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How a Delicious, Oily Mess, Brought Me Back to Afghanistan

Food is an essential part of travel because it teaches us about a new place.

What is the first thing you do when you land in a new city? Most likely, find something to eat.

Food is an essential part of travel because it teaches us about a new place. It provides a look into a local culture and its traditions, be it lunch at a street cart or dinner in someone’s home, through a meal we learn.

Food brings people together. No matter where we are from, gathering around a meal is something that we all do. We eat and we talk. At home, that’s the recipe for a good dinner party. Abroad it’s a vehicle for bridging a cultural gap.

Last fall I traveled as part of a nonprofit project with Mountain2Mountain to Afghanistan. Before traveling to this part of the world, I had my hang-ups and perceptions. Ask me three words that I would associate with Afghanistan and I would have said, “terrorism,” “war,” and “destruction.”

Ask me for what I think of when I hear mention of Afghanistan today and my brain paints a different picture. The words change from time to time, but food is always one of the things that immediately comes to mind. I am reminded of long meals of kabuli rice and kebab. The never-ending cup of tea that is a given at any meeting. Oily fingers from eating the fried street food bolani, a dish somewhere between a calzone and a turnover.

I remember a meal in the small village of Istalif, north of Kabul. We were seated cross-legged on a toshak in the local restaurant where we had been invited to eat. No menu, just the specialty of the house: chaaynaki. A meat-based stew that’s served in a teapot. Huge pieces of naan, the Afghan flatbread, were brought to the table. Our translator indicated that we should rip the flatbread into small pieces and place it in the turquoise ceramic bowls in front of us. Filled with flatbread pieces, the chaaynaki was poured on top, and you ate the entire oily jumble with your hands. It was messy. It was also one of the best meals I have ever had.

The owner and chef insisted that I take his picture. He wanted his restaurant to be remembered.

I think of that meal often. Sharing a meal is sharing a culture; the chance to show another side of a country, particularly a place like Afghanistan that is so often defined by other, more unpleasant things. But in that time and place of an extended lunch there was only delicious food and warm smiles; hospitality in every sense of the word.

When I returned from Afghanistan I was obsessed with trying to make Afghan food. I had asked someone I met in Kabul to define Afghan food and the response was, “meat, starch and oil.” He was right, and it certainly isn’t a diet I would like to stick to on a regular basis, but a few traditional dishes here and there was a way of calling upon memories of a trip and a place that had changed my perspective on many things.

When you return from a place like Afghanistan, you get a lot of questions, and with my food-focus I figured the best way to share my experience was through eating. So a dinner party was in order. A few culinarily adventurous friends were game, and thus started a frantic exchange of emails with various Afghan recipes gathered from around the web.

Sharing food is just as much about sharing culture at home as it is on the road. Put a new dish in front of someone and it’s hard not to launch into a conversation about where it comes from, what’s in it, and how it’s traditionally made.

A friend made Kabuli rice, the oily rice dish mixed with raisins and almond slivers and served on top of meat, preferably lamb. Another friend stewed pumpkin for Borani. I attempted to make flatbread and fried up a round of Bolani, “Afghan pizza,” as I have heard it described. This wasn’t just a dinner party for sharing dishes; it was a way of discovering a different place.

There’s a reason that dinners themed after different countries are popular: they get us talking. Not only do we eat, but also we learn. That’s the real power of food.

Here are a couple of my favorite recipes from around the web that will help you make a handful of classic Afghan dishes.

Bolani: The “Afghan Pizza” this is a kind of fried turnover that’s best served with a yogurt sauce.
Borani Banjan: An amazing layered eggplant dish that’s vegetarian friendly.
Borani Kadoo: If you have pumpkin or squash on hand, this sweet and savory dish is vegetarian but also pairs well with meat.
Kabuli Palau: This classic dish can be served as a side, or by itself.
Afghan Naan: Real Afghan naan is made with a sourdough base, but this recipe uses yogurt which is an easy alternative that emulates the original taste.

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