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.
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.”
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.
Here are some of my favourite Afghan dishes.
1. Qabili Palau
2. Mantu (Afghan dumplings)
5. Afghan Burger
6. Fish Karahi
7. Sugarcane Juice
8. 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.