A Taste of War

Cooking from Afghanistan A Simple Lesson in Freshness

Afghani restaurants have become a common sight in American cities since the 1980s as the invasion of the Soviet Union forced many Afghanis into refugee status.  The combat actions in Afghanistan since 2001 have created a strong desire among combat veterans to again taste the special foods of this mountainous region which has been marred by war for thousands of years, starting with Alexander the Great.

Veterans of combat in Afghanistan almost universally praise the local food and the most common recollection is freshness and good taste. Afghan cooking blends the spices and flavors of the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, India and Pakistan. Rice dishes spiced with raisins and carrots or tomatoes are just as much a staple as the traditional hot flat bread or pita bread.

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Writes Captain Mark Reinhardt, USMC, who fought in Afghanistan: “I found the food in Afghanistan to be measurably better than that in Iraq for one reason:  it was fresh. Stationed in the far reaches of the country, in the “Tribal Administered Area”, we had no chow halls.  The upside of this was that we did not have to provide security escort to the sanity-testing Jordanian food convoys like we did in Iraq.” “The downside was that our chow logistics system involved a small herd of medium-sized, very stubborn, occasionally violent donkeys.

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“I tried to eat one meal a day with the ANA (Afghan National Army) at their small camp very close to the Pakistani border, usually evening chow to go over the plan for the next day.  “There was a jury-rigged chow hall that had set out frozen pizzas, half-frozen lunch “meat –for some reason it was always salami – and the occasional hot tray-ration.  I liked it because it was something different and American but truth be told we ate better quality food with the Afghans.”

“At the ANA camp, we always tried to buy as much as possible from local farmers.  That meant the majority of our fruits and vegetables were fresh. We also hired a baker and a cook for the camp as well as a shepherd for the herd of goats.

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“A major perk was the fresh bread.”  We dug a Dutch oven six feet underground and four feet wide at the opening, and enjoyed new bread every day.  After lighting the fires at around 05:30, the baker would mix roughly equal parts flour and water; add salt and sugar, then roll the dough into flat ovals about eight inches wide and 15 inches long.  He would then sprinkle water on the flat pieces, adhere them to a large pad attached to a stick about five feet long, lean into the oven and slap the dough up against the clay side of the oven.  After five minutes or less, he would reach into the oven with a two-pronged spear, skewer four or five pieces of bread and bring them up.

A quick breakfast was usually a piece of this hot, freshly baked flatbread torn into pieces and dipped in very thick cream (almost like clotted cream) with copious amounts of sugar sprinkled on top.  As the day progressed, the bread became noticeably staler but made an excellent eating utensil.  Lunch was generally a quick bite of leftovers or, if on patrol, part of an MRE.”

“At around 15:00 the cook would begin to prepare dinner. The staple meal was a stew of onion, tomato, potato, any other vegetable we happened to come by, and goat. The meat was cut into chunks that somehow managed to never come from a part of the animal that was identifiable.  This was put in a large cauldron with sliced onions, tomatoes and enough salted water to just cover it, then slow-cooked for three hours. Cut potatoes were added about 30 minutes before serving. This cooking method broke down the onions and tomatoes into a thick stew with very tender pieces of goat meat, given body by the potatoes.  This stew was served over a large bowl of rice and beans.  Everyone sat Indian style around the bowl with a piece of flatbread as a sort of trencher.  We would dig in with our hands (always the right hand) and bread.  It got a little dicey when, to be polite, one of the officers would “cut” pieces of meat with his hand and put it in front of me.  Afghan food is surprisingly un-spicy (though not bland) and I was surprised that the MRE Tabasco sauce never found a place in it.

A variation of the stew was a soup, made by adding more water and removing the tomatoes from the mix.  For a “formal” dinner, such as one to which we had invited some of the local village elders, we would augment the stew with pieces of meat by themselves, roasted chicken, slices of raw tomato with salt, and watermelon with salt for dessert.  Afghan watermelons are smaller and rounder than ours, more the size of a honeydew melon. Throughout every meal we drank huge amounts of chai (tea) which is essentially a cup of sugar with a splash of tea added.”

“From time to time we would spend a week or so on one of the platoon sized observation posts.  The OP troops were issued MREs and had hot chow delivered by donkey once a day.  Sometimes we would bring a goat with us, slaughter it, and hang it on a tree to feed us for the week.  We covered the carcass with a tarp to keep the flies off.  It brought a welcome change from the stew as we would make kabobs and roasts seasoned with spices that I unfortunately did not get to identify.”

Critical flavors in this cuisine are spices such as cardamom, cumin, and cinnamon which tend to add a sweet aroma to all dishes.  Afghan food is not “hot” or “spicy” but tends to create a deep flavor, resulting for many hours of marinating.  Typical is the key classic Afghan dish Qabili Palao – made with either chicken or lamb or both – and enhanced with browned rice, spices, golden raisins and carrots. Another very common dish are variations of Kebabs and Aushak –  dumplings typically served over garlicky yogurt sauce and layered with a thick ground-beef, tomato sauce with dried mint and crushed red pepper sprinkled on top.   Endless variations of this dish can be created

(see these web sites for recipes: http://papayamessiah.livejournal.com/5199.html and http://www.recipezaar.com/152701)