Thursday, September 8, 2011

Recipes from Afghanistan

Recipes from Afghanistan
Unless you have been in the antarctic studying chin-strap penguins for the past decade, you probably know something about Afghanistan. And if you can't point to it on a map I'm betting you can at least find its general vicinity--but in case not, here is its location on Planet Earth:

Afghanistan, apart from being ground zero for the longest war in US history, is a country of great variety. Much of it is very dry. Much of it is very cold. Much of it is very hot. Food grown in Afghanistan includes grapes, apricots, pomegranates, melons and nuts, but the country is of course best known for its petroleum. Despite these economic pluses, it's still a very poor country, with about 42% of the population living on the equivalent of less than one dollar per day.

Unfortunately, most Americans think of Afghanistan in the context of the war that's been going on over there for half of forever. Well, as it turns out, harboring terrorists was not the only messed-up thing the Taliban ever did to us. I'm pretty sure they also had some of their top operatives post Afghani recipes online, so they could all laugh behind their hands as unsuspecting American moms like me tried to figure out how to make them.

Want to know how to cook Afghani food? Here it is, in a nutshell:

1) Look for all the most expensive food items at your local grocery store.
2) Buy them.
3) Now, try to come up with the most fiddly, time-consuming preparation method you can think of.
4) Do that.

Viola! Afghani food. And you thought it was going to be complicated!

So here are the three (Yes, three. I was clearly not in my right mind when I made this decision.) recipes I chose:

Name: Kofta Challow
(from Afghan Web)
Time to Make: Roughly one million years. Add one geologic era per child in your household.
  • 1 lb lamb, minced
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 egg (whole)
  • 1 tbsp powdered chicken stock
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • Enough oil to cover the bottom of a large pot
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp powdered chicken stock
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 tbsp cumin

Name: Kabuli Pulao
(from Tastedefined)
Time to Make: This recipe probably wouldn't take too long if you weren't also making Kofta Challow.
  • 1 cup basmati rice
  • 1 lb lamb meat (I made a meatless version)
  • 2 cups mutton broth (You can't find mutton broth?? Substitute beef broth.)
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1 small carrot, grated
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 1/2 tsp cardamom
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 tsp butter
  • salt to taste

Name: Afghani Naan
Time to Make: I don't know, because I never actually got around to it.
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted

OK, I am maybe being a little hard on the Kofta Challow. Most of the issues I had with this recipe were actually my husband's fault.

First of all, Martin doesn't usually like lamb, so I don't buy it very often. So I was a little annoyed to discover that at my grocery store, there are only really two options for buying lamb. The first is a package that costs around $15, which consists of about three parts bone, two parts fat and one part meat. Or you can spend around $30 for a 3 1/2 pound boneless cut, which as it turns out is somewhere on the order of three parts fat and one part meat. I opted for the $30 cut, because I figured it would be a lot faster to prepare if I didn't have to trim all that bone. Ha! Haha! Hahaha!

Now, if my husband dislikes lamb he abhors fat of any kind, so at least five hundred thousand of the one million years it took me to prepare this recipe were spent cutting every visible bit of fat off of this $30 piece of meat, which isn't just a matter of trimming off a few chunks here and there, oh no, every half an inch there is a strip of fat, a layer of fat or a blob of fat. Forty five minutes after I started I was still trimming fat.

So after I finished trimming all the fat, I thought the hard part was over ... but no. After trimming the fat the lamb still has to be minced. At this point I was really growing quite tired of lamb, so I only sort-of minced it.

Minced lamb. Yes, you can still see some fat in it. Please don't tell my husband.
And just in case you didn't get enough mincing, now you have to mince the onions. And the garlic. (Fortunately, I have a garlic press for that part). When you're done with that, you can add the lamb, onion, garlic and the next four ingredients to a glass mixing bowl. Mix them up with your hands, then shape the mixture into 2-inch meatballs.

The mixture will be really wet, and your finished meatballs will look like this:

I should have minced the onions more.
Now, get ready to chop some more onions! Yay! This time instead of mincing, they need only be "finely chopped," which if you ask me might as well be mincing.

