Customs and Cuisine of Afghanistan
By Vinola V. Munyon
What’s in a Name?
Afghanistan, the land of the Pashtuns (Persian: Afghan = a member of the ethnic Pashtuns, stan = land of) is a landlocked country in Asia located between Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China. Home to one of the early known human civilizations in the world, Afghanistan has a rich and diverse history. Contrary to what the name might imply, Afghanistan is home to many regional subcultures associated with the respective tribes and not one monolithic ethnic group/culture. This plurality and the fact that individual Afghani identity is strongly aligned with their ethnic tribe and not with the nation per se are considered factors behind the weak national identity. Being located on the ancient Silk Route meant Afghanistan could reap the benefits of being connected to parts of Asia and the Middle East. However, that connection also meant that Afghanistan was often, throughout its history, the target of military campaigns ranging from Alexander the Great to the British to the Mauryas and Mongols, to name just a few. That dubious legacy of war and conflict continue to plague present day Afghanistan with its identity being associated more with Islamic insurgents than with its history as a country with storied pit-stop on the way to China, India, and Persia.
The 2004 constitution of Afghanistan recognizes 14 ethnic groups in the country: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Baloch, Turkmen, Nuristani, Pamiri, Arab, Gujar, Brahui, Qizilbash, Aimaq, and Pashai. Conflicts centered around ethnicity have rendered it a sensitive subject to self-report, making data on ethnicity hard to estimate reliably. The absence of a census, the presence of continuing conflicts, and the fact that Afghanistan has one of the larger refugee populations in the world make it so the total population is merely an estimate. As of July 2018, the total population was estimated to be around 34,940,837.
The terrain and the climate are forbidding, an aspect that is often cited as one of many reasons why so few have succeeded in conquering the region. Its people, acclimatized to both, are fierce and fiercely independent. Much of the terrain is rugged mountains (the Hindu Kush range being the largest and most prominent) and sizeable settlement clusters are found at the foothills and in the periphery. The central highlands and deserts to the south and southwest are very sparsely populated. Subsistence agriculture is practiced with only about 11.8 percent of the land being arable. Only 25.5 percent of the population (2018) are urban dwellers as the topography and the climate tilt human settlement toward a semi-nomadic or nomadic way of life.
Most Afghans or Afghanis are at the very least bilingual or trilingual. Afghan Persian (also known as Dari) and Pashto are the official languages. Uzbek, English, Turkmen, Urdu, Pashayi, Nuristani, Arabic, Balochi, Shughni, Pamiri, Hindi, Russian, German, and French are some of the other languages spoken in the country.
As with some other Islamic nations, allegiance to the Islamic faith is what unites the many subcultures and ethnic groups in the country as 99.7 percent (2018 estimates) of Afghanis identify as Muslim.
The Family Unit
The patriarchal, family unit is traditionally the norm. Among the nomadic factions of the rural population in the Northern regions of the country, the family unit lives in round yurts which are ascribed to a Central Asian influence. In the Southern regions, black goat-hair tents, a Middle Eastern influence are more common. Qalʿahs (“fortresses”) are the mud-brick and stone villages that are common among the sedentary populations of the northern and western parts of Afghanistan. In the eastern parts, wooden, multi-storied housing is more common.
Gender roles are rigid in their definition and absolute in their observance. Women’s place is restricted to the home, wherein their role is to care for the home (cook, clean, sew, weave) and the children. Even within the home are “private” and “public” areas, delineated to prevent the women of the house, who would stay in the “private” areas from interacting with visitors who are welcome to the “public” areas within the home. In the absence of guests, men and women in a family unit dine together. When guests visit, however, the men would dine with the guests while the women would dine separately in the private areas of the home. Children, however, are allowed to move seamlessly between the “private” and “public areas of the home.
Endogamy, the practice of marrying within kin groups, is the norm. While polygamy is allowed, it is infrequently practiced, and occurs in instances such as a man feeling obligated to marry and “be responsible” for his brother’s widow. Marriage is viewed as a responsibility that adults ought to fulfill and divorce is unacceptable and stigmatized.
