A Cookbook Author on How Cuisine Connects Us to Our Roots — and One Another
The most striking thing about Afghanistan was its epic landscape, lush and fertile when we arrived in spring. The snowcapped mountains of the Hindu Kush, and the cascading layers of crumpled and velvety peaks that lay staggered beneath them, inspired an overwhelming reverence. The peaks played with light and shadow, creating a rolling spectacle from daybreak to dark, always with an ethereal luminosity. Vast valleys of bright green grass and crops stretched out like gently rolling oceans. The country wrapped us in a warm embrace, as if it had been permanently imprinted with the memory of seeing us come into the world. Many things seemed strangely familiar — from the worn, but still kind, features of its people and the social mannerisms to the sweet smell of the spring air.
It was April of 2012, and my sisters and I had returned to Afghanistan for the first time since 1985, the year our parents had bundled us together and, under a cloud of uncertainty and blind hope, negotiated our way out of the country and into our future. We crossed the border on foot, from Pakistan into Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass, following in reverse the path taken years earlier, when the long and continuous chain of my ancestors' connection to the soil of Afghanistan was first broken. We were pulled by an allure we were yet to understand — perhaps, simply, by a need to know more.
We spent the first few days in Kabul, then made our way to Dari Noor — the "valley of light" — where my mother and her siblings had spent their summers growing up. There, my mother's cousin welcomed us into his home as though we were his own children. Dari Noor is a breathtaking, self-sufficient valley, with clear brooks nestled between endless green hills and surrounded by fruit orchards, banana plantations, and wildflowers.
Our meals were made with ingredients from the valley. There was paneer paired with large, purple-tinged raisins; sweet and almost perfumed honey; sabzi, or wild spinach, cooked with native onions and chiles; chai, brewed using pure mountain water pumped from a well; and long breads, made with local grains. We were extended the type of hospitality Afghanistan is famed for, which felt even more poignant given that it was unfolding during times of hardship, when people had very little but still insisted upon giving their guests the best they had to offer.
If for us there was room to feel enthralled by the experience of reconnecting with our ancestral lands, there was also a deep awareness of the difficulties of life in a region that, for almost four decades, had been assaulted by attempts at control waged by various regimes. By the time we returned to Australia, we had connected more dots — about ourselves, our parents, our ancestors, the land where we had been born and the paradoxes that define it. We had affirmed a new resolve: if those inside Afghanistan were still making objects of beauty and preserving their heritage in creative ways while bombs exploded overhead, then an ocean away in Australia, we could also contribute to the story of our times in our own way, through creativity and food.
It was an echo of the same realization that had led my family to open a restaurant, Parwana, in Adelaide in 2009. Parwana's menu came from the recipes and rituals passed to my mother, Farida, by her foremothers and forefathers. There were mantu, steamed dumplings dressed with lamb mince and chana dal and layered with a tangy garlic-yogurt dressing, and the crowd favorite, banjaan borani — melt-in-your-mouth eggplant simmered in a rich tomato sauce, perfectly balanced in acidity and sweetness. Each dish bore the marks of ancient cultural exchanges, melding native ingredients with those from the Mediterranean, India, China, and beyond.
Five years after opening Parwana, and two years after our first return to Afghanistan, my sisters and I opened a second business, Kutchi Deli Parwana. Our deli emerged from the notion that we could offer something that captured our experience as the children of migrants, who, while forever tethered to our history, had spent almost all of our lives in Australia.
The small lunchtime space also reflected the sights we had absorbed on our travels through Afghanistan. There we had seen bright pops of color splashed through small food spots, decorated with a mix of fluorescent and incandescent lights, and tiled with geometric patterns. We had seen the street vendors offering piping-hot naans cooked over hot plates; parcels of vegetables, dipped in batter, fried, and served with herb chutneys poured on top; and deliciously tangy bowls of a vinegared chickpea dish called shor nakhot.
On that trip, we'd also gained insight into the ways that food was so closely intertwined with art and beauty in Afghan culture, and so we hand-painted the walls of our little shop with scenes from old Persian miniatures. And, importantly, we had learned more about how food is inseparable from a deep sense of generosity, invitation, gratitude, and honoring one another, with little space left for pretense.
These restaurants hold many layers of significance for us. They tell a story of the unexpected — as those who dine on Afghan food for the first time find themselves surprised by the familiarity of the dishes, hinting at a rich and interconnected history. They tell the story of my mother, raised by a father who encouraged her to pursue her love of cooking from a young age. And they tell the story of how we experience, through food, a universal desire to connect, irrespective of perceived differences — hinting at a future into which we can all move forward together. My family's story is but one strand in the web of existence in which we are each a part. With deeper consciousness of the extent to which we are all bound together, we can create the untold stories of the tomorrows still to come.
Excerpted from "Parwana: Recipes and Stories from an Afghan Kitchen" by Durkhanai Ayubi, out October 6. Reproduced with the permission of Interlink Books, an imprint of Interlink Publishing, Northampton, Mass.