Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Unlike the last country, this one you may have actually heard of. I particularly like Afghan food, possibly because I live within blocks of no fewer than three Afghan restaurants. I’ve acquired an obsessive jones for their rices (pilau), which feature a really fragrant spice mixture called char masala, as well as a complicated and time-consuming cooking process. Seriously, there are a lot of steps involved, some of them uncommon to a Western cook, so if you plan to try these recipes be sure to read all the way through them before you start.

This particular Afghan meal consists of two complementary dishes – the first is a classic Qabili Pilau, or “rice in the style of Kabul”. The second is an interesting lamb stew called Qorma-e-Olu-Bokhara wa Dal Nakhod, which features dried sour plums. Predictably, I sourced these at Kalustyan’s . (Get used to seeing this place mentioned very often, they have almost everything I will ever need – and they do mail-order, so you have no excuse.) The recipes I used are from Afghan Food & Cookery by Helen Saberi – it’s a very informative, albeit slightly incomplete guide to Afghan cooking styles (no photos!), but it’s the best of the very few Afghan cookbooks available.

I began making the Qabili Pilau by putting some extra-long grain basmati rice in a big bowl and covering it with water. Next, I gently polished the rice between my palms, and cycled between washing and draining it until the water remained clear. Then I let it soak overnight, which made the grains more pliable and resilient (broken rice = naughty naughty), and more apt to expand to their fullest potential once cooked.

The next morning, I got started on the qorma.

The olu-bokhara have a potentially overbearing tart flavor if eaten as-is, but in this recipe they are soaked and then stewed with lamb, as well as a nice mixture of spices and split peas.

After sauteing many, many onions to a deep caramelization and browning some hunks of lamb shoulder, I added the spices, split peas and some water, leaving the whole pot to simmer for about 90 minutes while I prepared the Qabili Pilau.

Since Afghanistan is a Muslim country, I only used certified halal meat for these recipes – in Astoria, this is easy to do, and also smart. Halal meats have a high turnover here, which means they are always fresh, though they often come whole and sometimes with a head attached. As such, I carefully beheaded and partitioned my whole halal chicken into two breast halves, two legs and two wing portions, saving the remaining carcass in the freezer for the next time I need to make chicken stock. (FYI, if you don’t know how to fabricate a whole chicken, this guide will help a lot. It’s an impressive skill to have in your repertoire, and usually saves some money, too.)

As you’ll eventually see in the recipes below, there are numerous steps between where we are and where we’re going, including browning things, boiling things, draining things and baking things. The most important part, though, is what gives our rice that intense fragrance – the char masala. I used Jill Norman’s recipe for char masala, from her amazing reference book The Complete Book of Spices. You can see the recipe here – for the record, this book will answer any question you could ever have on spices and spice mixes. After grinding these spices (I use an old, cleaned coffee grinder for this purpose), I folded them into the rice before its last phase of cooking, and within a few minutes I could smell that old familiar aroma flowing out of the oven. SO good.

While the pilau cooked, I added the soaked and pitted (I reasoned that they should be pitted, I could not wrap my mind around them not being pitted…) olu-bokhara to the qorma and left the stew to simmer for another half-hour.

Finally, FINALLY, everything was done. Here’s how these dishes turned out:

Qorma-e-Olu Bokhara wa Dal Nakhod

Qabili Pilau

The Qabili Pilau tasted a LOT like the versions I’ve had in restaurants, which pleased me greatly. The only issue was that it needed a bit more salt – this is due to the fact that Helen Saberi’s recipes do not always specify the quantity of salt to be added. (My adaptation below has been adjusted to be better salted.) The Qorma had a more understated flavor than I had expected, with the sour plums really hanging out backstage until you’ve had a few bites, at which point a fruity sweetness starts to become more noticeable. Paired with each other, these two dishes made me eat enough for a whole country. Shameful, just shameful.

Now you go:
Qorma-e-Olu Bokhara wa Dal Nakhod

10 olu bokhara
1/2 cup olive oil
4 medium onions, finely chopped
2 lbs halal lamb, cut into large cubes
2 tbs tomato puree
1/2 cup yellow split peas/ chana dal
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp red pepper (I used Reshampatti)
1 tbsp salt

Soak olu bokhara in warm water for 30 mins. Carefully remove pit with a paring knife. Curse abundantly since this is really frakking hard to do.

Heat oil in a large pan and saute onions until deep brown. Remove and reserve. Add lamb to pan and brown well. Return onions to pan along with with tomato puree. Saute 3 minutes, then add spices, split peas, salt and enough water to cover. Cover and simmer for 90 minutes.

Remove cover, add pitted olu bokhara and their soaking water, stir well and simmer uncovered until the stew has thickened to your taste.

Qabili Pilau
2 1/2 cups extra-long grain basmati rice (I used Dehraduni)
6 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 whole halal chicken, jointed
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1/2 cup raisins
2 tsp char masala (Jill Norman’s recipe will yield 4 tbsp)
1 tbsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
(1/4 tsp saffron if you’re rich)

Polish, rinse and soak rice in cold water overnight.

Heat 4 tbsp oil in a large pan and saute onions until deep brown. Remove from heat and puree. Reserve.

Season chicken well with salt and pepper and brown in pan. **Be careful to cook only until the chicken is about halfway-cooked through, about 5 minutes per side – we want a brown crust only, since the chicken will finish cooking in the oven.** Remove from heat and reserve. Deglaze pan with 1 1/2 cups of water. Add pureed onions and 1 tsp salt and mix well. Reserve.

Heat 2 tbsp oil in pan. Saute carrots until lightly browned. Remove from heat and reserve. Saute raisins with a splash of water until they are plump and rehydrated. Remove from heat and reserve, along with any remaining oil.

Bring 5 cups water and 1 tsp of salt to boil. Add drained rice to boiling water, and boil for 3 minutes. Drain, then transfer rice to a dutch oven or casserole. Sprinkle with char masala (and saffron, if using), add 1.5 to 2 cups of reserved meat broth/pureed onion mixture, and fold into rice. Place cooked chicken over rice on one side of the dutch oven, then place carrots and raisins over rice on other side. Cover tightly and bake in a 300-degree oven for 45 minutes.

To serve, begin with a light layer of rice, then stack meat vertically. Cover with remaining rice to form a large pyramid, then garnish top with carrots and raisins.


Norman, Jill. The Complete Book of Spices. Dorling Kindersley Publishers, Ltd: London, 1990.

Saberi, Helen. Afghan Food & Cookery. Hippocrene Books: New York, 2000.

One thought on “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

  1. Mark, the pictures look great! In the words of Beetlejuice, when he saw a turkey on television, “boy that turkey sure tastes good!” Looking forward to more.

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