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Aerial views of Afghanistans' craggy mountains and expansive valleys is an ideal way to savor Afghanistan. Image is by Reinis Melioraskis./Attribution NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Food is more than what we put into our bodies… It’s the feel of a place, something language can’t get at, the memory of a place as it forms. Wherever I am, food is what takes me there. —Jessica Fechtor, Stir

You say Kabuli, I say Qabili. Whatever we end up calling it, we’ll likely agree that Afghanistan’s national dish, Qabili (Kabuli) Palau, is delicious.  

The secret to Qabili Palau’s allure is Afghanistan’s unique geography and history. The country lies along what was once THE crucial trade route between Persia and India.

As a result, for thousands of years, caravans from these two great empires traveled through this mountain country. And Afghan cuisine, in a very literal sense, soaked up Persian and Indian culture.

In Qabili Palau, you can taste the difference they made.

Savor Afghanistan! Surprise your friends and family by serving Qabili Palau for your next special occasion together.

A SHORT HISTORY OF QABILI PALAU

The slow-cooked rice dish was born in Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, in the households of the well-to-do. Only they had the means to buy raisin, nuts, and carrots to flavor their rice. Hence, its original name, Kabuli Palau.

Kabuli =  of Kabul

Palau  =  rice cooked in broth, prepared in such a way that the grains fluff, stay separated, and never get mushy, introduced by the Persians. (More about the Iran-Afghanistan connection later.) 

Then, as economic prosperity grew throughout Afghanistan, so did the popularity of Kabuli Palau. Soon people all over the country were eating it. And the dish took on a new name: Qabili Palau. 

Qabil means “having skill or know-how” in more than a few languages spoken in Central Asia, including Dari, one of the two official languages spoken in Afghanistan. 

The thinking back then was that only someone with mad-cooking skills could prepare this dish.

That opinion still stands today.

Afghans say a woman who can make a great Qabili Palau attracts more marriage proposals than one who doesn’t. So it’s easy to imagine that Afghan men, when courting, ask themselves questions like:

“Is she pretty?” 

“Does she laugh at my jokes?”

and 

“Can she cook a mean Qabili?”

How do we know this? Well, because it’s much the same way with American men. Just swap the word “Qabili” with “ribeye steak” and you’ll understand what I mean.

Now it happens that Qabili Palau…

is not the only type of Palau prepared in Afghanistan. You’ll find people eating different versions of the dish throughout Central Asia…

Qabili Palau is popular throughout Central Asia. There are as many varieties of the dish as there are countries where it is eaten.

…from as far west as Iran to as far east as the Xinjiang Uyghur region of China. 

But ALL of those versions combine rice, meat, vegetables, and spices to make a special occasion dish that has been satisfying much of Asia for centuries. 

So how have Afghans managed to make “Qabili Palau” their unique own?

First of all, they use specific kinds of rice, meat, vegetables, and spices in the dish.

  • The rice is good quality basmati;
  • The meat is typically lamb and, from time to time, beef or chicken; 
  • Carrots and onions, caramelized to perfection, play the featured roles as “the vegetables.” 
  • The spice blend always includes cardamom and cumin.

Afghans also put plenty of raisins and nuts, typically slivered almonds, in Qabili Palau.

It's impossible to savor Afghanistan fully without black raisins, slivered almonds, cardamom, and cumin, all key ingredients of Qabili Palau (AKA Kabuli Palau).

Afghans are well, “nuts” about nuts, and popular recipes feature almonds, pistachios, and pine nuts, as well as many others. You could say they like raisins, too.

Afghans have many different kinds of dried fruit and nuts to cook with: fruits and nuts together comprise more than a third of the country’s total exports. 

7 Fun Facts about Afghan Food

  1. Though it was the Persians who introduced Palau to the Afghans and to others throughout Central Asia, the basic dish of rice with vegetables and a rich blend of spices likely originated in India.
  2. Depending on who’s doing the cooking and where in the world they’re doing it, you’ll see recipes with the word Afghans pronounce as “Palau” spelled a number of ways. They include polo and polow (Iran), as well as plov (Uzbekistan). And in the U.S. and elsewhere outside of Asia — as you may have guessed by now — pilaf.
  3. Onions are to Afghans as chile is to New Mexicans: they’re in (almost) everything.
  4. Over 100 varieties of grapes grow in Afghanistan, some suitable for wine. However, since wine production is against the law in this Islamic country, growing raisins is the next most profitable thing to do with all of those grapes. 
  5. Although some Afghan grape farmers have found it more profitable to repurpose their land to raise opium poppies, other farmers still maintain traditional raisin houses (keshmesh khanas) where row after row of heavy grapes hang on racks, drying in the sun. 
  6. Basmati, the name given to the long-grain variety used to prepare any Afghan-style Palau, means “my smile” in Arabic and “fragrant” in Hindi.
  7. “Little Kabul” in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Fremont is home to the largest Afghan community in the U.S. and a number of eateries serving Qabili Palau and other tasty Afghan foods.

Afghanistan, with all of its beauty and yes, confusion, too, is far away. However, in preparing Qabili Palau at home, you can celebrate and taste some of the best this ancient culture has to offer at home. You’ll also feed your family well and that’s ALL good.