In a relatively quiet lane opposite the buzzing Central Market in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, chef Kabir Khan, 45, a UNHCR refugee from Kabul, is busy making a fresh start. He seals the day’s first degh of pulao with some dough, checks that the fire is low so as not to overcook the fragrant, long-grained rice and settles down for a chat. The Afghani national dish, Kabuli pulao, or Qubuli Uzbaki as it’s called on the menu at Herat Restaurant, where he now works, is a cousin of the Mughlai biryani, he says. “It’s a simpler version with less spices,” says Khan. He claims the much-loved Mughlai cuisine is an Indianized and more elaborate version of his native Afghan cuisine. Given the Afghan links of the last of the imperial dynasties in India, the claim might be valid. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What are the differences between Afghan and Mughlai cuisines?
The two are similar. Mughlai cuisine has richer, spicier gravies. We use less spices, mostly garam masala. But we use a lot of oil, yogurt and whey. Dum cooking is a common technique. Not just meats and pulaos, even vegetables like baingan are dum-cooked. However, our naans are quite different. They are served at every meal with every dish. You use them almost like spoons.
Afghan flavours: Chef Kabir Khan. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Has Afghan cuisine changed over the years?
Not much. It’s a simple cuisine: kebabs, qormas, rice dishes like chelow kebab and pulaos. But eating habits have changed. The Russians introduced us to salads. Used as Afghans were to shormas (traditional soups), Russian soups became popular. Now children are crazy about pizzas and chicken fry, thanks to the Americans.
What would meals be like in a typical household?
Breakfast is naan with a handful of mewa. We also eat a lot of meats. A rich man eats meat at every meal, a poor man eats meat once a day. Another common item is mantu—a momo with beef or mutton stuffing. We eat it with dal and yogurt, not the spicy chutney that Tibetans have. During feasts, uzbaki is a must. Another treat, though rare, is spit roasted goat. A whole goat is gutted and roasted over coal fires for 4-5 hours.
The Herat menu doesn’t have many desserts. Don’t Afghans have a sweet tooth?
There are few desserts in traditional Afghan cuisine. One exception is phirni. We eat a lot of fruits. Our grapes, pomegranate, melons are the best in the world. Of course, nuts and dry fruits—walnuts, pistas, kishmish, munaqqas. These are liberally used in cooking as well as eaten by themselves. But we do eat sweets, mostly Pakistani or Irani in origin, depending on where in Afghanistan you go. Along the eastern parts, where the Pathans live, you get a lot of mithai—laddoos, barfis. In the west, you get shirinis—kind of cookies made from all kinds of flour, rice and chickpea as well as maida.
200g onion, sliced
20g garam masala
1kg basmati rice
200g carrots, julienned
50g pista (optional)
50g almonds, blanched (optional)
1 tsp saffron (soaked in half a cup of milk)
Salt and sugar to taste
Wash the rice, mix salt and keep aside. Heat half the oil in a heavy-bottom pan. Fry the onions and add meat. Sauté well. Add garam masala, salt and cook till the oil separates. Add water, cover and cook over medium heat till the meat is tender. Take off the heat and drain the stock. Keep the stock and the meat aside separately.
In another pan, heat a little oil and sauté raisins till they are plump and brown. Remove from oil and keep aside. If using pistas and almonds, fry them in the same oil till golden. Remove from the oil and keep aside.
In a degh, pour the remaining oil. Add the julienned carrots and sauté lightly. Add the rice, mutton, raisins, pistas and almonds—the carrots should be the bottom layer, so that they caramelize, and the raisins top-most. Sprinkle the saffron milk, sugar and salt over the rice. Add the stock. Add just enough water so that the water level is half an inch above the rice. Bring to a boil. Lower heat to minimum, cover the degh and seal the lid with dough. Dum-cook for about an hour.
Serve hot, heaped on a big platter at the centre of the table.