A Guide to Afghan Food, Background and Culture

All you need to know about Afghanistan. I’ll cover its climate, its people, language and religion. Not forgetting Afghan food and culture (media and literature) as well as holidays and festivities.

I imagine when people think of Afghan cuisine, they think hot, spicy, and I expect a mish-mash of all the Middle Eastern dishes they’ve seen or tasted: baklava, fattoush, to name some of the popular ones. Although most of these are eaten all other the Middle East, you mustn’t forget that each country has their own specific dishes, those they can call their own.

It’s for the above reason why I want to share with you how to eat like an Afghan in this post on Afghan food. I’m hoping it will inspire you to try popular Afghan dishes but also educate you on those things which will have an affect on the cuisine such as Afghan climate, religion and culture.

Salâm! (welcome in Dari, the main Afghan language)

Quick Facts!

  • Afghanistan is located in South and Central Asia
  • It is a landlocked country with lots of mountains
  • It has Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China as its neighbours
  • The Capital is the city of Kabul
  • The official language is pashto/dari
  • The religion is islam

A Little Background on Afghanistan

What is the Afghan Climate like?

The climate in Afghanistan is of two extremes; there can be really cold winters with temperatures reaching below 15 degrees in and around the central highlands/mountainous areas, yet extremely hot summers with temperatures at 50 degrees plus in the lowlands.

It doesn’t rain a lot in Aghanistan and if it does, it’ll happen around March/April and in the North. Drought is unfortunately a huge problem.

You wouldn’t believe it but Afghanistan does get snow! Snowfall usually happens around October – April and in the mountainous areas. The snowfall is what keeps Afghanistan from a water shortage as it runs into the rivers and lakes once it melts.

The People of Afghanistan

Afghanistan is full of a mix of different ethnic groups. The majority are Pashtuns (about half the population) who live close to the border of Pakistan. Then there’s the Tajiks (about one fourth) who live near Tajikistan and the Turkic people (about 1.3 million) who are known as Uzbeks. A small 1 million of the people are the Hazaras and even smaller at 250,000 are the Baluchs and at 100,000 are the Nuristani.

Which languages are spoken in Afghanistan?

The main languages of Afghanistan are Dari and Pashto. Dari is spoken widely and is very similar to the Persian language. It’s sometimes known as Farsi. Here’s a list of other languages commonly spoken in Afghanistan:

Pashto (spoken by the Pashtuns)
Tajik (spoken by the Tajiks)
Uzbek (spoken by the Uzbeks/Turkic people)
Persian (different versions are spoken, for example the Hazara people speak what is known as Hazaragi, a dialect of Persian)
Kafiri (spoken by the Nuristani)
Balochi – (A North West Iranian languages spoken by the Baluchs)

Which religions would you find in Afghanistan?

The majority of the population of Afghanistan are Muslim with most adhering to the Sunni denomination and a small percentage are Shia. The rest are what is known as non-denominational and don’t adhere to any of the groups. They are ‘just Muslim’. You’ll also find Sikhs and Hindus as well as a community of Jewish people.

What is the national dish of Afghanistan?

The national dish of Afghanistan is Kabuli Palaw – rice with carrots, raisins and lamb. Apparently before girls are married, they are taught how to make Afghan food, including this dish because they would bring shame on the family if they didn’t know how to cook it!

Afghan food has influences from – 

  • Iran
  • India
  • Mongolia
Afghan food

Afghan Food: Breakfast

In Afghanistan for breakfast you would eat the following –

  • Lots of eggs, either fried with vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and peppers (there are many different kinds)
  • Roht, a sweet bread
  • Paneer cheese maybe on its own or with raisins
  • Sambosa, a savoury pastry which is filled with meat
  • You would drink a sweet chai tea

My Afghan Egg Burrito is a twist on Afghan cuisine with a Mexican breakfast burrito (see image above). Why not give it a try?

