Afghan Food 101
Top Things to Try
- Afghan Bread
- Kabuli Pulao
- Dessert: Firni
- Afghan Tea/Chai
Hello fellow Chronicfoodies!
Almost 10 years ago, a friend of mine knew of a place in the North end of Toronto where an Afghan family had a restaurant that showcased Afghan cuisine. There was a familiarity with the look, smell and taste but there was definitely something new in the experience.
I’m no expert but one thing is for sure, Afghan food is growing quickly in popularity but in my experience, it is a popular trend that still is under the radar of most. Over the last 10 years, it has become easier to find Afghan places to eat but the patrons seem to be only folks who apparently have roots in the Middle East or Asia.
Afghan food has become a part of my essential cuisines to eat and I love it even more because my son, has become a big fan of the food too.
We all hear and read the news about Afghanistan and it is easy for the casual person to assume many things about a country that has a history of around 5,000 years simply based on what the news has been telling us over the last 15+ years. I won’t go into the politics and stick to what I love… the food.
By the time of this blog posting, I would have hosted my first “Pop-up” dinner where alumni of Chopsticks+Forks would have dined together while being treated to an Afghan dinner. A night where the food was made and shared by an Afghan. I will likely do it again but in the meantime, if you find yourself curious, here are the top things that a beginner should indulge in if you happen to find yourself at an Afghan restaurant or dining at an Afghan’s home.
Jusep’s Favourite Places in Toronto to find Afghan Food
If you’re looking to have some solid eats of Afghan Food, here are a few suggestions and favourites of mine.
With their first in my old hood, Thorncliffe Park, this popular spot has locations all over the Greater Toronto Area and growing in popularity. A great place for the beginner to get a taste of this amazing cuisine. Bamiyan is the capital city of Bamyan Province in Central Afghanistan and the name means “land of okra”.
Another place that keeps opening up new locations around the Greater Toronto Area has been a staple stop for my son and I in the western suburb of Toronto called Mississauga. They also have a location in the downtown Toronto area to remedy those kabob “kravings”.
History note: Kandahar is the second largest city in Afghanistan but it was formerly known as Alexandria Arachosia, named after Alexander the Great back in 329 BCE. Kandahar Kabab opened a brand new location in Toronto and it is a bit more upscale with attention paid to all the senses. A beautiful spot that is well suited for a date with your significant other.
Taste of Afghanistan
If Afghan food is new to you, here are a few things you can start with:
Afghan Bread (aka: Nani)
In my personal observation, especially with Middle Eastern and West Asian cuisine, you can often identify a culture by their bread. That is the case with Afghan bread which is often made in an oval or rectangular shape and traditionally made in a Tandoor. Bread is not only a staple but like many cultures, bread is where the cuisine begins and ends. Often eaten at every meal and used as a utensil to pick up food, similarly as you would find in India and Africa, you won’t miss a meal without bread. I must confess that Afghan bread is one of my favourite gluten-filled pleasures.
This Northern Afghan dish has become such a staple that it is often referred to as the national dish of Afghanistan. A long-grained or basmati rice dish cooked in a broth sauce which can be made with meats or just veggie. Kabuli Pulao wouldn’t be what it is if it didn’t have raisins and carrots but like most dishes, variations are plenty and if you are familiar with and love Biriyani, you will love Kabuli Pulao.
Mmmm… Dumplings! If you’re familiar with Tibetan momos, Beijing Baos, Japanese Gyozas or Korean Mandoo, then Mantu will be a great taste to indulge in for the beginner. I was personally thrilled to learn about this dish as the name is very similar to the word used for dumplings in Korean. Traditionally, Mantu is stuffed with beef or lamb then steamed. Some would say that this is the most popular “street food” of Afghanistan but make no mistake, this is a dish that is not just found on a street corner, it is a popular dish that can be eaten in many different ways. The most common is to have Mantu served with “chaka” which is drained yoghurt, minced garlic, lemon, salt. Toppings vary but unlike most dumplings found in Asia, Afghans seem to prefer theirs with toppings rather than having it with a side dip. All good!
Kabob (aka: Kabab, Kebab, Kebob)
From Persian and/or Turkish roots, this meat on a stick is a favourite of mine, but who can argue with marinated meat (usually lamb) skewered and roasted over charcoal. Most North Americans and Europeans would be familiar with Shish Kabob or Doner Kabob but the variations of this dish are too many to mention but you are sure to enjoy this staple. Traditionally, Kabobs in Afghanistan is not eaten with rice, rather, with bread but I don’t think you’ll find any issues if you have your lamb, chicken or beef kabob on a bed of basmati rice or pulao.
Bolani (aka: Perakai, Poraki)
I love Bolani! I can eat this every day without any hesitation. This flatbread, thinly crusted dish can be stuffed with a variety of ingredients, such as potatoes, lentils, pumpkin, chives, or leeks and it usually has a spicy kick. A vegan and vegetarian-friendly dish that usually served with mint or plain yoghurt. I’ve heard it said that you can judge an Afghan restaurant by their bolani.
Essentially, kofta is a meatball where ground beef, lamb, mutton (sheep) or chicken and sometimes a mix of a few types of meat is cooked. There are so many variations of this dish throughout South Asia, West Asia, Middle East and really, all over the world. If you want to get down to it, the American hamburger is just an evolution of the kofta. Like the way most meat is prepared in Afghanistan, a common way is to wrap the meat on skewers and then to put it over a charcoal fire to cook. I love all variations but I’m quite partial to the beef and lamb mixed kofta. On a bed of rice and some Afghan rice, this is an easy dish to eat and to love!
Firni (aka: ferni, phirni, firnee)
One of the most popular desserts in Afganistan is a milk pudding called firni. The variations of this sweet ending to a meal are countless and can be found all over Asia and the Middle East. Common things used to make it quite fragrant is rose water and cardamom. Toppings can include crushed pistachios and other nuts. For any special occasion, you wouldn’t find yourself ending a meal without a sweet bowl of firni. Light and sweet, there really isn’t a better way to end an amazing Afghan dinner!
Tea in Afghanistan is not just a drink. It is woven into their culture and for the outsider, taken quite seriously. Afghans drink enormous amounts of tea and it can be either black or green tea. Regardless of what kind of tea they use, it is often the foundation of where all hospitality in Afghanistan begins. When hosted, the first cup of tea given is usually quite sweet (chai shireen). It is said, the sweeter the tea, the higher the honour. The second cup is usually not sweet at all and Afghans to call that chai talkh. A fun thing Afghans do is they take a lump of sugar and put it in their mouth as they drink the unsweetened tea.
Duh (aka: doogh, dough)
A very popular yoghurt drink, especially in the summer. I would personally say that it is an acquired taste for most who did not grow up drinking it. What throws most people off is that duh is a “salty” drink. However, it is said that duh induces fatigue so, after a hearty lunch and a glass of duh to finish, a nap is not far off.
One day, I hope to visit Afghanistan and to be surrounded by its ancient history and to experience the hospitality. I understand that this land-locked country in Asia has far too long had a cloud covering it via the news and media. However, like in all my encounters around the world, when you go down to where the people are, that’s where you get to see how similar we all are when it comes to our general hopes and dreams for ourselves and our loved ones.
I am thrilled that Afghan food is experiencing a rapid rise in popularity and I hope those who are the food adventurer will find themselves delving into a cuisine that is not only delicious but historic.
Till next time… Stay hungry my friends.
Jusep, the ChronicFoodie
Chopsticks+Forks is a Toronto Food Tour company that celebrates the great ethnic diversity of Toronto by taking guests on food adventures tasting the flavours of the world, one delicious bite at a time.