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Discovering Afghan Cuisine, a World Away

I grew up in India, but it was at restaurants in the United States that I came to know and love the food of my old neighbor, Afghanistan.

So I was dismayed when my friend Ashok had the opportunity, but not the inclination, to learn more about Afghan cuisine firsthand.

Ashok was newly stationed in Afghanistan, where he was working to help the country rebuild. He missed the food of India, but was not a fan of the local cuisine.

A South Indian architect, Ashok wrote with great feeling on his blog about life in the war-torn land, and posted pictures of a city struggling to get back to normal. But in the kitchen, he seemed entirely dependent on his cook.

"The Afghan nan (the local bread) is almost a meter-long and half-an-inch thick," Ashok wrote in a typical post on his blog. "Nobody makes it at home. Everybody buys it from local bakeries for 6 Afghanis a piece. It is alright when it is warm, but gives your gums a good exercise when cold."

I think Ashok is missing a lot. Afghanistan is at the culinary crossroads of many cultures. The cuisine relies on spices such as cumin, sesame, cinnamon and coriander, which are also central to Indian food. Green cardamom flavors Chinese green tea. The country's many kebabs show kinship with the Middle East, as does the liberal use of yogurt.

My fondness for things Afghan began when I was a child and read a short story by the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. In it, the affable title character, Kabuliwallah -- "the man from Kabul" -- leaves home to earn his livelihood in Calcutta. There, he befriends Mini -- a little girl the same age as his daughter (and me at that time). The Kabuliwallah always brought Mini gifts of almonds, pistachios and raisins.

Nuts and dried fruits, too, are an integral part of Afghan cuisine. They are sprinkled generously on rice dishes and ground into rich chutneys. Long-grain rice is made into the various risotto-like pilaos that serve, like the breads, as a staple of the cuisine.

Though Ashok jokes that Afghans consider vegetarians "people who cannot afford to buy lamb," the cuisine actually offers a variety of good meatless dishes.

The slender tapering okra -- referred to as "the bride's fingers" in the local language, Dari -- is made into a delicious stew. Plump red pumpkins and squashes called kadhoos are pan-cooked with onions or transformed into halwa, a warm, melt-in-your-mouth dessert with the consistency of fudge. Rose water and saffron are used as flavoring in desserts. Bazaars are abundant with grapes, melons, pears and apricots in season.

Kabul has eateries and roadside stalls that sell kebabs and tasty snacks, but I suspect that the best local food, as in many places, is to be had in people's homes.

Despite their recent turmoil, Afghans have a legendary reputation for hospitality. And even during the country's time of incredible strife, its culinary traditions endure and comfort.

I can imagine being the guest of honor, sitting on the floor and dining in the traditional style with no cutlery, on a tablecloth-like dastrakhwan. My friend Ashok is missing all this.

"Perhaps, these days, for the best Afghan food you have to leave Afghanistan," he wrote to me.

I prefer to think that Ashok has a lousy cook.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

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Vijaysree Venkatraman
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