The literacy rate, at 38.2 percent (2015 estimates) is extremely low for the population in general and for females in particular.
The Food of Afghanistan
The spices, herbs, and techniques of the many cuisines that the Afghanis came in contact with, both voluntarily and less voluntarily, have contributed to the rich variety in Afghan cuisine. Indian cuisine in particular appears to be a heavy influence. From the naan (flat bread) that is a staple in both cuisines, the Qorma/Korma (a vegetable or meat stew), chai (milk tea), Jalebi (fried sweet), Sheer Kurma (vermicelli pudding that is akin to rice pudding), and lassi (yogurt drink), the two cuisines have dishes that are identical in their ingredients, preparation and even their names.
The Persian influence is evident in the pulaos (rice pilaf), kebabs (marinated skewered meat), and lavash (flat bread with ridges and nigella or sesame seeds). The liberal use of fats (plant-based oils and animal fat) as a means to weather the harsh winters, use of dried fruits and nuts in savory and sweet dishes and the use of yogurt as an accompaniment to all meals are considered quintessentially Afghani.
Rice, when served, is the main dish and the star of meals. Spiced with combinations of saffron, turmeric, coriander, and dried fruits and nuts, it is complex in flavor and texture and despite the addition of spices tempered in heat and spiciness. To allow the rice to shine, the Afghani korma is less rich than its Indian cousin. Quabili/Kabuli pulao, often referred to as the national dish of Afghanistan, is a baked basmati rice dish cooked in broth and mixed with julienned carrots, raisins, strips of orange peel, and chopped almonds or pistachios. Lamb (and less commonly beef) is buried in the rice mixture making it a hearty one-pot meal.
Manto/Manti dumplings that are akin to steamed dumplings filled with ground meat, and Bolani, a stuffed flatbread that is very similar to scallion pancakes, show the influences of other Asian cuisines.
Mutton (goat meat), lamb, chicken, and beef are the animal proteins most commonly used in Afghan dishes. As is typical in regions that are land-locked, fish is scarce.
Meals are eaten family style, with the dishes laid out on a tablecloth that is spread on the ground, referred to as dastarkhan. The right hand is used to eat, and naan or lavash serve the purpose of cutlery. A piece of naan or lavash is torn off and used to scoop up the korma. While customs are specific to tribes, common customs include placing the best dishes within easy reach/next to the guest, not stepping over or on the dastarkhan, and having a designated person serve tea.
The Afghan Way of Life
Islamic principles have been the guiding principles for the way of life in Afghanistan even prior to the dictates imposed by the Taliban. Alcohol was prohibited and women had to wear head coverings. However, in the 60s, women had the choice to wear a head scarf (or not), they could receive education and seek employment. Post-Taliban, there has been a return to a more moderate stance, however, women are still neither seen nor their voices heard. They walk several paces behind their husbands, retire to the “private” areas of the house at the approach of visitors, remain confined to women-only areas of restaurants (although men are allowed to freely navigate both areas) and cannot communicate with men other than those in their immediate family.
Access to potable water and adequate sanitation is a continuing struggle. Electricity is only available to the urban dwellers, and outside the cities, to those who could afford it. Life in the rural parts of Afghanistan involves surviving both the weather (temperatures can dip below zero and there is no electricity, let alone temperature control) and conflict. Maternal mortality is high, as is violence against women.
The Afghan way of life today is one of surviving in a war-ravaged country, a country that once was and still is in some regions naturally beautiful. Food supply is steadier but prices of commodities, depending on where they are arriving from, can be prohibitive. The ban on many forms of entertainment having been lifted, Afghanis can now play football again, take photographs, and go to school (although several have not reopened due to damages suffered and lack of capital).
The spirit of a people who are known for their hospitality despite their sometimes inhospitable environments, their fierce loyalty to their tribes, their commitment to honor and tradition is, in the face of all that living in a continuing conflict-zone entails, resilient. There is even a cautious sense of optimism as girls are being allowed to go to school and women are being allowed to run for office.
View Recipes from Afghanistan