Sunday, January 2, 2011

A is for Afghanistan: Afghan Cuisine Unveiled

Many Americans have negative connotations associated with Afghanistan…war, terrorism, Osama Bin Laden. But how much do we really know about Afghanistan? Instead of using Wikipedia as an educational tool, I took a trip to my local Afghan restaurant to find out more.

Hidden behind an Applebee’s in what use to be a Dairy Queen is a hidden gem that I am hesitant to reveal, just because I want it all to myself (good thing for you I am not selfish and I will share). In the heart of campus is Cafe Kabul. In 1986 owner, Noorgul Dada, immigrated with his family from Jalalabad, Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. In 2002 he graduated from The Ohio State University (Go Bucks!) in engineering and in June 2010 opened Cafe Kabul . Although the restaurant was buzzing with a diverse clientele, Noorgul was nice enough to sit down and talk to my sister, Jennifer (she just happened to be hanging out), and I about Afghan food and culture.   

                                                                         below: making veggie pakora
above: Noorgul Dada

Afghan cuisine reflects its natural terrain along with its ethnic diversity. The wide varying terrain allows for many different crops,  which the cuisine is based upon. Most dishes contain some variety of rice, which is considered the “king” of all foods, accompanied by     meat, and a varity of dried fruits and nuts. While many staple dishes use many similar ingredients, such as coriander, cardamom, and cumin, Afghan food also reflects the influence of its neighbors.  Dishes in the west have Iranian influence and use a notable amount of saffron (which I found out is super expensive!!!!), while dishes, such   as the veggie pakora, are influenced from Pakistan.

Noorgul told me that Afghan people are proud people and take pride in displaying their food. Hospitality is key in Afghanistan and people are careful about their food preparations. Eating is a family affair, one that is large, detailed and intimate.  Hours can be spent making meals for dozens of relatives. Eating is done on the floor over a large elaborate table cloth, in which the food is situated in the middle and people sit around the food and eat together.

At Kafe Kabul I had the national dish is Kabuli Pallow (also spelled Qabili Pilau), a heaping amount of saffron rice, seasoned tender lamb, garnished with sautéed raisins and shredded carrots. Their Okra dish, sautéd okra cooked with tomatoes and onion, intrigued me because I had never had okra, so naturally I had to get that too. My lucky sister also scored us some hummus, which one customer exclaimed it was the best hummus she had ever had (I agree), and Noorgul, living up to Afghan hospitality, amazingly gave me a piece of baklava.

I was pleasantly surprised with the food. I have to admit, I was intimidated because I had convinced myself the food was spicy. Noorgul eased my thoughts by telling me that most people have the same preconceived notion. The food was seasoned perfectly, tender, meaty, and actually pretty sweet. I think this can speak to way Afghan people and cultural are understood. Many are hesitant to get to know this culture, distorting to be what it is not, but once uncovering what it really behind this wonderful culture, we actually discover its pretty sweet.


My kooky and very beautiful friend Kelly (she is single) came for New Years and helped me recreate Kabuli Pallow and the sautéd okra.  The meal was relatively easy to cook, and, although not as delicious as Kafe Kabul,  it was still pretty tasty, filling, and definitely one to make again.

Kabuli Pallow
Serves 3
  •       1cup of basmati rice
  •       1lb of lamb on the bone
  •       2 carrots, julienned
  •       1 medium onion, diced
  •       1cup of raisins
  •       2tsp of cumin
  •       2tsp of cinnamon
  •       ¼ cup sugar
  •       Vegetable oil
  •       salt and pepper
  •       1cup of water

  1.  Brown diced onion in vegetable oil in a large pot. Sautee until the onion is soft and brown.
  2. Cut lamb into cubes and add to the onion and cook until brown.
  3.  Add 1 cup of water, cumin, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer until meat is tender (about 45min)
  4.  Remove meat from the juice and set leave juice in the pot.
  5. Add basmati rice and cook until tender.
  6. While the rice is cooking sauté carrots in sugar and 1/3 cup of vegetable oil. Cook until they are lightly browned and tender.
  7. Remove from oil and add raisins to the same pan. Cook until they are swelled.
  8. Once the rice is finished, place on a large dish. Add lamb pieces on top and then add carrots and raisins on top. ENJOY!

Afghan Okra
Serves 5
  •       1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  •       2tbs tomato paste
  •      1lb okra
  •     1tbsp ground turmeric
  •   Vegetable oil
  •      Salt and pepper
  •      2cups of water

  1.  Heat vegetable oil in skillet and add onion. Sauté until soft and brown.
  2.  Stir in tomato paste until no lumps remain.
  3.  Add okra, and sprinkle with turmeric, salt, and pepper. Pour in 2 cups of water and bring to a boil.
  4. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until tender and sauce has thickened, about twenty minutes. Season with salt and pepper again before serving. 


  1. Steph, I absolutely loved reading this! I am particularly excited about trying the Kabuli Pallow recipe! Thanks so much!!!!

  2. after my encounters on new years i'm not sure i want to be announcing my singleness to the whole world!

    but i enjoyed your article and the food! mmmm... :) thanks again!

  3. I went with some friends of mine to Kafe Kabul several months ago, and was pleasantly surprised. I had a gyro-like entry, and my friends had a bunch of other things. You descriptions in this article are accurate. I also liked their sauces. One thing I noticed that you do not mention here is the epic emotional pictures of Afghani villagers they have on the walls.

  4. && you forgot about the yummy bread :)