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September 20, 2009
Northwestern Afghanistan

Northwestern Afghanistan

From my earliest school years, trade routes have interested me. Following the food is an excellent way to understand the complex rhymes and riddles of history. The cleverest invaders made great use of routes commonly used to carry spices, nuts, preserved fruits, herbs, and textiles from one country to another. The storied Khyber Pass, linking Pakistan and Afghanistan, is one of the world’s most ancient trade routes. For centuries, as many warriors as pepper traders have traveled through this short, steep-sided pass.

I’m not completely unfamiliar with Afghani cooking. We are lucky to have an excellent Afghani restaurant in South Pasadena, named Azeen’s. At a dinner there with our friends Petrea and John, I absolutely fell in love with this aromatic cuisine, particularly the dumplings and vegetable dishes.

After much research I settled on four recipes to try for my Afghanistan entry. They include a chutney, soup, entree and dessert. I also purchased pita bread for the meal. In Los Angeles we have a number of wonderful Middle Eastern grocery stores, so finding ingredients for these dishes was very easy. All of the ingredients are also available for purchase on a number of Internet stores.

I shopped at Jordan Market on Westwood Boulevard. The two gentlemen in the store helped me find all the ingredients on my list and even shared some very useful cooking tips. After hearing their descriptions of some beloved family dishes, I bought more than I planned, not even blinking at the $30 price tag on the saffron. Ok. I blinked at that point.

Many villages in Afghanistan are located in deep valleys and along towering, snow-capped mountains. There is no refrigeration, so food portions are generally just enough for only one day. From what I’ve been told, no two recipes are ever made exactly the same from village to village. Local variations on recipes are the norm around the world and a fun element of cooking.

I listened to the music of Afghani musicians while cooking this meal. The majority of these artists are in exile. I also read a number of poems by female Afghani writers. You’ll find the poem that touched me the most at the end of the recipes, along with a link to support the education of Afghani women. This Web site is a great source of Afghani music with a player that allows you to stream music for free.

A note on ingredients: If a recipe calls for vegetable oil, I will usually substitute olive oil, if I know olive oil is used in the cuisine of that particular country. I like the flavor of oil olive and it is has greater health benefits than vegetable oil. I always use fresh garlic and fresh lemon juice and lime juice. Never bottled. Coriander and cilantro are the same herb.

For more information on Afghan cooking check out the Web site of Helen Saberi, author of Afghan Food and Cookery. Saberi’s also written some enjoyable articles and essays on Afghan cooking, including the sparkling piece, “Rosewater, the Flavouring of Venus.”


This chutney is seriously addicting. Your friends may want to take some home, so have jars on hand.

1 cup fresh cilantro leaves

1 ounce hot, green chilies

4 medium cloves of garlic

1 tablespoon walnuts

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup white wine vinegar

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon golden raisins

Clean the cilantro, removing the leaves from the stems. While wearing gloves, seed and chop the chilies. Place the chilies, cilantro leaves, and walnuts into a mortar and grind until the walnuts are in very tiny pieces. Combine the lemon juice and white wine vinegar in a small bowl. As a variation you can use all lemon juice or all white wine vinegar according to your taste. Add the sugar to the lemon juice and white wine vinegar and stir. Then, stir in the cilantro, chilies, walnuts, salt, and raisins. Pour the chutney into a glass or porcelain jar and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

Chutney Gashneez

You can adjust the amount of chilies in this recipe according to your desire for more or less heat.

I dipped pita bread and vegetables into this chutney. I also poured some of it onto the Afghani chicken dish I made. It’s incredibly versatile and can be used in many vegetable and meat dishes.



I’ve always been proud of my lentil soup. This simple recipe from the mountain villages of Afghanistan kicks the butt of any lentil soup I’ve ever made. I work in a newsroom where I have a very willing number of recipe tasters. Every person who tasted this soup fell in love with it.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium-sized onion

3 large garlic cloves

2 1/2 cups water

1 cup red lentils

1/4 teaspoon red pepper

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

5 or 6 dried sour plums

Salt, to taste

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Chop the onion and mince the garlic. Set aside and gently heat the olive oil in a medium-sized soup pot. Add the onion and garlic to the pot and cook until they are golden. Meanwhile, rinse the red lentils, making sure there are no stones or dirt. Pit and chop the dried sour plums. Add the water, lentils, plums to the pot. Cover and cook on low flame for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, adding a small amount of water if you think it might burn.

This soup is thick, like a stew.


Serves 4.

Afghan Rice with Chicken and Yogurt


This is a warm and comforting main dish.

A note on yogurt: Cooking with yogurt can be a little tricky if you’ve never done it before. Always use whole milk yogurt. Never cook at very high temperatures and avoid using aluminum pots and pans. Stirring a little flour into the yogurt before cooking, will also help avoid curdling.

