For two millennia, Afghanistan (which borders Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, China, Pakistan and Iran) was the place where important trade routes between India, China, the Middle East and Europe converged. Marco Polo crossed the country en route to China; Arab travellers and the British passed through on their way to India. A rich culture took hold at this crossroads, and with it a varied cuisine that has survived centuries of war, invasion and internal upheaval. Strife-torn Afghanistan is now an undeniably poor country, but as expatriate Afghani food lover Ryla Smith says, "some of the poorest countries in the world come up with amazing dishes". No matter how hard-pressed, the Afghans treat their guests with immense respect and will go to great lengths to serve them the best food possible.
Afghan cuisine is mainly influenced by that of Persia (Iran), India and Mongolia. From India came chillies, saffron, garam masala (cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, nutmeg) and pepper. Persia contributed coriander, mint and cooking with sabzi (spinach or green herbs), while Mongolian influences take shape in dumplings and noodles. But Afghan cuisine has a style of its own. Fatty dishes are an important fuel in this nation of harsh landscapes and freezing winters, with oil used liberally and mutton fat traditionally added to many dishes. Unlike some in their region, Afghans like their food neither too spicy nor too hot, and they are renowned for their use of dried fruit and nuts. They have a flair for rice, with yoghurt used as a dressing, topping or accompaniment, much like Italians use cheese.
Meals are eaten with the right hand, using bread as a scoop. And bread is eaten with just about everything. The two main types are similar to those of Pakistan, India and Iran: a large round, flat bread (lawash) and a naan-style bread marked with distinctive grooves, commonly sprinkled with sesame and nigella seeds, and cooked on the inside walls of a clay oven.
Rice is a specialty and considered the best part of any meal. Rice-based dishes range from simple chalau – fluffy white rice, popularly eaten with korma – to the flagship dish Kabuli pilao, which consists of slow-cooked meat in a dome of gently seasoned, spiced rice with lentils, raisins, carrots, ground cardamom and nuts. Dozens of variations of pulao are eaten in Afghanistan. Weddings and family gatherings must feature several rice dishes and reputations can be made or lost with rice, which is also the key ingredient in sweet dishes such as sheer berenj (rice pudding).
Dumplings are hugely popular but usually reserved for special meals at home, as they are time-consuming to make. Mantoo are tortellini-like pasta parcels filled with onion and spiced minced meat, usually topped with a tomato-based sauce, a yoghurt sauce and dried mint; while ashak are filled with a chive-like vegetable called gandana, topped with a garlic yoghurt sauce, spiced minced meat and dried mint. Each family or village will have its own version of these dishes.
Lamb and chicken are widely enjoyed, with lamb or mutton commonly minced or marinated for hours to ensure tenderness. The Afghan lamb kebab is a must-try, with chunks of meat (sometimes on the bone) threaded onto long metal skewers, cooked over charcoal and served with naan. Chapli kebab, a beef mince patty, is a specialty of eastern Afghanistan. Meat dishes also include lamb chops or ribs, kofta (meatballs) and the highly popular korma, a type of stew with a base of fried onion and garlic, to which the cook adds her choice of meat, vegetables, chickpeas, tomato, fruit, yoghurt and spices. Dried plum is a unique Afghan addition that imparts a sweet and sour flavour.
An important expression of food culture in Afghanistan is the dastarkhan, a spread of dishes arranged on a tablecloth that might be laid on the floor. The meal might be simple tea and bread for the family, or it could be a feast running to dozens of plates including Kabuli pilao, kormas, dumplings, breads, salads and sweets. Different customs apply depending on the ethnic group but include the designation of a tea pourer, placement of the best dishes near guests, and the rule that one must never step on or over the dastarkhan.
Afghans drink copious quantities of strong black or green tea (choi), spiced with cardamom or with sugar, milk or cream added depending on the occasion. Tea defines hospitality in Afghanistan, and it too is steeped in ritual. For instance, tea with milk (sheer choi) is usually served on more formal occasions, with lashings of sugar added for honoured guests. Accompaniments might be dried fruits and nuts and/or sweets such as sheer pira (a nutty milk fudge, also known as shirpera) and fried pastries flavoured with combinations of saffron, cardamom, rosewater and nuts.
View our Afghan recipe collection here.
Rosewater is popular in Middle Eastern cooking, and the star of Turkish delight. This recipe for Afghan sweets also includes walnuts and pistachios.
This recipe for the Afghan version of chicken korma is so simple. It’s a dish filled with delicious spices, creamy yoghurt and chana dal, which has a low glycaemic index to keep you fuller for longer.
This lamb pilaf recipe calls for Sella basmati rice which is simply rice that has been processed differently. It is sometimes referred to as par-boiled rice, and it is a lovely golden colour. Served in the centre of the table, this dish is a complete meal and needs little else but bread and a good appetite.
Chana dal is a type of pulse, related to the chickpea. Chana dal has a very low glycaemic index so it makes a good addition to the diabetic diet. This recipe for ashak involves two hours of preparation, but you can lighten the workload by recruiting a few extra pairs of hands to help.