Naan bread

Afghan Food: Lunch

  • You would drink lassi, a yoghurt drink which is sometimes salted. It apparently helps to digest the food
  • You might also drink doogh, a drink made from yoghurt, water and mint – in the summertime to cool down
  • You would most definitely eat some naan bread or flatbread
  • An Afghan lunch is very similar to an Afghan dinner – big meals are eaten for both. It would definitely consist of a wide variety of meat and rice dishes (see below)
Lamb and spinach curry with a piece of naan bread - Afghan Food

Afghan Food: Dinner

  • Like most Middle Eastern countries, Afghans like to eat a spread of ‘sharing’ dishes made mainly from rice, meat and vegetables.
  • The national dish, Kabuli Palaw is most likely to be served (see above)
  • Lamb kebab is very popular, usually served with rice (usually chalow rice – the fluffy kind)
  • Kaddo Bourani – a sweet pumpkin curry
  • Potato salad and beef kebabs
  • Lamb and spinach stew – my fave Afghan food – see image above!
  • An appetiser might be Sabse Borani, a spinach and yoghurt filled flatbread (see image below).
  • Mantu – steamed dumplings filled with minced meat or onions topped with a tomato or yoghurt sauce (this is where the Mongolian influence comes in)
  • Ashak – dumplings filled with chives and topped with a garlic yoghurt sauce
  • A salad would often be prepared
spinach and yoghurt flatbreads

Afghan Food: Dessert

  • Fruit is eaten a lot in Afghanistan, especially pomegranates, sweet melons, apricots, plums, berries and grapes
  • You’ll most likely drink some more tea (in small cups) – when you’ve had enough, you should turn your cup over or else your cup will be forever re-filled
  • Sweet, melt-in-the mouth cookies such as Kulche-ab-e-dandaan (mostly on special occasions or if there are guests)
  • You might also drink some coffee, also drank in small cups

Which Afghan food is your favourite?

Eating Culture and Traditions in Afghanistan

The guest is treated like royalty in an Afghan household and you probably won’t be eating on the floor (unless you’re family or from the country!) Afghans like to impress. Here are a few interesting traditions surrounding eating in the nation:

  • Women and men usually eat separately but I guess it depends how strictly religious the family are. Families will eat together if only in company of close family members.
  • The best dishes are always placed near where the guest is sitting.
  • Dinners are usually eaten on a dastarkhan, a tablecloth laid on the floor – you must never step on or over it.
  • Cutlery is not usually used – you use your hands to scoop up the food (or a naan) and you would only use your right hand.
  • A guest will always be offered the place of honour at the head of the table.

Afghan Culture: TV

TV has only recently started booming in Afghanistan with the nation liking to watch programmes from Turkey, India and the US. One of the most popular dramas which broke rating records was Turkish show Diriliş Ertuğrul – all about the Ottoman Empire.

Reality shows have also managed to reach the airways with one called The Candidate which is meant to be like a political election but with normal people. Afghans can enjoy an American Idol-style programme called Chand Sitara as well as a police drama called Eagle Four.

Children are entertained with a show based on the American Sesame Street called Baghch-e-Simsim. This is only a small selection from a growing range of networks!

Afghan Culture: Music

Afghans like to listen to a range of music. Their musical heritage is rich with music coming all different background. You’ll find melodies from Persia and songs from India as well as from the Tajiks, Pashtuns and Hazara people.

A lot of Afghan music is religious with the Koran being recited (unaccompanied) plus accompanied religious workshop such as with the Chishti Sufi sect in Kabul, with instruments such as the Rubab (a bit similar to the Lute) being used.

The most popular patriotic song in Afghanistan is called Da Zamong Zeba Watan (This is our beautiful homeland). It’s sung by Ustad Awalmir.

As well as classic music known as Klasik in Afghanistan, pop music is listened to often too, mostly by the younger generation. An example of pop singers would include Aris Parwaz and Farhad Darya.

Can you recommend any good books about Afghanistan?

If you’re like me and are after some MORE Afghan culture, some literature to further immerse you in the country, the following books have great reviews. They are all going on my list to read!

Afghan Holidays and Festivities

Here’s a useful table listing of all the public holidays and festivities happening in Afghanistan. Got one to add? Feel free to contact me!

January
February 15th: Liberation day
March21st: Nowruz (Persian New Year)
April28th: Mujahideen Victory Day
May1st: International Workers’ Day
June
July
August19th: Independence Day
September 9th: Ahmad Shah Massouds’ Day
October
November
December
Others where the date changesEid al Fitr (May), Day of Arafat (July), Eid al Adha (July), Ashura (August), Birthday of the prophet Mohammed (October)

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