Durkhanai Ayubi, author of Parwana: Recipes and stories from an Afghan kitchen, describes how an ancient history helped to shape the flavours of Afghanistan.

How do you think food tells Afghanistan’s story?

“Afghanistan’s story, and that of its people, is embedded within its cuisine.

“From the ancient exchanges that provided a panoply of ingredients, like various spices and nuts…to the more recent concept of its own nationhood emerging strongly in the nineteenth century and captured in ‘national’ dishes like the kabuli palaw rice, to a story of exile.

“Afghan food now helps the Afghan diaspora…all around the world to stay connected to memories and ancestral ways.

“In my own family’s lived memory, my mother’s relationship to our traditional cuisine…went from being immersed in Afghanistan’s ways during a time of cultural flourishing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and being a reflection of sweet memories like picnics with extended family beneath the Hindu Kush mountains, to transforming into a tether to these otherwise transient moments as we became displaced people.

“For my sisters and I, our relationship to our traditional cuisine is reflective of having lived nearly all of our lives away from our ancestral lands, making our connection one most symbolic of preservation, reclamation and restoration.

“Ultimately, food is a narrative — one that ebbs and flows alongside the experiences, the suffering and the joy of its people.”

Parwana resonates with a sense of love towards Afghanistan’s ancient history and culture as well as its food. How important is this to you?

“When I set out to write this book, I was very conscious of the need to share a far larger story about Afghanistan…

“Part of this was about a reclamation… of Afghanistan’s glorious history and culture — a story which, far from being peripheral, contours the shape of our world today, and which potentially offers many prescient lessons beyond the lens of seeing it and its people through a lens of trauma and irreconcilability alone.

“The region today known as Afghanistan, sits at the heart of the ancient silk roads — a series of trade networks that linked civilisations across the globe.

“Through these networks, many things were exchanged including precious goods (like metals, gems and silks), but also various ingredients, philosophies and ideas.

“Further, through its history, Afghanistan has been home to ancient Persian, Greek and Indian civilisations, to name just a few.

“It is a spiritual heartland too. Ancient faiths like Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Sufism have had their zenith in these lands…

“When looked at in this way, we can appreciate more deeply the idea that our shared human culture has been built upon a great exchange.

“This exchange, and the various cultures and peoples that passed through Afghanistan, or who stayed and settled for centuries, has been encoded into Afghan cuisine and the traditions that surround it…

“To me, Afghan cuisine is a symbol of the cross-pollination that has defined our shared human story, and reminds us of possibilities that have, to our own collective detriment, been long neglected.

“To me, it would have been remiss to explore Afghan food without exploring the depth of history, exchanges, people and moments that…make it what it is.”

Growing up, what was your favourite traditional food and why?

“Bolanis (stuffed flatbreads) and the dumpling dishes (like the ashak and the mantu). Apart from loving the taste there was always an excitement attached to the preparation of these dishes.

“It would be done all together, collectively with family and friends. These were times of laughter, joy and connection.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but these were moments that would shape who I would become.”

What ingredients do you always have at home?

“Rice, the bedrock of our cuisine; spices like turmeric, cloves, cumin and cardamom; nuts like pistachios, almonds and walnuts — added to a lot of our dishes, sweet and savoury; fresh herbs like mint and coriander; and vegetables like chilli, onion, tomatoes, garlic — these form the foundation of nearly all our sauce-based dishes.”

What would you cook for guests who were new to Afghan food?

“I would prepare the banjaan borani (braised eggplant and yoghurt) with some maash palaw (mung bean rice).

“The eggplant is a signature dish at Parwana (the family restaurant), and something everyone new to Afghan cuisine should try for its exceptional blend of flavour, texture and acidity.

“And this particular rice dish is one of my favourites — the mung beans make it earthy, the sultanas make it pop with sweet bursts.

“I would have chutneys, an Afghan salad and some fresh naan on the side.”

How do you hope to celebrate Nawroz (New Year) in March?

“We like to gather together as a family, prepare the dishes like the sabzi (spinach) and fresh yoghurt.

“We also prepare the haft mewa, which is a special fruit compote made during the New Year.

“Nawroz is a beautiful celebration that reminds us of the ancient history that precedes us, and we can appreciate this together as a family through the special cuisine made toe mark this moment.”

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