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Afghanistan Express

Persian, Pakistani, Indian influences meld in traditional Afghan cuisine



This year as we give thanks for America's bounty, for relative safety and for unification of family, our thoughts will naturally turn to Afghanistan. Images of ruin and starving exiles dominate the television screen, further blurring our knowledge of the rich, 5,000-year-old culture that seems in constant danger of obliteration by warring factions and foreign bombs raining down.

Many years ago, at least 20, a good friend of mine spent his summers in Afghanistan studying Persian weaving and rugs. His photos and elaborate descriptions evoked street scenes rich with merchants and craftsmen. He lauded the exotic textiles, the beauty of the people, the food. Sadly, recent reports from Kabul indicate that meat has disappeared from the markets as agricultural lands are increasingly abandoned or destroyed. Rice and potatoes fill the bins of most groceries.

Smaller cities in the United States, for the most part, are not lucky enough to have an Afghan restaurant, but the majority of larger cities boast at least one Afghan eatery where the richness of Afghan cooking can be enjoyed. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I was delighted to discover the recently opened Afghan Grill in the newly trendy Adams-Morgan neighborhood. A small, tastefully decorated dining room perched above a beauty salon, Afghan Grill, on the night we visited, was packed with curious diners.

Our party reveled in the choices. Appetizers were mostly dumplings or fried turnovers. We tried the bulanee kadu, a fried dumpling stuffed with sweet pureed pumpkin and aashak, delicate steamed scallions and leeks wrapped in a soft, translucent dough. Normally, both dishes come bathed in a ground meat sauce, but the vegetarian among us requested that ours be served only with the garlic yogurt sauce. The results were mildly flavored, warm, colorful and delicious.

Afghan cuisine reflects the Persian influence from the south in its use of sweeteners and mild spices, and Pakistani and Indian influences in its cooking techniques. Menu dishes ending with the word chalow (or chalaw) come accompanied by a side dish of fragrant basmati rice. The term palaw (or pilau) refers to a more heavily seasoned rice. At Afghan Grill, I ordered the kabuli palaw, a lovely plate of lamb chunks, carrot slivers and plump raisins stewed with onions, cinnamon, cardamom and cumin, served over a steaming pile of saffron rice. My taste buds and nasal passages were equally thrilled with the dish. A tablemate gave me a bite of her chicken kabob, tender chunks of breast marinated in yogurt, lemon, garlic and spices, then grilled. Another other-worldly delight.

We enjoyed Turkish beer with our Afghan feast and lingered late as the restaurant slowly emptied. Our kind waiter returned many times with water, another beer or more soft, flat bread to nibble, never hurrying us. We were embarrassed when we finally left and discovered that the single remaining table of diners were employees of the restaurant, waiting politely to leave until we were finished.

Colorado Springs doesn't yet have an Afghan restaurant, but a quick Internet trip to, I found the recipe for the above mentioned kabuli palaw and for a pumpkin dish that sounded irresistible given the over-flowing bins of cooking pumpkins at American supermarkets this time of year. Any winter squash could be substituted for pumpkin in this recipe for kadu bouranee (sweet pumpkin). And although the somewhat befuddling instructions were to cover the skillet, cooking the pumpkin until most of the tomato sauce evaporates (how, I wondered, can the sauce evaporate while the pan is covered?), the technique worked. The liquid was soaked up by the pumpkin cubes and thickened as the pumpkin softened. The resulting dish comes out a rich, reddish orange and its sweetness is nicely offset by the garlic yogurt sauce. We'll have it alongside the turkey at our Thanksgiving dinner this year, a reminder of Afghanistan and a token of hope that markets and tables there will one day return to their former richness.

Kadu Bouranee (Sweet Pumpkin)

2 lb. fresh pumpkin or winter squash (one small cooking pumpkin)
1/4 cup of corn or canola oil

Sweet tomato sauce:

1 tablespoon crushed garlic
1 cup water
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 four-ounce can tomato sauce
1/2 teaspoon ginger root, finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground coriander seed
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Yogurt sauce:

1/4 teaspoon crushed garlic
1/4 tablespoon salt
3/4 cup plain yogurt

Dry mint leaves, crushed, for garnish

Peel the pumpkin (a vegetable peeler works well) and cut flesh into 2- to 3-inch cubes; set aside. Heat oil in a large frying pan. Fry the pumpkin cubes until lightly browned on all sides.

Mix together ingredients for sweet tomato sauce in a bowl, then add to pumpkin mixture in pan. Cover and cook over low heat for 20 to 25 minutes until the pumpkin is cooked soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed or thickened. Mix together the ingredients for the yogurt sauce.

To serve: Spread half the yogurt sauce on a plate and lay the pumpkin on top. Drizzle with the remaining yogurt and any cooking juices left over. Sprinkle with dry mint. May be served with basmati rice and naan or pita bread.

Adapted from the recipe at Look there for the recipe for kabuli palaw (spelled qabili pilau on the site).

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