We are National Geographic aficionados. Our grandfather had a massive collection, and our father had a collection from the time we were children. Before the age of the internet, National Geographic was the window to the world. As an adult living in a post 9-11 world, there has been a drastic change in reporting on the region. In the 80's and 90's, the titles about Afghanistan were optimistic as their war with Russia was winding down. After, 9-11, however, the titles took a much more negative turn and most of the news coming to the States from any source was predominantly negative. The best way to see the real Afghan culture, sans sensational headlines, is to have some Afghan food, since their culture shines through the brightest in their food.
An Environment of Hospitality
The Afghan food culture is one of the most hospitable that we have found. It easily lends itself to slowing down and taking time for deep conversation over good food. You can see by the pictures that we had a wonderful time together. Part of what makes Afghan dining good for fellowship is the format of eating a meal on a special area called the Dastarkhan. Dastarkhan is a word of Turkish origin, although there are Urdu and Pashto equivalents, and it means table cloth or great spread. The Dastarkhan is a raised platform, with pillows for comfort, and a cloth for cleanliness. It is proper etiquette to remove one's shoes and wash one's hands before entering the Dastarkhan. These rules are important because diners sit on the "floor" with the food and eat with the hands. Remember, as in many other cultures, the left hand is considered dirty.
Look at a map and visit the silk road countries in their geographic order from east to west or west to east in order to see the changing nuances of similar dishes, such as lamb with rice or kebab.
This hearty, slow-cooked rice and lamb dish is the national dish of Afghanistan. It is rumored that a young woman's marriage proposal hinges on her ability to cook Palau. This dish takes almost two hours to cook. Part of the challenge with such a long cook time with a rice dish is trying to keep the rice from breaking and disintegrating. Palau calls for a number of unique spices such as cardamom, and cumin. It is a mix of savory and sweet, the latter is due to the use of raisins, carrots, and tomatoes.
In contrast to Palau, which is an Afghan adaptation of western Turkish and Arab dishes, Mantoo, is an adaptation from the East, dumplings. These dumplings are unique from their Chinese counterparts in that they are square, rather than round, and are lamb filled, rather than the more common pork. The Mantoo are then steamed, drizzled with yogurt dressing and garnished with chickpeas.
One of the best surprises we had was Bouranee Baunhan. This is a savory eggplant and yogurt dip. Like other dip dishes, this is eaten with the naan (fresh baked flatbread).
Culture tip: avoid looking like an American, and dip right into the communal plate, rather than pulling out your own private serving. Part of the charm of Afghan dining culture is the communal eating. This communal nature of the meal is what helps brings people together.
Tea plays an integral part of hospitality and food in Afghanistan. The daily schedule is punctuated with breaks for tea. Green tea is the traditional tea of choice, but black tea is not uncommon. There are different teas for different occasions, and it is often served with cardamom and rarely with milk (tea with milk is common in south Asia, Afghanistan being the exception). Qand, a tea soaked sugar block, is used to sweeten the tea. Many people hold the qand in their mouth as they sip the tea across the sugar block.
Guests who visit Afghan homes will be invited (read: compelled) to sit and drink tea. Three cups of tea serves as the measure of hospitality with each successive cup representing a deeper relationship between the host and the guest. The first cup is obligatory and would be served even to an enemy who requested it. The purpose of this cup is to assuage thirst and uphold the family honor in hospitality. To those who are welcomed guests, their tea will be served with lots of sugar as a sign of respect. The second cup of tea signifies friendship. The third cup of tea is simply for good measure, to go above and beyond, and often signifies the appropriate time for a guest to depart.
Three Cups of Tea and a Lesson on Globalization
In 2007, Greg Mortenson published a book called Three Cups of Tea. This book tells the charming narrative of Mortenson's seemingly single hand effort and success at educating the poor children of Afghanistan. As most things that seem too good to be true, a story broke which called into question Mortenson's report, even supplying contradictory evidence of schools that were built and then abandoned (there is also a book aptly titled Three Cups of Deciet). In addition to reinforcing the clarion call that western aid is often wrongheaded and at times actually harmful, the Three Cups of Tea scandal teaches the lesson that globalization can bite you in the tenders.