People always ask me, “What is Afghan food like? Is it like Indian food?” The answer is a resounding “No”.
As you can imagine, local ingredients, culture and religion all play a part in the development of a country’s cuisine. Afghan food has influences from many places including India, other Central Asian countries, Turkey and Italy. Afghan food is neither spicy, nor bland. It is a blend of perfectly balanced ingredients, lightly seasoned to highlight the best flavors.
Qabili Palau, also known as Kabuli Palau, is the quintessential Afghan dish served at parties, weddings and celebrations. Qabili is a gorgeous blend of rice, chicken, carrots, raisins and nuts for a crunch. Since it takes time to make Qabili, and it requires expensive ingredients such as meat and nuts, you will not find this dish on a Wednesday night family dinner menu. Every cook has her own way of cooking this dish. Jeja (my mom) doesn’t like to add nuts, while my sister Zohra adds almonds and pistachios. Our recipe here calls for slivered almonds; which adds a slight crunch without too much fuss. The countries of the middle world are home to many versions of this pilaf rice dish, but I must say that the Afghan Qabili Palau is the star of the bunch.
In our Afghan community, Jeja is well known for making the best rice dishes. So, she is very particular about the kind of rice she uses. Her requirements are that the rice must be strong enough to hold up to all the cooking, it must expand when soaked (a step we have skipped) and it should never stick or break. She is with rice like Kim Kardashian is with Hermes bags, only the latest and the best. We have taken Jeja’s recipe and simplified it so you can also enjoy this amazing dish with out spending hours in the kitchen. Qabili Palau is also made with lamb and beef. We have featured chicken in this recipe.
Afghanistan’s National Dish
3 cups basmati rice
5 skinless chicken legs
5 skinless chicken thighs
2 large yellow onions, peeled and quartered
½ c plus 2 tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil, divided
5 tsp. salt
1 cup chicken broth
3 large carrots, peeled
1 cup black raisins
½ cup slivered almonds
3 tbsp. sugar
¾ cup water
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 ½ tsp. ground cardamom
½ tsp. ground black pepper
12 cups water
2 tsp. browning sauce such at Kitchen Bouquet (optional)*
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
Immerse rice in a bowl of water and drain in a colander. Repeat this step 3 times.
Wash and dry the chicken. Set aside.
Chop the onions in a food processor using the pulse button. Don't puree the onions. You can do this by hand if you prefer.
Choose a sauté pan that is at least a couple inches deep and large enough to fit all the chicken. Pour ½ cup of the oil in the pan and sauté the onions over high heat, stirring quickly, until brown (5-10 minutes). Don't burn them. Add the chicken to the pan and sprinkle with 3 tsp. of the salt. Cook the chicken over medium-high heat for 6 minutes, turning from time to time so all sides turn golden brown. The onion will start to caramelize and turn into a thick sauce. Add 1/4 cup of the chicken broth, and continue stirring to keep the chicken from burning. Once the liquid has been absorbed, add another 1/4 cup of, bring it to a boil, cover with a lid or aluminum foil, and simmer for 10 minutes. The sauce should turn a dark brown. If your sauce does not take on a dark color you can add the Kitchen Bouquet to give it color.
While the chicken is cooking, cut the carrots into long matchsticks, about 4 inches long and 1/8-inch thick. Make sure that they are not too thin. In a large frying pan add ¾ cups of water and bring to a boil, add the carrots and cook until tender and a deep orange hue, 5 to 7 minutes. Keep a close eye on this to make sure you do not overcook them. Once the carrots are done, drain any leftover liquid out of the pan. Add the remaining 2 tbsp of oil, raisins, almonds and sugar to the carrots. Stir quickly over medium-high heat and keep stirring for about 3 minutes. The raisins will look plump; the carrots will take on a nice sweet flavor. Remove from heat and package the carrots into a sealed aluminum foil pouch about the size of a small paperback novel.
Remove the chicken pieces from the broth and set aside. Stir the cumin, cardamom and black pepper into the broth. Continue to cook on low for 5 minutes to allow it to thicken.
Meanwhile, measure 12 cups of water and the remaining 2 tsp. of salt into a large Dutch oven or pot (see our Palau post for photos) with a fitted lid. Bring it to a boil. Add the rice to the water and boil until it is al dente (nearly cooked, though still slightly crunchy). This will take just a few minutes depending on the rice you use. You will have to taste it to check for doneness. Do not overcook it.
Immediately strain the rice through a colander. Put the rice back into its cooking pot and add the broth. Mix well. Arrange the chicken pieces on top of the rice. Set the aluminum package of carrots on top of the rice. This will keep the carrots warm and deepen the flavors without mixing with the rice yet.
Bake the rice for 15 minutes in 500 degrees then drop the temperature down to 250 degrees. Cook for another 20 minutes.
Arrange the chicken pieces on a large platter, cover with the rice. Sprinkle the carrots, raisins, and almonds on the rice. Serve with a simple salad.
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