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.
Afghanistan’s unique geography and history make Qabili Palau a cultural phenomenon as well. The country lies along what was 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, influencing Afghan culture and customs. And in Qabili Palau, you can taste the difference they made.
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?”
“Can she cook a mean Qabili?”
How do I know this? Well, because it’s much the same way with American men. Just swap the word “Qabili” with “ribeye” and see if it isn’t so.
Now it happens that Qabili Palau…
is not the only type of Palao prepared in Afghanistan. You’ll find versions of Palau on tables throughout Central Asia:
From as far west as Iran to the Xinjiang Uyghur region of China and each one differs from the next.
But they ALL 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 made “Qabili Palau” their unique own?
For one thing, they use specific kinds of rice, meat, vegetables, and spices in the dish.
1) The rice is good quality basmati;
2) The meat is typically lamb and, from time to time, beef or chicken;
3) Carrots and onions, caramelized to perfection, play the featured roles as “the vegetables.”
4) The spice blend always includes cardamom and cumin.
Afghans also put plenty of raisins and nuts, typically slivered almonds, in Qabili 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.
Related Fun Facts for Food Lovers
- 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.
- 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.
- Onions are to Afghans as chile is to New Mexicans: it’s in (almost) everything.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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 tasty Afghan food.
STILL HUNGRY (to learn more about Afghanistan)?
Watch The Kite Runners movie.
Most movies about Afghanistan are all about invasion and conflict. They focus on the nightmare the country has become since being invaded by the Soviet Union (now Russia) in 1979.
But you learn little about the Afghan people who have come through the conflict. And nothing at all about what it was like to live in Afghanistan before Russia and the Taliban.
The Kite Runners is different. Here is a great story that will hold your attention and likely, make you smile, laugh, cheer, and break your heart in places, as it did mine. (But attention: Use caution in watching this with young children, because one scene may disturb them. It’s short duration, and we see only enough to understand what’s going on, but it’s there.)
Then AFTER watching the movie…
Read The Kite Runners book, by Khaled Hosseini.
Any other time there is both a movie and a book version of a story, I’d advise reading the book first. Yet, every review of this movie I’ve read to date, the reviewers who read the book then saw the movie report feeling “disappointed.” They really enjoy the movie, but they “miss” a lot of the details and nuances contained in the printed version of this story. And they miss it — big time because the book is that good.
And now that I’ve begun reading The Kite Runners book myself, I agree!
There’s much more to this beautiful and haunting story than the movie reveals. So once again, in case I haven’t made myself clear:
Check out these virtual resources for Afghan culture and cuisine:
Dine at DeAfghanan Kabob House your next time in San Francisco.
It’s the latest of several well-loved Afghan restaurants opened by Aziz Omar, who grew up in Kabul and fled Afghanistan a year after Russia invaded. It’s where to score a number of well-prepared Afghan dishes, including Qabili Palao (spelled pallow!)
Now see that? There’s still another way to spell this dish. But as I said at the top, it doesn’t matter what you call it; just make a plan to find some or make some yourself, and eat it.
P.S. The title of this article is “Savor Afghanistan” for two good reasons. Yes, the word, “savor” means to enJoy something thoroughly, usually food or drink. But did you also know it means “to give flavor to” or “to season” something or someone?
Maybe you can’t get to “Little Kabul” today, and would rather not travel to Afghanistan right now. But there is a way you can savor the country and its people today. By praying. Don’t know what to pray about? No prob. For ideas and two simple prayers to pray, CLICK HERE.