meals in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The word Chapli comes from the Pashto word Chaprikh which means flat. It is prepared flat and round, and served with naan. The original recipe of chapli kebab dictates a half meat (or less), half flour mixture, which renders it lighter in taste, and less expensive.
Quroot (or Qoroot) (Dari: قروت), also called Kashk (Iran) is a reconstituted yoghurt product. The product traces its origins to Northern Afghanistan during the 1st Century BC.
It was traditionally a by-product of butter made from sheep or goat milk. The residual buttermilk remaining after churning of the butter is soured further by keeping at room temperature for a few days, treated with salt, and then boiled. The precipitated casein is filtered by cheesecloth, pressed to remove liquid, and shaped into balls. The product is thus a very sour cottage cheese.
Quroot is typically eaten raw, and may be served with cooked Afghan dishes such as Ashak, Mantoo, and Qeshla Qoroot, among others.
Other Food Items
- Afghan Kufta – In the simplest form, kufta consist of balls of minced or ground meat — usually beef or lamb — mixed with spices and/or onions. – (see also Kofta)
- Kadu Bouranee – A pumpkin dish made by frying pumpkin with different spices. It is topped with chaka/sour cream and dried mint. Kadu bouranee is eaten with bread or rice.
- Aushak – An Afghan dish made of pasta dumplings filled with spring onion, with a meaty tomato sauce, topped with yoghurt and dried mint.
- Aush – A soup of Afghan origin and made with noodles along with an assortment of vegetables in a rich tomato based broth. It is usually topped with sour cream and dried mint leaves.
- Bichak – These triangular baked pastries come in both sweet and savoury versions and are perfect as appetisers or with a cup of tea.
- Shorwa – (Afghan soup similar to borscht)
- Dolma – stuffed grape leaves
- Londi, or gusht-e-qaaq (spiced jerky)
- Kichari – Basmati rice cooked with mung beans, onions, and spices.
- Badenjan – cooked eggplant w/potatoes and tomatoes
- Banjan Borani – The tangy, garlic-laced yoghurt contrasts nicely with the sweet tomato sauce and tender eggplant in this dish. It’s garnished with dried mint
- Baamiyah (okra)
- Bolawnee or Bolani – A flat-bread from Afghanistan, baked or fried with a vegetable filling. It has a thin crust and can be stuffed with a variety of ingredients, such as potatoes, spinach, lentils, pumpkin, or leeks.
- Halwaua-e-Aurd-e-Sujee – Afghani Semolina Dessert – Halwaua e Aurd Sujee is a sweet dish made from Semolina, popular in North-West India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
- Nan-e Afghani – Afghan bread cooked in a vertical in ground clay oven, or a tandoor.
- Nan-e-Tawagy – flat bread cooked on a flat pan
- Osh Pyozee – stuffed onion
- Mantu – meat dumplings, usually served under a yoghurt-based white sauce.
- Qabili Pulao – made by cooking basmati or long grained rice in a broth-like sauce (which makes the rice brown). This dish may be made with lamb, chicken, or beef.
- Dampukht (steamed rice)
- Bonjan Salad – spicy eggplant salad
- Shor-Nakhud (chickpeas with special toppings)
- Maast or labanyat (type of plain yoghurt)
- Chakida or chakka (type of sour cream)
- Salata (tomato and onion-based salad, often incorporating cucumber)
- Shir Berenj – rice pudding – Rose water, cranberries and pistachios make this dish unique to Afghanistan and neighbouring countries.
- Cream roll (pastry)
- Baklava – pastry prepared into triangle-shaped pieces and lightly covered in crushed pistachio nuts.
- Afghan Cake (similar to pound cake sometimes with real fruit or jelly inside)
- Gosh Feel – thin, fried dessert pastries covered in icing sugar and ground pistachios)
- Kebab – similar to Middle Eastern style
- Fernea (milk and cornflour very sweet, similar to rice pudding without the rice)
- Mou-rubba (fruit sauce, sugar syrup and fruits, apple, sour cherry, various berries or made with dried fruits – an Afghan favourite is the Alu-Bakhara)
- Kulcha (variety of cookies, baked in clay ovens with char-wood)
- Narenge Palau (dried sweet orange peel and green raisins with a variety of nuts mixed with yellow rice glazed with light sugar syrup)
- Nargis kabob (egg based angel hair pasta soaked in sugar syrup wrapped around a piece of meat)
- Torshi – eggplant and carrot mixed with other herbs and spices pickled in vinegar, aged to perfection
- Khoujoor (Afghan pastry deep-fried, oval shaped, similar to doughnuts taste wise)
- Kalah Chuquki or Kalah Gunjeshk (battered deep fried bird heads)
- Kalah Pacha (lamb or beef head/feet cooked in a broth served in bowls as a soup dish or in a stew or curry style)
- Shami kabob (cooked beef meat blended with spices, flour and eggs rolled in hot dog shapes or flat round shapes and fried)
- Chopan Kabob – Lamb cubes and vegetables skewered and grilled on charcoal.
- Delda or Oagra (mainly a Southern dish made from the main ingredient of split wheat and a variety of beans mixed)
- Owmach (made from flour, soup-like dish, very thick and pasty)
- Peyawa or Eshkana (a soup, based on flour very similar to a gravy but mixed with chopped onion, potatoes and eggs)
- Aushe Sarka (vinegar-based flat noodle soup, taste very similar to Chinese hot & sour soup minus the Chinese ingredients)
- Maushawa – This is the original version of Maushawa, cooked with meat qorma but another popular version is made using meatballs (Kofta). The meatball are prepared as for the kofta in kofta chalau, but are smaller (about 1 cm in diameter).