Afghanistan sits at a strategic location connecting the Middle East with Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It is disputed territory, enduring three decades of war.
It was this strife that led Najib Rakin, his wife Hameda, and their children to flee their home in Kabul and make the long journey to the Czech Republic sixteen years ago.
There are very few Afghans living in the Czech Republic but Najib and Hameda have had many opportunities to share the cuisine of their homeland with the city of Prague: Hameda has worked with the Ethnocatering group, which has been widely featured in Czech media outlets including Apetit magazine, and Najib has cooked in the kitchen of the popular restaurant, Kabul and has served as an in-house Afghan chef at Radio Free Europe.
Hameda and her daughter Sagar, who joins us for cooking, say that at first it was hard to find foods from home and some things, like the traditional breads, which are prepared in an almost ritualistic fashion and cooked in stone ovens, have been impossible to replace. But essentials like basmati rice, eggplant, zucchini, and spinach are easy to get and always on hand, while the small jars of aromatic spices like cardamom, cumin, fresh and dried mint, and coriander that fill the family’s cupboards can be found at Farah Oriental Market.
Sagar says that for Afghans, food is a family affair and a nearly ritualistic experience. The entire family usually cooks and eats together, with meals sometimes lasting for hours. That’s a good thing as the recipe has many steps and judging from the smells coming from the pots, it will be one worth savoring.
Approx 1 cup of basmati rice per person (Soak in water for one to two hours before cooking.)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 kg turkey, chopped into chunks (traditionally this dish is made with lamb)
1 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp dried coriander
1/2 tsp garam masala
2 cups water
1 tbsp salt
4 cups thinly julienned carrots, divided into two piles
3 tbsp brown sugar
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 1/2 cups raisins
1 2/3 cup pistachios, chopped
1 2/3 cups almonds, chopped
1 generous tbsp tomato paste
Salt, to taste
[NOTE]: You will need two large cooking pots and a deep baking dish with a lid, plus a frying pan and a strainer.
Coat a large pot with a generous drizzle of olive oil and place over high heat. When the oil is hot add the onions and garlic and saute, 2-3 minutes.
Reduce heat to medium and add the turkey, tumeric, coriander, and garam masala, stirring until the meat is evenly coated. When the meat has browned add 2 cups of water and a large pinch of salt. Return to high heat, stirring occasionally and cooking until soft. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside. Stir the tomato paste nto the remaining liquid and reserve.
In a seperate frying pan, heat a splash of olive oil over medium heat. Add half of the carrots to the pan. Saute until slightly browned on the edges, then scrape the carrots out of the oil, place in a strainer, and drain. Transfer to a large bowl and sprinkle with the brown sugar and cardamom. Cook the second batch of carrots, drain, and add to the first batch.
Add the raisins to the same oil, stirring over medium/high heat until they plump up and then shrink back down. Transfer to the bowl with the carrots, add pistachios, almonds, and a pinch of additional cardamom and salt to taste, then set aside.
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place the rice, in it’s soaking waterin, in a large pot and parboil over highheat, just until the grains begin to soften. Drain and transfer to a baking dish. Add a good pinch of cumin, a splash of olive oil, and the sauce from the turkey to the rice and stir until evenly coated.
Make two small wells in the rice. Add the carrot-raisin-nut mixture to one and the cooked meat to the other. Cover the filled wells with rice and, using the end of a spoon, poke holes in the top. Cover the baking dish, increase the heat to 250°C, and bake for 20 minutes.
The family serves their palau on a large communal platter in the center of the table, garnished with a side of fresh veggies and a homemade green pepper chutney. It lends the perfect touch of tart and spicy to the raisiny sweetness that lingers on our tongues as we thank the Rakins for sharing their memories of home through this meal.
Farah Food: Arabic and Oriental Spices
Myslíkova 5, Prague 1
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Photos by Margot Buff.