I hope there aren't any Afghani chefs rolling over in their graves at the non-finely-choppedness of these onions.
Next, prepare the cooking liquid. This is just a mixture of water, tomato paste and spices (powdered chicken stock, paprika, coriander and cumin). Be sure to mix well, until the tomato paste and spices are all incorporated into the liquid.

Now pour the oil in the bottom of your pan and fry the onions until they are a nice brown color. You will need to stir fairly constantly to keep them from burning. When they look good, add the liquid, then gently place each meatball (one at a time) into the liquid. Try to keep them from touching if you can. They should be about 2/3rds submerged--if they aren't, add a little more water. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat.

Simmering meatballs
Simmer for 20 minutes, then lift the lid and gently turn each meatball over. Replace the lid but keep it slightly ajar so the steam can escape. You want to cook off the rest of the water, leaving a thick sauce behind. This should take another 20 minutes or so, but be sure to check often in case the bottoms of the meatballs start to burn.

Now, the traditional way to serve this meal is with plain white basmati rice (challow), but that seemed so boring. Oh if only I'd just stuck with boring, because by the time the Kofta was on simmer I was beat. But I soldiered on.

Kabuli Pulao is one of the most popular dishes in Afghanistan. It is generally made with lamb or beef, but I didn't want to do two meat dishes so I just opted to leave the meat out. I don't know how badly I screwed with tradition by doing this.

Start this dish by sauteing the carrots and raisins in butter (Note: the original recipe only wanted a teaspoon of butter, but I decided to use a little more. The final product probably tasted more buttery than it should have). Set them aside.

Sauteing the carrots and raisins
Guess what happens now, more onions! This time just chop them. Heat about a tablespoon of oil in a medium sized pan and cook the onions until translucent. Then add the rice and broth, bring to a boil, cover and cook for 20 minutes until the rice is tender.

At this point, you are supposed to add the spices to hot oil and cook for a few seconds, until fragrant. Then add the meat and saute until just done. I skipped this part.

When the meat is finished, the recipe tells you to put it in an oven-safe dish, then cover it with the rice and bake at 250 degrees for 20 minutes. I skipped this part too. So yeah, I guess I probably butchered the Kabuli Pulao, but hopefully you'll get it right. Provided you don't try to do it at the same time as the Kofta Challow.

Finished meal

After all that work, this had better be a damned tasty meal. And it was! At least I thought so. Martin was less enthusiastic, giving it a 7 out of 10. And that wasn't because of the lamb, which he usually doesn't care for. In fact he couldn't even tell there was lamb in it, which makes me think he should have upped the score to an 8. So why the 7? He says it just "wasn't different enough," which is an interesting comment. Not everything can be 100% unique, and we've eaten a lot of Indian food (Martin is English and the English love their curries), which is pretty similar to Afghani food. I guess maybe he just thought Afghanistan would be a little more exotic.

How did my kids feel about it? Well, they tried it. Dylan didn't really eat much more than the first bite. Neither did Hailey. Henry ate all of it, which is what he usually does. Natalie made a concerted effort to eat hers, if picking all the raisins out and just eating those can really be considered a "concerted effort."

Poor planning made me abandon my third dish, the Afghani Naan. But in case you have more time than I did (a lot more time), here are the instructions:

Dissolve the yeast in warm water and let stand for 10 minutes, until frothy. Add the sugar, milk, egg, salt and flour. Knead for 6-8 minutes (if you are a chump) or use your bread machine.

Place the dough on a greased surface, cover with a damp cloth, and let rise in a warm place for one hour.

Punch down the dough, then cut into fist-sized pieces and roll into balls. Let rise for another 30 minutes, or until the balls double in size.

Melt butter in a large saucepan. Flatten each ball into a thin oval shape, then fry in the oil for 2-3 minutes, until puffy and lightly browned. Brush the top with more melted butter, then turn and cook until the other side is also lightly brown. Repeat with remaining dough balls.

I'm glad my trip to Afghanistan is over. It was hard work. Here's hoping that Akrotiri will be kinder. Somehow I doubt it.


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