1 large lemon

1 1/2 cups of yogurt

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken cut into small chunks

2 1/2 cups basmati rice

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion

2 large garlic cloves

1/4 teaspoon saffron

1 teaspoon ground cilantro seed

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

salt and red pepper to taste

Place the chicken in a bowl, add the juice of one lemon, and fold in 1/2 cup of yogurt. Let this marinade for about an hour in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, wash the rice throughly and soak it in a bowl of water for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile bring 5 cups of water to boil in a large pot. Thinly slice the onion and mince the garlic. Warm the olive oil in a Dutch Oven, add the onion and garlic and saute until golden. Add another tablespoon of olive oil at this point, if the pot appears dry. Place the chicken in the pot, season with the salt, red pepper, and ground cilantro. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, then fold in the remaining yogurt. Bring down to a low flame and cook until the chicken is done, possibly another 10-15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Add the rice to the boiling water, bring back to boil and cook the rice for two to three minutes. Strain in a colander. Place the saffron in a cup and add a warm tablespoon of water. Remove the chicken from the Dutch Oven and place on a platter. Add half the rice to the Dutch Oven, season with the saffron, a little more of red pepper, and the cardamom. Add the chicken, all the juices, and the remaning rice. Place in the oven and heat for another 20 to 30 minutes.

Accompany with pita or lavash. A squeeze of lemon juice and a little touch of the chutney is lovely, as well.

Serves 4-6


Apricots are a favorite fruit in Afghanistan and this popular dessert is traditionally made with them. I couldn’t find fresh apricots, so I substituted peaches. Peaches grow wild in Afghanistan. I also used frozen cherries instead of fresh, substituting the juice of the defrosting cherries for granulated sugar in the recipe.

1/2 cup almonds

1/2 cup pistachios

1/2 cup walnut pieces

1/2 cup frozen, pitted cherries

1/2 cup peaches

1/2 cup black raisins

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup cherry juice

1 tablespoon rosewater

Place the frozen cherries in a small colander and let them thaw over a bowl to collect the juice. You should have about 1/4 cup after an hour.

Bring a cup of water to a boil. Place the almonds in a bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let this sit for five minutes then remove the skins from the almonds with a paper towel.

Cut the peaches into cubes and the cherries in half.

Place all the ingredients, except the cherry juice and rosewater into a small pot. Cover with water and bring to a gentle boil. Cook for about three minutes. Remove from heat. Place this mixture in a mixing bowl, add the cherry juice and the rosewater and stir. Dessert You can refrigerate the Ambrosia for up to three days.

For a variation, add a teaspoon of mint.

Serves 4-6

We gain sustenance, solace, and joy from food. Hunger is quenched. The hunger for education in Afghani women is one that is far more difficult to satisfy. It is against Taliban law for any woman or young girl to receive an education. There are ways to help. Donate money to the education of females in Afghanistan, as well as worldwide, at this site.

The acclaimed Afghani poet Nadia Anjuman died in 2005. It is widely believed that she was murdered by her husband, her family “shamed” by the publication of her poems. Nadia was part of The Sewing Circles of Herat, a rebellious group that taught literature to women, under the threat of death from the Taliban.

Iranian poet Majid Naficy wrote this poem in honor of Nadia Anjuman.

My poem has the scent of Nadia

When I light the oven early morning

My bread looks like Dari poetry

I find its starter in my dreams

And I knead it between sleep and waking.

My wheat comes from the land of Toos

Where Ferdowsi spread its seeds,

And my poppy seeds from the valley of Yamgan

Where Naser Khosrow planted their roots,

And my oven pebbles from the banks of Amoo River

Where Roodaki called them soft as silk,

And my firewood from the grove of Balkh reeds

Where Rumi kept the fire of his love.

But when I take it out of the oven

It looks like a Sangak bread

Shaped as a Woman in her chadour,

Shouting voicelessly: “It’s me,

The poet of ‘Dark Flower,’

Ravaged by my step-husband in Herat.”

My bread looks like Dari poetry

Perfumed with the scent of Nadia.

If you want it hot and fresh

Put your hand in the fire.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Roz permalink
    September 20, 2009 4:36 am

    I am always looking for new recipes; and I enjoy your writing, so I will keep reading. Looking forward to you getting more famous! A book, a movie! You should contact the food network. Anyway, looking forward to seeing you in October. Victory Pig Pizza! Kingston Cuisine!

  2. September 20, 2009 10:13 am

    You know I love Azeen’s. The way you write about your cooking, I can almost taste it. Love the bits of history, too. And that poem. Oh, that poem.

  3. Nicolas permalink
    September 20, 2009 11:29 am

    Carol and I were just talking about how we’d like to experience new recipes ; well, we will look no further than here Denise ! What you share here is actually more of a journey in Afghanistan than mere recipes ! Looking forward to what will come next !

  4. Mars permalink
    September 21, 2009 7:46 pm

    Denise, we look forward to traveling the world with you as our culinary & cultural tour guide! It’s going to be a great adventure for us without having to get out our passports. What a great introduction with your Afghani dishes … they certainly look & sound delectable. Also, thank you for sharing the poem for Nadia. It was heart wrenchingly beautiful.

  5. September 22, 2009 4:33 am

    Thank you to everyone who has commented on the board, by e.mail and Facebook. Your feedback & support is very encouraging.


  6. Johnf619 permalink
    September 26, 2014 1:40 am

    I got what you intend, thankyou for putting up.Woh I am glad to find this website through google. It is a very hard undertaking to seek to please everybody. by Publilius Syrus. fddgedkadkec

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