I have happy memories of Kabul winters: Snow fights, sledding off the garden wall on metal trays into our backyard, and best of all, no school. Unlike the rest of the year, in the winter my family shared all three meals together. Each meal seemed like a big event. We ate hearty soups, stews, casseroles and rice dishes such as aush, shohla, kitchree quroot and lawndee. They are filling, nourishing and warming. I loved all of these dishes but my favorite was lawndee palau, a rice delicacy made with salted and dried lamb, lamb jerky, if you will.
I can only guess that the practice of drying meat started when people were house bound in the winters with no refrigeration and no access to fresh meat. Even though we were able to move around Kabul in the winter, our family still practiced this tradition, as did many others.
In the fall when the weather started cooling off, perhaps late September or early October, my family would buy one or two slaughtered lambs. The lambs were brought to us by Agha Lala, the head farmer on our land in Ghazni, about a two-hour drive from Kabul. Agha Lala would butcher the lamb, always a big event at our house. No part of the lamb was wasted including the dumba, the fat in the rear of the lamb. This prized piece of lamb would be fried for lunch and we would savor each chewy, salty bite along with a piece of nan bread. Any leftover dumba would be rolled into the fresh dough of that day’s bread and baked. Once again we would enjoy the rich, fatty bites.
Once the lamb was butchered meat it would be thoroughly salted, pierced in the middle and strung up to dry using nylon rope. The meat would hang on the side of the house where it would get plenty of fall sun but was out of reach of neighborhood cats, our dog Rusty and other meat-loving creatures. After four to six weeks the meat would be dried and we would share some of it with family and neighbors as a special gift. The dried meat was kept in lidded containers and stored in the attic where it was cool, and dry.
Over the course of the winter months various delicacies would be made with this meat but the most popular was lawndee palau, a slow-cooked rice dish with raisins. We would squeeze oranges or lemons over the rice and meat to balance the richness and saltiness of the lamb. In our 30 years of residence in the US my mom, Jeja has not made lawndee palau. Perhaps at first it was because the dried meat was not available. But even now that lawndee is sold at most Afghan markets in the Bay Area, she still doesn’t make it.
So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that my aunt Khala Mayen was going to make lawndee palau during her visit over the holidays.I spent the better part of an afternoon with her, leaving my children and visiting in-laws to fend for themselves so that I could learn to make what was one of my favorite childhood dishes. She is famous for her lawndee palau. To insure best results she went so far as to haul her own cookware from her home in Orange County, pots large enough to bathe a toddler.
My aunt explained that the best lawndee should be completely dry and white in color as you see above. She didn’t trust the quality of the lawndee in the Bay Area so she brought meat from her own trusted source.
Below marks the process Khala Mayen took to make lawndee palau:
-She washed about 10 pounds of meat three times in cold water, and then soaked it overnight in a big pot.
-The next morning she rinsed 10 cups of long grain rice three times and soaked it in a large bowl.
-She soaked 2 cups of black raisins in warm water.
-She chopped two onions and sautéed them in ½ cup of vegetable oil.
-She drained the meat and then added it to the onion mixture along with enough water to cover the meat. After bringing it to a boil, she dropped the temperature to low and cooked it for an hour or so until it was soft and the liquid had reduced. She scooped off the fat from the top of the pot.
-Khala Mayen makes her own fried onions, which she uses generously in palau and other dishes. She added a few scoops of the onions and cooked the meat another 10-20 minutes until the sauce took on a deep brown color. She separated the meat and the sauce in two separate bowls.
-She boiled the rice until al dente and drained the water. She then returned the rice to the pot with the sauce from the cooked meat along with Jeja’s pre-mixed palau spices (coriander, black pepper, black and green cardamom) and a generous amount of salt. All the ingredients were mixed together until all the grains of rice were coated with the sauce.
-She piled the cooked meat on top of the rice. She topped all of this off with an additional cup of vegetable oil and an entire stick of butter (to which I gasped over the amount of fat).
-She wrapped the raisins in aluminum foil and placed them on top of the rice to cook along with the rice.
-She baked this giant pot of rice and meat in the oven at 500 degrees for 20 minutes and then baked it another 30 minutes at 250 degrees.
As the lawndee cooked a strong scent of lamb filled the kitchen. It’s a smell many Afghans savor, but it frankly overwhelmed my senses. This didn’t stop me from hovering nearby when my aunt pulled the pot from the oven. I wanted to take in the lovely sight of golden brown long rice kernels, the plump raisins and the flaky pieces of meat. Khala Mayen was worried that she didn’t make enough food but I assured her that she made enough to feed the whole neighborhood.
As she was putting the rice onto my mom’s unusually large serving platter, she kept worrying that the rice was too dry. Her daughters told me that normally oil drips from Khala Mayen’s lawndee palau that no orange or lemon juice could cut through that fat. I think secretly Khala Mayen blamed me for the lack of oil in this dish.
Everyone loved the lawndee palau. Our Iranian friend Sasha had three large servings and then promptly took a nap.I was surprised to find I didn’t enjoy the dish as much as I had remembered. Don’t get me wrong, I ate a plateful, and it was tasty, but the combination of the lamb scent and seeing the amount of oil and butter that went into the dish didn’t sit well with my Americanized sensibilities.
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