Week 1: Afghanistan

By virtue of the alphabet, first up in the culinary romp around the world is Afghanistan!

I had it easy with the research for what to cook, since my good friend Oliver lived in Kabul for two years and is very into food. I took his advice on what to cook just about exactly, merely turning to the internet for the recipes. (Don't think I know anyone with deep experience on Albania, so next week will require some more planning.)

Afghan food turned out to be super good. It's got a lot of spices, especially cardamom, which has a mysteriously floral aroma. But none of the dishes were at all spicy, at least none of the dishes I made.

Dough | Yogurt-cucumber drink | Recipe

“Say it like a Klingon and you’ll have the pronunciation,” says Oliver. And to our Westernized taste, a drink of salty, watered-down yogurt with crunchy bits of cucumber and flakes of mint may as well come from another planet. Then again, Afghans probably find it bizarre that we mix malt and yeast and let it spoil into something bitter. Anyway, everyone gave it the old college try, and nobody hated it, so that’s a good thing. (I actually like it and will probably have some of the remainder for breakfast.)

Qabuli Pilau | Kabul-style lamb and rice | Recipe

From all accounts, it's Afghanistan's national dish. A big mess of basmati rice cooked in the juices of the lamb it covers on the platter, with sauteed carrots and raisins (yes, sauteed raisins) mixed in. And of course, those spices. I wish I could have found a shoulder or shank or other sort of bone-in lamb, but Fairway let me down on this one. I think I overcooked the rice, but it was all pretty yummy.

Borani Banjan | Eggplant and tomato casserole | Recipe

Eggplant gets a bum rap from many people who find it rubbery and bitter, but you couldn’t accuse this dish of either. I grilled the eggplant slices first (traditionally you fry, but what the heck), and then baked it with tomato, cilantro, and a thin, garlicky, spiced tomato-y sauce. It was the first time I’d fired up the oven in this new place of ours, and I was terrified when it didn’t heat quickly, but thankfully when I cranked the dial it fired up and the dish turned out to be shockingly well balanced and flavorful. (Note to self: buy an oven thermometer, this was probably sheer luck.)

Nan | Flatbread | Recipe

Quoth Oliver, "When Afghan naan is fresh it's reminiscent of a mediocre but tasty pizza dough. Think Dominos, not Delfina." The dough, with a healthy amount of yogurt, was somewhat reminiscent of a spongy Domino crust, but it was actually super good right off the grill. I did kind of screw up the shapes: you'll see the one on bottom is puffy (I didn't slit the top well enough to vent it), and the one I'm holding looks more like a baguette, since I made the freshman mistake of rolling them all out and then stacking them without enough flour to keep them separated. With all the countries in the world that grilled breads, I'll get the hang of it yet!

Firni | Cardamom-scented pudding | Recipe

As the gelatinous blobs of cornstarch-thickened sweetened milk flopped off the serving spoon, everyone politely requested small portions — this is not a good-looking dessert. But lo! The cardamom and saffron made for a delicate aroma, with a bit of crunch from the pistachios, and the cool milk base made for a pleasant end of meal. They asked for seconds.

The weather was lovely, so we ate outside with our inaugural guests Jessica, Natasja, and Mike. Once the sun set and with the firni mostly gone, we watched Afghan Star, an excellent documentary about the equivalent of American Idol, but in a country where singing was not too long ago a grave offense, and dancing on TV a national scandal.

For more shots by Laura, check out the Picasa album, including live-action grilling snaps!