Of all the countries I wanted to visit, but couldn’t because of political turmoil, Afghanistan was my biggest disappointment. This landlocked, mountainous nation of 15 million lies at one of the great crossroads of the barbecue trail and at the confluence of four great civilizations: the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. Afghan grilling weaves culinary influences from all four regions into a cuisine that’s uniquely its own.
This truth was brought home to me on my first meal at an Afghanistani restaurant, the Khyber Pass, in New York’s East Village. The moment I stepped into the storefront dining room, with its soft lights, kilim carpets, Afghan tapestries, and hand-hammered copperware, I felt I was a million miles away from Manhattan. The house specialties-grilled lamb chops flavored with onion water, fire-charred game hens, and chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked to fall-off-the-bone-tenderness-were exotic, but immediately accessible. I was won over by the way the side dishes of piquant chatni (chutneys-tangy table sauces, which in Aftganistan are made from vinegar, herbs-most often cilantro-and ground nuts, not the fruits we are more familiar with) and bracingly tart torshi (vegetable pickles) counterpointed the richness of the grilled meats.
"Afghanistan lies at the crossroads of Asia," explained the restaurant’s manager, Mohamed Noor. Noor reminded me that Alexander the Great conquered the region in the fourth century b.c. on his way from Greece to India. In the thirteenth century a.d., Genghis Khan subdued the area while on his march to Turkey and Eastern Europe. He was followed in the sixteenth century by King Babur, founder of India’s Mogul Empire. (Indeed, King Babur is buried outside the capital city of Kabul.) Each of the conquerors and their armies left a mark on Afghan food.
Thus, olive oil, cinnamon, dill, fenugreek, and kalonji (nigella seeds, also known as black cumin or black onion seeds) are as popular in Afghanistan as they are in Middle and Near Eastern cooking. From India, Afghans acquired a taste for garam masala (a spice blend whose ingredients include cumin, cinnamon, cloves, and black cardamom seeds) and chatnis. As throughout northern India and Central Asia, meats are marinated before grilling in tenderizing pastes of yogurt and spices. The Persian Empire provided the torshis and lavash (flat bread) that are indispensable companions to Afghan barbecue.
The focal point of the Afghan kitchen is the grill. Afghanis use simple seasonings to make some of the best grilled food in the world. Marinades run to yogurt (or yogurt cheese) flavored with onion, garlic, chiles, hot red pepper flakes, cumin, and sometimes olive oil. It’s not uncommon for meats to be marinated for 48 hours, which makes them extraordinarily juicy and tender.
The accompaniments are simple: thin chewy Afghan bread, nutty rice pilaf, tangy pickles, and coriander sauce.
There are recipes throughout the book for Afghan quail, chicken, and lamb dishes, plus such traditional accompaniments as doh (yogurt drink) and chatni. There is also a short list of Afghan restaurants where you can sample some of this extraordinary grilling in exotic settings, but without leaving the United States.
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