Location: Central Asia
Population: 31.6 million
Geography: A landlocked, mountainous country
Signature flavours: Rice, lamb, rosewater, cumin, dried fruits, nuts, yoghurt
Eric went straight to the Toronto Public Library for cookbooks when he was assigned Afghanistan. A newly-released and well-reviewed Afghan cookbook was on order for the library and already had a waitlist, so he borrowed Foods of Afghanistan by Barbara Sheen Busby, which ended up being an elementary school-level information book. Still, it gave him a place to start, with some dish names and descriptions, and using that and some online sources, he was on his way to a menu.
Qabuli Pulao: Rice cooked in broth, spiced with cumin, then topped with pan-fried raisins and shredded carrot, all arranged over chunks of juicy lamb (in our case, vegetarian lamb).
Prep and cooking time: 2 hours
Bouranee Baunjan: Fried eggplant layered with grilled onions, bell peppers, tomato, and yoghurt with roasted garlic.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min
Naan-e-Afghani: Flatbread spiced with whole cumin seeds, used to scoop up stews and dips.
Prep and cooking time: 2 hours
Haft Mewa: An assortment of nuts (pistachios, almonds, walnuts) and dried fruit (dates, apricots, raisins) left to soak in rosewater and vanilla-infused water for two days. This dessert is traditionally served on Nowroz, a celebration that marks the beginning of spring.
Prep and cooking time: 2 days
Sharbat-e-Bomya: Lemonade infused with a generous amount of rosewater.
Prep and cooking time: 15 min
The Shopping List
Bulk Barn supplied the nuts and dried fruits for the haft mewa, and the vital gluten and nutritional yeast that went into making the vegetarian lamb. Rosewater might have been a tricky find, but we had some on hand from our Palestine assignment. Everything else came from our local supermarket.
Eric and I spent a pleasant hour peeling walnuts and pistachios for the haft mewa two days before our Afghan dinner. Using paring knifes, we meticulously separated each walnut from the thin membrane that gives it its bitter flavour. The pistachios were much easier, sliding out of their skins to reveal the bright green nut beneath. The peeled nuts, along with several kinds of dried fruits, then spent two days in the refrigerator sweetening their rosewater bath.
The rest of Eric’s menu was prepared the night of, starting with a gluten-based “lamb” for the pulao. This “meat” recipes comes from the Delightful, Delicious, Delovely blog, and Eric originally used it — with great results — for Guyana.
Once the loaf of vital gluten was baking, he went to work on the flatbread. He has been wanted to try a naan recipe, and this Afghan version gave him his chance. He found the experience one of the easiest bread-making episodes of the blog so far, with just one rising, a low-ingredient recipe, soft, pliable dough, and a simple loaf shape.
Next on the to-do was the bouranee baunjan. Eric fried thin strips of eggplant and layered it with sautéed onions and bell peppers, and roasted-garlic-infused Greek yoghurt. The result was a fresh and tangy side dish with a garlicky bite. We scooped chunks of yoghurt-y eggplant with our soft, cumin-y naan.
Eric finished off the pulao by frying up some raisins and shredded carrot and covering the lamb with rice (Afghan rice is served very fluffy). This dish was outstanding, between the texture of the broth-infused rice to the meaty, juicy “lamb,” to the burst of sweetness from the carrots and raisins.
We drank sharbat-e-bomya with our dinner, a very lemony, very rosy beverage. (Side note: This kind of citrusy cordial is known as a “shrub” from the Arabic word for “drink.”) I don’t like rosewater, or any floral foods or beverages, really, and this one was too intense for me, but Eric LOVED it, and downed a couple of glasses throughout the meal.
We ended with out fruit-and-nut dessert, which we served over a scoop of yoghurt. After two days of marination, the sugars in the fruit had made the haft mewa perfectly sweet, and the dried fruit had become plump and juicy, which went very nicely with the tart yoghurt. It was unlike any dessert we’ve had, and we both enjoyed it. The leftovers have been in our fridge for a few days now, being slowly eaten (Eric halved the recipe and still ended up with a large salad-bowl’s worth), and has become even sweeter as the raisins, dates, and apricots lend their sugars to the mix.
This was a fantastic meal, and there will definitely be some Afghan dishes entering our regular repertoire.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.