What Is It?
Welcome to the first ever Where The Food Is blog post! This week’s featured country is Afghanistan, first in the alphabet and also a country whose food it had never occurred to me to cook until today. That’s what so good about a project like this – it leads you down all sorts of delicious paths you never expected to find yourself on.
Deciding on a national dish for Afghanistan was easy – all roads of enquiry (to continue a slightly tortured metaphor) led to Qabili Pilau. Countless other transliterations are also sometimes used, including Kabuli Pilau, Qabili Palow and others. The clue is in the name, as this dish is straight from the capital, apparently, and really associated with the country. I asked an Afghan friend, Khalid, to recommend a typical dish, and this is what he wrote:
Afghanistan has too many delicious traditional foods but the most important one for which Afghanistan is famous is QABILI PALOW. The basic ingredients of this food are rice, red raisin and orange peel. If you happened to visit an Afghan resturant in the UK or Germany ask for Qabili Palow. I am sure it would not be as good as they cook it in Afghanistan but still you would have a sense of how it tastes and how it looks.
If Khalid is less than glowing about the palaus served in Afghan restaurants abroad, I shudder to think what he would make of my first effort, made from ingredients straight off the streets of Brussels! Still, I figured I’d give it a go, and perhaps I’ll have the chance to compare it to the real thing one day in Kabul.
A few other tidbits about the recipe: this is special occasion food, as are so many dishes I’ll be cooking here. Qabili Pilau is served at weddings, parties and other special events. It’s strange and a little sad that I have the opportunity to cook dishes, weekly, that many people around the world only have the chance to eat once or twice a year. Not to put a damper on things, but I’d like to always keep this privilege in mind as I continue with this project.
Rice is the staple of Afghan cuisine, and cooking it correctly is considered a real art. One blog on Afghan food offers this fascinating account:
Nothing is more important at the Afghan table than the rice. An Afghan woman’s reputation as a good cook can hinge solely on how well she prepares her rice. Indeed, the number of rice dishes served at a particular wedding and the skill with which the hostess executes her palau can be fodder for gossip amongst a group of Afghans … Most important is not to overcook the rice. Each grain should be distinct from the next. Sticky rice just will not do in a good Afghan kitchen.
Basically, pilau is a dry rice dish served in many parts of South and Central Asia. The pilau from Afghanistan is known for its lightly aromatic blend of spices and, especially, for its inclusion of raisins and carrots. Here I must make a small confession: I’m notorious for my hatred of cooked fruit of (almost) any kind. You’ll find no such thing on this blog, and thus no raisins in this dish of mine. In my defence, there are apparently many variations on this dish, so I included two kinds of nuts instead. Pistachios and slivered almonds….mmmm.
I’ve combined two of the most popular Qabili Pilau recipes online, and made a few tweaks of my own. You can make qabili pilau with lamb or chicken, but I’ve gone for the first – I find lamb more evocative of Central Asia, and also easier to cook. And it’s so tasty!
What Did I Need?
3 cups basmati rice (soaked for an hour or two beforehand if you have time, for extra fluffiness)
4 tbsp. sunflower oil
1 kilogram of lamb shoulder, cut into chunks.
1 cup lamb stock
3 cups water
3 medium onions, roughly chopped
3 large carrots, peeled and julienned
1/2 cup red or black raisins (I didn’t include these but they are traditional)
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup pistachios (optional)
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp. ground black cardamom seeds
How Did I Do It?
1. Preheat the oven to 260 degrees celsius.
2. Heat half the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Season lamb with salt and brown, turning occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer lamb to a plate and set aside. Reduce heat to medium, add onions, and cook, stirring, until well browned, around 20 minutes. Return lamb to pot with the lamb stock and 1 cup water; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until meat is tender. This will take about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the quality of the meat (I like to use economical stewing meat, so it always takes me a little longer to get it nice and soft, but after that you really can’t tell the difference).
3. While the lamb is cooking, boil the carrots in a separate pan containing 3/4 cup of water and a little salt. Cook for 5 – 7 minutes, until tender and a deep orange colour – make sure not to overcook them. Once they are cooked, drain any leftover liquid out of the pan. Add the remaining 2 tbsp of oil, raisins (if using), almonds and sugar to the carrots. Stir quickly over medium-high heat and keep stirring for about 3 minutes. The raisins will look plump and the carrots will caramelise slightly. Remove from heat.
4. Combine coriander, pepper, cumin and cardamom in a small bowl. Combine rice, 3 cups of water, pistachios (if using), the lamb, the cooking liquid from the lamb, and the spice mix. Season with salt and stir the whole thing well. Bake the rice for 20 minutes at 260 degrees then reduce the temperature to 120 degrees. Cook for another 20 minutes, adding a little more water if the dish becomes too dry or cooking a little longer if it is still too wet.
5. Sprinkle the almonds and carrots over the pilau, and serve with a simple salad.
So How Did It Taste?
Really, really good. I’m actually not a huge fan of basmati rice or cardamom, so I was expecting only moderate levels of tastiness, but it surprised me. Soaking and baking the rice really makes a difference in getting it fluffy and keeping it slightly chewy – no squishy clumps of soggy rice here! It’s a trick I’ll definitely keep in mind. And the cardamom lightly perfumed the dish, not overwhelming it unless I happened to bite into a seed (must get a mortar and pestle!). The lamb was soft and gamey, the carrots sweet and caramelised, and the nuts slightly crunchy. On the whole, it was really fragrant and fluffy – a subtler flavour than I’m used to getting in, say, an Indian pilau.
I got so caught up in online recipes that I forgot my friend’s advice to include orange peel until after I made it, so I’ll make it again sometime with that included – I can imagine it makes it even better. And as this dish is great for leftovers, you really can’t have too much lying around.
What did others think? Here’s Joe:
VERY tasty. But you know what would make it even tastier? Raisins.
Yes, yes, mea culpa. I’ll work on that fruit phobia.
Now if only Khalid were here to give his verdict…