Thursday, September 30, 2010

Afghan Heirlooms

Qabili pilau and sabzi

Technically I was not supposed to be there. My Afghan colleague Najla invited me to dinner and I gladly accepted the invitation. Riding in an unarmored car to her home in Karte Parwan, one of Kabul’s residential neighborhoods, where the outer walls were less than ten meters high and there were no armed guards outside, was breaking all the rules of security protocol.

Due to the volatile situation and cultural restrictions, I had limited contact with my Afghan counterparts despite the fact that I lived in Kabul. Therefore, this invitation was more than just dinner, it was a window into the lives of the people I worked with everyday, but otherwise had little access to.

Najla and I took a seat on the toshaks, cushions laid out on the floor in the living room. Her nieces ran in giggling, gracefully balancing trays with tea and sweets and depositing them on the floor in front of us. I attempted to follow Najla’s lead and gracefully fold my legs beneath me but wound up shifting every few minutes, uncomfortable and awkward.

“I didn’t tell you, but this is a bit of a special occasion,” Najla said. “My eldest brother has just returned from Pakistan. We are finally all together in Kabul again!” Najla’s family fled Kabul like so many other residents of the Afghan capital during the civil war that engulfed the city in the early 1990s. They made their way over the Pakistani border into Peshawar where they stayed in camps until they returned after the fall of the Taliban.

The room slowly filled with family members and everyone squeezed in around the plates that began pouring from the kitchen: dark green sabzi, stewed spinach, banjan borani, delicious fried eggplant topped with tangy yogurt and paprika; aushak and mantu, hand made dumplings filled with either leaks or ground meat and covered with yogurt, lentils and mint.

But the centerpiece of the meal was the qabili pilau, the dish that heralds a special occasion. The faint brown rice was redolent with spices including cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and anise. While the fragrance was synonymous with a special holiday meal, the combination of the soft carrot strings, the sweet, robust raisins and succulent chunks of lamb made this dish feel more like comfort food.

When I inquired about the spices, Najla was coy. “The exact mixture of spices in the pilau varies from family to family,” she said. “It’s always slightly different and,” she paused, “it’s top secret,” she smiled mysteriously. “What you are eating is my mother’s recipe, which she learned from her mother, which she learned from her mother….” She trailed off.

Passed on from generation to generation, the family qabili pilau recipe is an heirloom. It is an oral history, something that they carried with them when they left everything else behind. As most Afghans at some point in their lives have been internally displaced or refugees, like Najla and her family, this recipe is more than just a meal - it is remembrance. 

 Girls' School in Herat

  Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque, Old City, Kabul

Stunning Band-i-Amir lake, Bamiyan Province, Central Highlands

Buzkashi, game traditionally played on Nowroz, or New Years, with players on horseback and a headless goat as the ball

Women in burqas visiting the sick at the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif

Outside boys' school, Herat

Shopkeepers at prayer, Jalalabad

 Herat's Friday Mosque

The "kite runners" - boys chasing kites at the King's Masoleum, Kabul

This post has been entered into the September Grantourismo HomeAwayUK travel blogging competition.


  1. Wonderful story and what a dish! Thank you so much for your entry.

    Best of luck in our Grantourismo competition this month! Lara

  2. This is a fabulous story and the pictures are just amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Loved your peek into a Kabul home--almost could smell the dish! And the pics are fab too. Thanks for sharing.

  4. The Persian half of the salty pear makes an amazing sabzi. Unfortunately i've never been able to visit her home. Thanks for the post and the photos.