CHRIS ALLEN: Afghanistan Journal — A Primer On Afghan Food

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan with three University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues and a colleague from UNO’s office there. This was a needs assessment mission as we begin work with two universities in Afghanistan. We made a decision as a group not to blog or say anything on social media while we were there because of security concerns. I wrote some blogs while I was there, and I am publishing them now over the next few days.

Afghans love food. And I must say, I love Afghan food. And at the top is lamb — anything they do with lamb.

“Fast food” here is kababs. Don’t think American kabobs. I’m a fan of American kabobs. I make them several times a summer. A skewer of marinated chicken or beef interspersed with peppers, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes is a great patio meal.

Afghan kababs are different, as they are in most of South Asia including Arabia. These kababs — I don’t know. I wish I did. They’re smaller for one thing, maybe a three-fourths–inch dice. Ours are usually 1- to 1½ -inch. They are marinated, but I can’t figure out in what. I think it involves cardamom. Maybe not. I really don’t know. I still have a few days to find out, though.

They are skewered alone. By that I mean that only cubes of lamb — or beef or chicken, you can get them all at a kabab shop — are put on the broad, flat skewer. No veggies to confuse the cooking time or flavor.

Admit it, by the time the chicken is done on our kabobs (notice my difference in spelling?) the mushrooms are seriously wilted, the onions are nearly ready to fall off, and the tomatoes have oozed all their juices. If you cook the kabob to get the veggies just perfect, you’ll bite into a piece of raw meat.

No, these kababs are just meat, cooked to tender perfection, spiced exquisitely and served with a disc of Afghan naan bread, which you tear up and use to pick up the meat pieces. The kababs are served on top of the bread, so the middle part of the naan soaks up the juices. Oh, lord.

The naan here is not the naan of Indian restaurant fame. Afghan naan has risen slightly before baking. It is rolled into discs or ovals and then scored with perforations to help make breaking it apart easier.

Afghans make outstanding bread. The naan is good with those kababs, or with honey, or with peanut butter, or with yogurt or with …

In Mazar, I had a special Northern bread. It was also a flat bread but made up of dozens of flaky layers. The taste was wonderful, but it’s the texture that is special. The layers slide apart as you chew, like your teeth are slipping on ice. As you bite through you feel each individual layer. Not a clue how to make it — and I love making bread.

We had this bread at lunch with the Balkh University Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication. We had naan, of course, this special wafery bread, and a third one called boulogn, although I’m sure that’s not the way it’s spelled. My Afghan friends said it’s pronounced something like bologna, but with the accent on the first syllable and no “ee” on the end. BOOlogn. Anyway, the bread dough is rolled to paper-thin, see-through thickness. Vegetables are layered on half, in this case leeks, and then the other half is folded over and sealed.

And then the fourth bread was samosa, common throughout India and South Asia. This had a meat filling, but samosas are just as often filled with veggies. The closest comparison is to a calzone.

Oh, but we also had fried chicken, meat dumplings, salad, fruit, deliciously seasoned lamb cooked low and slow, melt-in-your-mouth tender and rice. Always rice, but seasoned and studded with raisins. Four kinds of bread, dumplings and rice. Not so low-carb. Over the top on flavor.

Of course, this is no common, everyday fare. The rice is. The naan is. There are small naan shops all over the place and bread sellers in the markets. But many Afghans wouldn’t have meat every day. Rice is the filler. This was fare to welcome guests.

There are kabab shops all over the place. On campus, the student dining area features a kabab cook who fans the charcoal fire roasting your choice of meat. Street vendors sell kababs. Small shops sell kababs. High-class restaurants sell kababs. Hotels sell kababs.

Chicken, lamb and beef are available in other forms, too. Slow-roasted and juicy chicken thighs that pull apart with your fingers is so good. The same with lamb and beef braised for hours and hours, still juicy and almost melt-in-your-mouth tender.

A meal that starts with a fresh Afghan yogurt, with only a slight tang to it, progresses through meat, rice and bread and ends with fruit is just delightful. If you can enjoy it outdoors, under the stars on a warm, windless night as we did at a restaurant our last night in Mazar-i-sharif, it seems nothing short of heaven.

I’ve had some very good food in Afghanistan. But my favorite is simple and basic: give me lamb kabab and a hunk of naan, and I’ll be content.

Leave a Reply