Heating and Eating in Afghanistan

Completely irrelevant to performance or education matters, this excerpt taken from Helen Saberi’s “Noshe Djan: Afghan Food and Cookery” (1986/2000), published by Prospect Books in London, has an illustration which I want to capture as part of an ongoing archive of Afghan cultures. Food – and how we sit around the table – I guess, is one of the best ways to learn about the customary practices of any society or community. Learning new vocabulary items will also help too.

Afghan Food Spread

Afghan Food Spread (Source: link)

Saberi writes:

The traditional mode of eating in Afghanistan is on the floor. Everyone sits around on large colourful cushions, called toshak. These cushions are normally placed on the beautiful carpets for which Afghanistan is famous. A large cloth or thin mat called a disterkhan is spread over the floor or carpet before the dishes of food are brought. In summer, food is often served outside in the cooler night air, or under a shady tree during the day. In the depth of winter, food is eaten around the sandali, the traditional form of Afghan heating. A sandali consists of a low table covered with a large duvet called a liaf which is also big enough to cover the legs of the occupants, sitting on their cushions or mattresses and supported by large pillows called balesht or poshty. Under the table is a charcoal brazier called a manqal. The charcoal has to be thoroughly burned previously and covered with ashes.”

Afghan System of Heating

Afghan System of Heating (Source: Helen Saberi, 1986/2000)

With reference to the above illustration, I don’t remember the square blankets over the table when I was in Afghanistan, but I do remember seeing a metal stove with chopped wood being burnt inside, with a long chimney-looking chute that transfers the soot outside the building. This is called a bukhari. But as the stove is heated up with the wood, a tank of water above this gets heated as well, thereby providing boiling water to make the favourite tea, or chai. This was most common in restaurants.

Food is a communal affair. Usually three or four people (or more on many occasions) gather around a larger platter of rice and side dishes of stew or vegetables, and always  accompanied with nan (bread), and sometimes chutneys (sauces). Traditionally, Afghans  eat with their right hands without cutlery, of course after the handwashing ceremony in a bowl and jug, called haftawa-wa-lagan.


Haftawa-wa-lagan (Source: Helen Saberi, 1986/2000)

Here are some of my favourite Afghan dishes.

1. Qabili Palau

2. Mantu (Afghan dumplings)


Mantu (Source: Ariana and Co; link)

3. Kebabs


Kebab (Source: LA Times; link)

4. Boulanee

5. Afghan Burger

6. Fish Karahi

Fish karahi

A photo posted by Ed Chow (@chowchowed) on

7. Sugarcane Juice

Sugarcane juice

Sugarcane juice



8. Ice Cream

Ice Cream

Ice Cream

There is a lot more to delicious Afghan cuisines, but I do not remember the names, nor do I have the photos. For now, I can only imagine the taste in the company of good friends.

Performing Molière in Afghanistan in the 1970s

Mohammad Ali Raonaq is the first translator of Molière’s plays from French to Dari. Having had his education in France, Ali Raonaq returned to Afghanistan in the 1950s.

Ali Raonaq (screenshot from film archive)

Ali Raonaq (screenshot from film archive)

From then on, the translated works became popular among the actors of that time. Continue reading

Kabul National Theatre (Kabul Nandari) in the 1970s

The Kabul National Theatre, or Kabul Nandari (in Dari), was destroyed after the arrival of the Mujahideens, presumably in the late 1980s. But before that, during the Communist regime under the administration of Dr Mohammad Najibullah (or Dr Najib, for short), the theatre was deemed to be a cultural mecca, according to the stage managers at Kabul Nandari in the French documentary by Alexandra Paraboschi, “Afghanistan: Reconstructing Through Theatre” (see link). Even foreign artists came to Kabul to perform in a sophisticated performance space that had mechanical capabilities Continue reading

Black Crows: Saudi’s Veil over Education in Afghanistan

In the 19 December 2014 broadcast of a special series titled “The Girls of the Taliban” (watch the full documentary here), Najibullah Quraishi and Jamie Doran from Al Jazeera raise an alarming concern that the new wave of religious teaching across Kunduz, Afghanistan, will put women’s rights groups under threat. According to Al Jazeera (see link), there are 1,300 unregistered madrasas — servicing more than 4,000 students under eleven years of age — that enforce an arguably stricter code than the Taliban, hence their controversial and, perhaps, misleading title. Continue reading

Islamic Values At Stake During A Theatre Performance in Kabul

I write this with immense sadness and anger.

In the 11th December 2014 terrorist attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, during a theatre performance at the Istiqlal High School, a Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that the theatre show was “desecrating Islamic values” and “propaganda against jihad” (see source). Ironically, the play was titled “Heartbeat: the silence after the explosion”, which was a condemnation of suicide attacks, according to a BBC report.

Heartbeat: The Silence After The Explosion (Image Source: Tolo News)

Many of my friends were involved in the theatre production, including the musicians from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music founded by Dr Ahmad Nasir Sarmast. Continue reading

The National Library’s Pulping of Children’s Books

Earlier, I had made a video in response to the National Library Board (NLB)’s banning and pulping of three children’s storybooks in Singapore. Watch the video below.

I was then invited to be one of the guest speakers on national TV on Channel News Asia’s “Talking Point” on Wednesday 16 July 2014. The programme was called “Books Fit For Our Kids?” The full broadcast should be available below: