As the non-Afghan in this blogging duo I feel a particular responsibility to get my Afghan food facts straight. Humaira reviews all of my posts before they go live to make sure I don’t embarrass us both with some glaring misstep in my recipes (“No Katie, an Afghan would never use brown rice in her challaw”).
Humaira and I both strive to have our recipes be as authentic as possible. As self-appointed ambassadors for Afghan cooking, we’ve collectively wondered how much room there is to “play” with ingredients. It’s a little tricky. Luckily, Afghan food is not a cuisine of extremes. There aren’t a lot of unusual ingredients, strange tastes or searing spiciness. But I do find myself wanting to tinker with recipes and ratios to suit my own American tastes.
For example, in Afghanistan when you are served kofta (seasoned ground beef or lamb), the amount of oil used is a measure of the cook’s generosity. So when a host sets kofta swimming in fat in front of you, it’s a sort of honor. But I use a lighter hand with the olive oil bottle. To me, it’s more appealing, healthier and more balanced.
Also, I’m a nut for dark leafy greens. Much to my kids' chagrin, I manage to work kale, chard and beet greens into all manner of dishes throughout fall and winter. My favorite Afghan recipes are no exception. I’m particularly fond of melting chard into aush, a tasty Afghan soup. It’s not something you’d see back in Afghanistan and I’ve wondered if this renders my aush an interloper. But isn’t that the beauty of home cooking, the freedom to make each dish your own?
So, I was comforted when I attended a panel discussion of Central Asian chefs called “Spice Route Meets California Cuisine. ”The three presenters, Sri Gopinathan, chef of Campton Place, Hoss Zare, of Fly Trap, and Afreen Wahab, an academician, all agreed that bringing old world foods to new world cultures does sometimes mean making changes.
Interestingly the panelists pointed out that even within India, the country’s famous spice blend garam masala varies not just by region or even by village, but by cook. There is no “right” way to make it.Each housewife crafts her own version according to her personal taste.
Afghans have their own “garam masala” I suppose. It’s the spice mixture used in palau, Afghanistan’s classic chicken and rice dish. And every Afghan cook does it her own way. Ours has just a few ingredients: cumin, cardamom, and black pepper. My American twist on the combination is to use it as a spice rub for chicken, lamb or beef. This is hardly authentic, but wholly delicious.
Palau Spice Mixture
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 ½ tsp. ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Combine the spices. Use in palau (see recipe under main dishes) or as a spice rub for grilled lamb, beef or chicken along with a sprinkling of salt.
Seasonings used in palau, clockwise from top left: black pepper, salt, cumin, and cardamom
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